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Road to Perdition

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Director Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition is the officially-approved US film of the moment, overwhelmingly endorsed by the media and starring “America’s favorite actor,” Tom Hanks. An unstated assumption is that the movie’s pedigree makes it an obligatory cultural or quasi-cultural experience for certain social layers. It is a gangster film with darkened images meant to impart an art-house quality. Set in the early Depression era, it is also insinuated that a social insight or two can be found lurking in the shadows.
Road to Perdition, even more than Mendes’ previous much-acclaimed film, American Beauty, is fool’s gold. The filmmaker has once again wrapped up crude banalities in shiny tin foil. But at least the latter film made some pretense at critiquing American materialism and careerism.
Adapted from the comic-book novel (the third major film adaptation of a graphic novel this year!) by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, the film centers on father-son relationships in the upper echelons of an Irish mob in Rock Island, Illinois in 1931. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is the right-hand man and surrogate son of gang chief John Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivan’s older son, Michael Jr., witnesses his father and Rooney’s son Connor (Daniel Craig) machine gun dissident gang members.
Connor’s long-time jealousy toward Sullivan now finds an “excusable” outlet: he kills Sullivan’s wife and younger son, whom he mistakes for the young Michael. Michael Sr., knowing that Rooney will protect Connor, turns to the Capone gang, run by Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), in Chicago. Although Sullivan is viewed as an asset and commands much respect from his underworld cronies, Nitti is protecting Connor and hires a killer to dispatch the unrelenting elder Sullivan. The Michaels, father and son, head for a relative’s home in a town called Perdition, hotly pursued by Maguire (Jude Law), a psychotic assassin who kills his victims and then photographs them. The Sullivan’s six-week journey and struggle for survival form the film’s core.
The biggest problem with Road to Perdition is that it is false from beginning to end. In the first place, the film depicts some imaginary breed of gracious and principled gangsters. In an early sequence, Sullivan comes home to his beautifully understated house, with an adoring wife and two perfectly normal children waiting for him. It is the picture o...

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...s ask: “Can a man who has led a bad life achieve redemption through his child?” Of course no man is simply “bad.” Even an assassin has human qualities. However, Road to Perdition is making a different argument: that a horrible, gruesome job has no apparent impact on an individual’s inner nature.
In any event, the comment about leading a “bad life” is fraudulent, because neither Sullivan nor Rooney nor Nitti is truly portrayed as a “bad man.” On the contrary, they are quite sympathetically presented, as “men of honor.” Only the outsider, the hit man who seems to enjoy his work, Maguire, is cast in a negative light.
There is no serious exploration of the father-son theme. Michael Jr. fails to experience any serious inner conflict once he discovers that his father murders people for a living! He is presented to us as a sensitive soul, yet he does not even seem to hold his father responsible in any manner for the deaths of his mother and younger brother. And Sullivan’s insistence on seeking revenge places his surviving son in danger and nearly costs him his life. That hardly constitutes redemption for leading a “bad life.” The film lazily glosses over this and every other discrepancy.
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