One of the most underrated movies of the 2000’s was Sam Mendes’s ‘Road to Perdition’, which was released to critical acclaim back in 2002 and did pretty well at the box office with around $200 million in ticket sales. While some people would be skeptical of watching ‘Road to Perdition’ at first because they think it’s your average crime / mafia movie that doesn’t have much to offer in terms of storyline and symbolism, they would be wrong when it comes to this film.
Sam Mendes, who directed two other great films ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’, does an excellent job here as this movie is beautifully shot and has a stellar cast. ‘Road to Perdition’ also benefited from the legendary cinematography work of the departed Conrad L. Hall for which he won a posthumous Oscar for ‘Best Cinematography’ for this film after he passed away in 2003. The scenery and settings for this movie help to create quite a unique atmosphere and the wide shots, long angles that are used help to make this film stand out as being above average. Beyond just the cinematography, the acting by the cast also stands out.
When you look back to see who was starring in the main roles for ‘Road to Perdition’, it is a very impressive list. Tom Hanks plays Michael Sullivan Sr., the lead role of the film and a conflicted Irish mafia man caught between his past and keeping his son sheltered from the consequences of his actions. Paul Newman, one of the greatest American actors of all-time plays the role of John Rooney, an Irish mafia boss, who is also conflicted between his paternal feelings of love for Michael Sr., and his wish to protect his own son, Connor, played by a young Daniel Craig, from his own destructive sins. Rounding out the list is Jude Law, who plays a gifted hit-man / grisly photographer known as Harlan McGuire, and Stanley Tucci, who plays a high-ranking member of the Italian mafia known as Frank Nitti. A young actor who steals most of his scenes is the young but talented Tyler Hoechlin who is Michael Sullivan Jr. in the film, a boy who is coming to terms with his father’s lifestyle and his ties to the mafia. A truly impressive cast of Academy Award winners and nominees, which makes this film even more of a lasting treasure.
‘Road to Perdition’ really brings the atmosphere and makes the setting feel real as it portrays life in Great Depression-era America by focusing on specifically both on the city of Chicago and its’ rural hinterlands, cornfields of greater Illinois. The movie really portrays well the last decade of America being discovered and settled, while undergoing deep economic difficulties, as the Irish and Italian mafias become a source of income and employment when none could be had.
Most movies don’t seem to want to portray the mafia as having been a well-oiled machine that acted like a legitimate business, but ‘Road to Perdition’ makes clear that there are ways to look at the criminal enterprises that achieved a lot of prominence during the Great Depression due to their ability to bootleg and their appeal to provide a good income to men without work.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tom Hanks) is an enforcer and bodyguard for the Irish mafia in the Chicago area of Illinois who has a close relationship with his boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman), who is implied to have helped Michael Sr. a lot with a home, a steady income, and a purpose which is quite difficult to come by during the height of the Great Depression. Michael Sr. is a flawed man who has done murder and committed other crimes for his boss, Mr. Rooney, and knows that it may cost him his life. Despite his past transgressions, he wants to protect his family from his sins and wants to keep his boys from knowing about what he does for a living.
Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) is shown to be jealous of the close relationship that his father, John, and Michael Sr. have and is resentful of him. Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) is distant from Michael Sr., his father due to late working hours and distant lifestyle. As any boy would like to know about his father, Michael Jr. decides to find out the truth about who his father, Michael Sr. is, and what he does for Mr. Rooney. At this point, the plot really takes off in tragic and unexpected ways leaving the viewer engaged in the storyline and the eventual outcome. As mentioned before, the acting done by this legendary cast helps make the film what it is and what it still is today.
Beyond just being a typical mobster movie, ‘Road to Perdition’ has a number of poignant and thought-provoking themes that stay with you even after the end credits begin to roll. This film goes over the trials and tribulations that fathers and sons can have with each other even when they love and care for each other dearly. Michael Sr. and John Rooney are not related by blood by have a relationship similar to a father and son as Mr. Rooney was around for Michael and his family when they had nothing. He is heavily indebted to Mr. Rooney even if he knows what he is doing is wrong by committing violent acts for the mafia. Still, their bond appears to be unbreakable and they get along quite well with each other.
To the contrary, both of their relationships with their respective sons are shaky at best and hostile at worst. There is a considerable distance between Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. due to the fact that Michael Sr. makes his lifestyle and his work for Mr. Rooney a well-kept secret. Michael Sr. does not show much affection or love for his boy and it’s not made clear until the end of the film why that is. Michael Sr. obviously cares for his boy but likely doesn’t want his son to know about the horrible things he’s done to keep him, his brother, and his wife save from harm or want. Still though, Michael Jr. does not want to be kept away from his father and who he is.
He ends up pursuing the truth whether or not his father wants him to or not leading to quite a turn of events when the truth comes to light. Connor Rooney, John’s son is quite envious of the close relationship that Michael Sr. has with his father compared to him. However, this is for a number of reasons. Connor is very much unlike his father, John, and has a number of character and personality flaws that make him a liability to the family. Connor is shown to be impulsive, manipulative, untrustworthy, and greedy but the conflict comes to light when John Rooney must decide if he should stick by his son’s side or give him up due to his past misdeeds. As John Rooney says to Michael Sullivan Sr. during one of the movie’s best scenes, “Sons were put on this Earth to trouble their fathers.”
During one of the movie’s most touching scenes, Michael Sr. tells Michael Jr. about a town called an idyllic town called Perdition, Illinois, which has beautiful scenery along the beach of Lake Michigan, and where the Sullivan family has visited before when Michael Jr. was a little boy. Perdition is portrayed as a goal for the two Michaels to get to in order to start their lives anew and escape the sins of the past. It’s a way for Michael Sr. to get redemption after taking care of his ties to the mafia and by trying to make up for what he did wrong as both a father and a man. The word ‘Perdition’ as defined in other words is ‘hell’ or ‘complete and utter damnation’ in more religious terms. Michael Sr. may try to redeem his sins by going to church or by rectifying the wrongs he’s done by getting revenge on the men who wronged him in the past but he knows deep down that it may not be enough.
If he is on the ‘Road to Perdition’ or the road to hell, the film shows the audience that he wants to keep his son, Michael Jr., from going down that same path. He wants badly for his son to have a better life and a brighter future away from violence and death. Michael Sr. won’t let his downfall lead to that of his son’s as well. Even if Michael Sr. is a murderer and a sinner, he knows what’s still right from wrong and he is going to do his best to preserve the innocence and goodness of his son. As a father, he is flawed but he still loves his son dearly and wants the best for him still.
Certain moves fit a certain season of the year well and ‘Road to Perdition’ is no exception. The winter setting, the Chicago cold, and the mature themes help lead it to being an ideal film to be watched during the depths of winter in January and February. Without spoiling anything, the film is a real story with real characters who are flawed in their own ways but who each have their own complex motives that drive the plot forward. This film, most of all, touches the audience emotionally and will pull on your heartstrings.
‘Road to Perdition’ is very underrated film that remains one of my favorite movies to this day. I highly recommend ‘Road to Perdition’ to other movie buffs who are looking to watch a crime / mafia film that has a soul. In addition to having an all-star cast, a renowned director, and a legendary cinematographer at the helm, ‘Road to Perdition’s music score composed by Thomas Newman is excellent and fits perfectly into the many moods of the film and has some stirring moments that add to the film’s setting. If you’re snowed in this weekend from the blizzard, do yourself a favor and go watch ‘Road to Perdition.’