VOD film review: Road to Perdition
James R | On 04, Oct 2021
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, Paul Newman
“This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.” Those are the words of the inimitable Paul Newman in his last on-screen feature film role as John Rooney, the patriarch of a criminal empire amid the Great Depression. He has a son, Connor (Daniel Craig), but his son is a disappointment, an heir in name but little else. Those qualities, rather, belong to Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), the orphan taken under John’s wing many years before and now a grown man paying back his respects as he raises a family on the Rooneys’ doorstep.
Our window into this world is not Michael, but his son, Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin), and that sets in motion a thoughtful tale of fathers and sons. Can a son ever see his father as anything less than a hero? And can a father ever find redemption in the person his sons turns out to be? The title ominously sets the mood for our journey to find the answer – when Michael Jr sees his dad get his hands dirty on behalf of Mr Rooney, and when Michael Sullivan witnesses some corruption at the heart of Mr Rooney’s operation, they end up on the run. Their destination? Nearby Perdition, Michigan, where they might find safety, but where every step towards it only brings them close to the inevitable moral reckoning for Michael’s criminal career.
“You were like me, and I didn’t want you to be,” Michael admits to Michael Jr at one point, in a rare moment of honesty. David Self’s script, adapted from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, keeps us at a distance from Michael senior at first, but he’s a man of few words – a fact that only reinforces the film’s meditation on the cycle of violence across generations of a family. Murder and secrets are both unintentionally inherited and consciously passed down, and Road to Perdition beautifully refracts that genre trope through three father-son relationships – Michael Sullivan and his boy, Michael Sullivan and Mr Rooney and Mr Rooney and Connor.
The wider commercial pressure of maintaining an empire requires a son to take on the load of the father, and Connor’s eagerness to do so immediately marks him out as the villain of the piece – although, as Newman’s mercurial man of the town points out, none of them is an angel. Hanks delivers one of the darkest roles of his career, humanising Michael Sullivan with his twinkly everyman charisma but never letting him off the existential hook, while Newman’s piercing stare is as a magnetic as ever. But Daniel Craig steals scenes from both as the self-loathing but nuanced Connor. He packs introverted emotion into every frame as we wait for this entitled manchild to implode – even a close-up of him taking a long, slow drag on a cigarette seethes with disdainful intensity.
Behind the camera, Sam Mendes and DoP Conrad Hall weave a jaw-dropping canvas for all these elemants to play out against. They take panels from the graphic novel, but also recreate its heightened, stylised tone, with shadowy lighting, dynamically composed yet sparse frames and some gorgeous sequences set in the rain. The result is a richly evocative gangster drama that explores fate, family and legacy with a painterly touch – a brooding but beautiful masterpiece.