The Tragedy of the Family Game in ‘The Road to Perdition’

After nabbing the Best Director Oscar for American Beauty, the young British filmmaker Sam Mendes sought a more somber affair for his sophomore effort. Delving even further into the dark, blood-speckled underworld lurking just below every pursuit of the American Dream, Mendes signed on to direct the adaptation of Max Allan Collins’ depression-era gangster graphic novel, The Road to Perdition.

Collins’ work, a black-and-white ink-sketched epic, is a bit gaudy, a somewhat shallow but thoroughly entertaining portrayal of fathers and sons, masculinity’s forced rigidness, Catholic guilt and the transient, ductile nature of morality; gangsters who don’t flinch when placing the barrel of a snub nose against a former-friend’s temple and splitting the final fibers of thought with a hot piece of lead, chunks of skull debris and crimson finality ruining their tailor-fit lapels; gangsters who put their family first, but have such large extended families—uncles and cousins and children-by-blood and children-by-adoption—that familial loyalty buckles under the strain, and fathers have to choose which son gets to live and which one doesn’t. It’s an embodiment of the human stain pervading The Godfather:

“… don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell. You know where I learned that from? The Don. My old man. The Godfather. If a bolt of lightning hit a friend of his the old man would take it personal. He took my going into the Marines personal. That’s what makes him great. The Great Don. He takes everything personal Like God. He knows every feather that falls from the tail of a sparrow or however the hell it goes? Right? And you know something? Accidents don’t happen to people who take accidents as a personal insult.”

But Collins’ graphic novel splatters more gray matter than a heated round of Deathmatch in Call of Duty. The sanctity of human life is lost amidst the gun powder haze and meat-puppet bodies hitting the hard wood. Mendes and screen writer David Self strip Collins’ strip story down to the essentials for their adaptation.

The solemn, stoic Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks, in his darkest role to date) is an enforcer and pseudo-consigliere for Irish Mob Boss John Rooney (Paul Newman in his final role, his eyes still piercing but his face sinking and carved with wrinkles). Mr. Rooney rules the small town of Rock Island “like God”, according to the brother of a man whom Rooney’s manically volatile son Connor (Daniel Craig) has recently killed. Mr. Rooney has acted as a father to Michael and gave them a home when they had nothing, Michael says. Michael loves Mr. Rooney very much, and Mr. Rooney loves Michael and his family: he plays dice with Michael’s kids (Tyler Hoechlin and Liam Aiken) and always gives them their winnings. He tells them how a man must be honorable and keep to his word and pay his debts, and how family comes first. Mr. Rooney is warm and kind to the children, whereas Michael is frigid and stiff, a man wrapped in that slippery plastic with which your grandmother encases her furniture.

But Connor Rooney has a knack for messing things up. He’s quick to proclaim his status as Mr. Rooney’s son, but slow to form competent thoughts; his tenacity for violence, more habit than penchant, is rooted in misguided practicality, not sociopathic compulsion. He doesn’t really fly off the handle; his devious acts are calculated, though poorly so. He kills those who, in his sketchy and inscrutably dim mind, may pose a threat to the Rooney Empire. Not that he cares about his father, mind you: he cares about the Empire he plans on inheriting when his old man kicks the bucket.

When his father asks him to “say something” to a small conglomerate of business partners in regards to his killing another “good man”, Connor twice offers, “I would like to apologize,” to which Mr. Rooney, harboring a storm of disappointment 30-years in the making, responds with his fist assaulting the table. He wants Connor to say he’s sorry. That he regrets what he did, understands why he was wrong. But Connor isn’t sorry. He “would like to apologize” because he wants to keep his reputation clean. He’s a sad and lonely weasel but he isn’t sorrowful. He’s pathetic. He doesn’t want to be that guy who compulsively shoots nobodies in the head.

When he offers his apologies for the third time, Mendes lingers on Newman’s face: he looks like ten-miles of worn pavement and cracked sidewalks. Every decision Connor makes is another rap on death’s door, but he’s not just killing himself. He grows paler, more anemic and expunged of life with each successive scene as he slowly bangs the nails into his father’s coffin, one misstep at a time.

Craig is as glacial and detached here as he is as James Bond, from his greased-back hair to his oil-slick nod and grin: “It’s all so fucking hysterical,” he tells Michael’s youngest son. But he doesn’t have the self-awareness of Bond; he’s chilly, not cool; incompetent but stubborn; all of 007’s bad qualities and none of the good. Mr. Rooney knows his son is treacherous; a devil of a dummy but not devilish. Yet he can’t kill him—family comes first.

It’s Connor’s inanity that sets the second phase of the story in motion. Like the best of the Coen Brothers’ films, violence begets violence and death is not an end but a vessel towards further suffering and, we hope, eventual redemption. Michael and Michael, Jr. (Hoechlin) hit the road after Connor tries to remedy the mess he started; of course, Connor uses more poison to cure the problem, and the blood-red snowball grows larger and larger.

Mendes’ virtuoso control behind the camera mesmerizes and hypnotizes, his depiction of Depression-era America a stasis of tragedy, each death inevitable but slow to ferment. Every shot of the film feels like a painting hung on a museum wall, a nightmare torn from the pages of Norman Rockwell’s journal—the lighting and framing and composition always exact, always gorgeous, nothing out of place or erroneous, but something sinister always seeping in. This faultlessness is one of the film’s afflictions, however. It’s all so perfect, so precise and calculated, from the handwriting on notes to the camera gliding down the street, the film feels stiff for the first half-hour; more like an academic’s thesis on the aesthetics of Edward Hopper than a meditation on human life.

The Road to Perdition grows more tender and warm towards the middle, though. Things fall into place and the emotion finally bubbles to the surface, albeit with subtle earnestness. (Is this slow unbosoming of emotion more calculated artistry on Mendes’ part?) The Carver-esque scarcity takes time to absorb. The story is told through imagery and mood, not exposition. Like literature grad students, Mendes and Self channel Hemingway’s iceberg theory. Michael, Jr. reads a Lone Ranger book throughout the film, and only after he learns of his father’s job-by-trade does the Lone Ranger’s shadowy silhouette and dexterous gunmanship seem less heroic. And Mr. Rooney’s pious amiability and leadership are insinuated immediately when he addresses those in attendance at the wake (which he paid for and orchestrated, in his house) and says just exactly the right things. He tells a quick story that earns a laugh and shows how connected he is with everyone in town.

However, he’s a man living a perpetual lie, and his soul seems to be shrieking from behind those blue eyes, the monstrous loomings of his profession just below the saggy surface of the flesh façade he’s worn for 80 years and his humanity sunken in even deeper, somewhere in the subterranean level of his core being. He’s a heart-broken old man steeped in disappointment— with his son and himself; a crime lord with ubiquitous influence; an affable face to whom the town can turn for help. The layers of tragedy grow thicker with each wrinkled fold.

Tom Hanks, who drew much attention for his veering from the usual comedy-drama roles that made him so renowned, does everything right, but he doesn’t feel right. It’s a performance, not an inhabitation of character. You can’t shake the obviousness of Hanks trying to go out of his comfort zone. Craig feels right in his role, and we’re now used to him being gallant and dashing, not a ghostly sketch of would-be crimelordship. And Jude Law slithers into the picture half-way through in what has got to be the creepiest role of his career: his shoulder hunched like a man perpetually enveloped in winter; his hair thicker on his chest than his head; his skin a clammy coating. He’s almost caricature, but it works in context of the stylized visuals and melodrama.

That Law played a handsome and suave son of a millionaire, tanned from his lazy days on French beaches, in The Talented Mr. Ripley just three years prior rattles the mind, and serves as a reminder of just how good Law is when he’s in good movies. He’s not just unattractive here: he’s despicable, like blood frozen into icicles on the base of your spine. He kills people and photographs their dead bodies, and he doesn’t differentiate between adults and children. Everyone is payday. He’s pure business, like Michael was at the beginning of the film. He’s the grim reflection of what Michael could have been without his family.

But Hanks does get a few moments of Hanks-like brilliance. The montage in the middle of the film, in which Michael and Michael, Jr. rob banks and bond for perhaps the first time, allows Hanks a few deadpan lines: Michael, Jr. pulls the getaway car up, the hood ornament crawling from the ride side of the screen, as Michael stands there with the bag of money; “There’s no rush.” And when Michael, Jr. narrowly avoids hitting a tractor while learning how to drive: “We made it!” he says. “Oh, yeah-h-h-h,” Hanks stutters with the warm fluidity that kept the one-man show of Cast Away so enthralling. The greatness of Hanks comes out when he talks to his son, his eyes flickering back and forth uncomfortably as he admits that he was less loving to Michael, Jr. because he feared his son would be like him.

During a brief, fleeting moment towards the end of the film, Michael’s humanity and love, percolating the whole film, finally reaches the surface. “I’m sorry,” he says at last. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” The two words that Connor could never find.