I’m something of a rarity. I shoot the dead.” Maguire (Jude Law) is only partly right. A freelance photographer scrounging for work during the Depression, he specializes in images of corpses, and, rather ingeniously, secures his employment by murdering his own subjects. But in Road to Perdition, Maguire is only one of several professional killers, men who repeatedly loom in low angle shots, pursuing their victims relentlessly in sinister shadows and driving rain, all the while trying to figure out their familial relations. In fact, Maguire’s most singular aspect is his lack of a traumatizing father-son relationship. That, and his ratty hair.
By contrast, Maguire’s latest assignment, Irish mafia hitman Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), has plenty of trauma and plenty of hair. The anti-heroic protagonist of Sam Mendes’ latest dysfunctional family saga, Sullivan initially appears possessed of a pleasantly upper middle-class existence, ensconced in a large, elegant home with his quietly supportive (and quickly dispatched) wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and two young sons, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken). The family’s routine is established via stock nostalgia imagery: kids in knickers, mom in the kitchen, low angle shots, slightly gray lighting. The kids ride their bikes home from school and dutifully do their homework. Mom makes dinner. Dad arrives. No one says much.
Sullivan is introduced by way of Michael Jr.’s perspective, in a poignant, affecting scene. Sent to fetch his father for dinner, Michael pauses in the hallway outside his parents’ bedroom, watching his father through the narrow frame: the camera moves closer to approximate Michael’s focus: dad is removing his keys and change from his pockets, laying them carefully on the bed. And then, he removes his gun. He never turns to see his son. Cut back to Michael’s face, partly shadowed, partly alarmed, wholly intrigued, a fleeting image that makes completely clear the child’s complex mix of fear and love for his father.
It’s one of many ominous images in the film inspired by its source, Max Allen Collins and Richard Piers Rayner’s 1998 graphic novel, a suitably gloomy evocation of murder as corporate business, something that Sullivan does during working hours in order to provide for his family, to whom he appears intimidating and mysterious. Though Michael knows enough not to ask what his father does for a living — namely, kill people for Chicago boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) — he’s also curious enough to check it out for himself. The film’s major and ongoing trauma begins one stormy night, when Michael stows away in the back of his dad’s car.
Thunder crashes. It happens that Sullivan and Rooney’s obviously troubled blood-son Connor (Daniel Craig) are out on a job, and they end up murdering several men, Tommy guns blazing. Michael sees the whole thing, having slipped out of the car so that he can peer under a doorway. He’s also seen, of course. And though Sullivan assures Connor that the kid’s okay and won’t tell, Connor, who is paranoid and mean on a good day, takes it all very badly. In fact, he takes it as an excuse to get back at Sullivan, whom he has forever seen as a rival for his own father’s affection and trust. And in this case, his paranoia has been justified — though the elder Rooney has a “thing” about family, he does sincerely love Sullivan, preferring his loyal, efficient, and appropriately mournful adoptive son to his whiny, inept, and conveniently villainous blood relative.
Rooney drops by to pat the boy on his head, and it’s clear that nothing will be all right. Whatever familial equilibrium the Sullivans and the Rooneys have pretended to share all these years is now destroyed. And so, Sullivan and Michael go on the run, which means that Road to Perdition‘s father-son romance begins in earnest. The film is deeply invested in this theme, and if you’ve seen any of the many interviews with Hanks or Newman or both, you’ll know that they’ve been asked repeatedly about their own fathers, their own sons, and their own views on the whole family “thing.” While it’s surely an interesting theme, it’s also one that’s received a lot of attention over the past few hundred years. And so, the story here won’t be very surprising.
Michael’s voice-over structures David Self’s script, so you know from the beginning that his 6 weeks on the road with dad during the winter of 1931 will be life-changing, and that he will come to admire the man he has until then barely known. Emulating the Lone Ranger stories Michael loves to read under his blanket with a flashlight, their adventure entails a series of lessons: his father teaches him to shoot, to drive, to keep watch. They embark on a series of Midwestern bank robberies, as Sullivan seeks to hit the Chicago mob where it hurts, conveyed in a nifty montage that looks like a graphic novel in motion, the camera panning over robbery scenes-like-panels, as the pair rack up the loot.
The film’s well-founded reverence for its source — manifested in its artful darkness (repeated shots of rainy nights, bodies rising and falling in silhouette), and precise composition (a scene toward the end, where a brightly lit beach house becomes a backdrop for blood, everywhere) — makes for a magnificent look. Shot by Conrad L. Hall, the film’s perfectly grim surface evokes eons of pain, as well as a highly stylized contemporary sensibility, not so much cynical as skeptical and self-aware.
Such sheer beauty almost makes up for the film’s tired plot (Eastwood and Costner’s A Perfect World comes to mind), in which a boy sees his father (figure) redeemed by good intentions, if not acts, exactly. Michael’s becoming-a-man story is, finally, less classic than contrived; he doesn’t witness most of his dad’s shadowy brutality, and when you see it, the thugs and gangsters are so easily identifiable as such that the moral dilemma that’s supposed to emerge never does: instead, you see Tom Hanks shooting the bad guys.
Perhaps appropriately, Road to Perdition‘s most complicated, unsympathetic, and compelling character is the skuzzy hitman-photographer Maguire. Not in the novel, Maguire is Self’s creation, a perverse, po-mo commentary on all that’s laid out before you — the conventions, the legends, the gorgeous images, the sociopolitical allusions. For Maguire, killing is a business and an art, and his attention to detail aligns him — creepily, if you think about it — with the film’s own meticulous aesthetic. Introduced as he’s photographing a not-quite-dead subject (listed in the credits as “Living Corpse,” and played by someone named, so evocatively, Monte), Maguire looks annoyed that he has to finish the job to get his shot, smothering the guy, who’s already quite bloody, thanks, with a big butcher knife stuck in his chest.
Maguire takes pride in his vocation, but he’s too sinister and self-loving to see much else. His first encounter with Sullivan has them conversing across separate diner booths, mirroring one another in their dark topcoats and hats (Sullivan’s is a standard fedora; Maguire’s a natty bowler). As yet unaware that Maguire is hired to kill him, Sullivan asks about his camera, which Maguire is deftly loading with film: “Is that your profession or your pleasure?” Maguire smiles, winds his film ferociously, then clunks the instrument on the table before him: “Both I guess. To be paid to do what you love, ain’t that the dream?” Sullivan and Rooney, and even Connor, see themselves as engaged in serious, family business. It’s strangely gratifying that Maguire has less grand delusions.