Gangster films strike a chord deep in our collective psyche.
Movie-thug life seems fascinating because the genre can be used to excavate certain aspects of the dark side of the American dream. The usual focus is on members of a downtrodden ethnic group (Irish, Italian, Latino, African-American, etc.) who hunger to move up into the middle class and choose crime as their means of passage. The movies show us how this kind of take-no-prisoners ambition can exact a terrible price.
Gangland activities mandate an ultraviolent way of life that conflicts with the devotion to family values that is the bedrock of middle-class culture. Positive personality traits like energy, hard work and the willingness to take risks turn destructive.
The dramatic result is an intense moral struggle with life-and-death stakes. The ends are devoured by the means, and we learn that you cannot achieve virtue while practicing vice.
The Oscar-winning Godfather trilogy defines the genre. A multi-generational family saga, it elevates these ethical dilemmas to a level that almost approximates Shakespearean tragedy. Another significant marker in gangland mythology is the current HBO television series “The Sopranos,” which takes a more ironic look at the same set of problems as they play out in present-day, upper-middle-class suburbia.
Road to Perdition, based on a graphic novel by comic-strip artists Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, continues this tradition, exploring these themes in a haunting, inventive manner. Its story skillfully weaves together a pair of similar father-and-son dramas set in 1931 during the Great Depression.
Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a well-paid enforcer for a small-time Midwestern mob family allied with Al Capone. The gang's boss is the avuncular John Rooney (Paul Newman), of whom it's said: “You rule this town as God rules the earth. You give, and you take away.”
Sullivan, born an impoverished orphan, has moved his wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), along with sons Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Atkins), into a spacious home on the right side of town. Neither of the two boys has any idea what their father does for a living.
Michael Jr. is curious and follows his dad on a “mission” that ends in a senseless murder committed by Rooney's psychopathic son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Fearful that the boy may talk, Connor orders the entire Sullivan family to be killed. Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. escape and must go together on the run to survive.
The elder Rooney had taken Sullivan into his own family as a child and treated him as a surrogate son. He realizes that his flesh-and-blood heir has made a horrible mistake and tries to apologize. “It's a natural law,” he says to Michael Sr. “Sons are put on his earth to trouble their fathers.”
The mob boss offers to give Sullivan $25,000 if he'll flee to Ireland. But his former top enforcer insists on revenge and Rooney must choose between him and Connor. He decides that blood trumps morality and hires a free-lance hit man, McGuire (Jude Law), to kill Michael Sr.
The elder Sullivan must find a way to smoke out his family's killer while hiding from McGuire, who's as psychopathic as Connor. To achieve this, Sullivan concocts a complicated scheme that involves knocking off the banks that launder Capone's money and requires him to educate his son in the tradecraft of robbery.
British director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and screen-writer David Self tell the first part of their story from Michael Jr.'s point of view. Cameraman Conrad Hall paints a dark landscape of dimly lit rooms and driving rain. The boy sees his dad at arm's length and can't comprehend what he's about. When father and son finally connect and discover each other's better nature, the sun finally appears, revealing wintry rural and urban vistas.
The filmmakers also frame their drama with Catholic worship and symbols. Sullivan regularly prays with his family and carries a rosary in his pocket along with his gun. When he wants to meet with Rooney in safety, he surprises his boss in a church just after he's received Communion.
While no one in the film could be called a good Catholic, the culture of faith that surrounds the two fathers seems to have an impact. Both Sullivan and Rooney have the glimmerings of conscience, and they are acutely aware of the evil they have done. “None of us will see heaven,” the elder Rooney declares. “Michael could,” Sullivan replies.
Unlike his boss, Michael Sr. is determined that the sins of the father not be visited upon his son. Perdition is often defined as eternal damnation. The elder Sullivan is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to see that Michael Jr. won't travel down that road even if it costs him his own salvation. With this, the elder Sullivan achieves a redemption of sorts. (In the movie, Perdition also ironically refers to the small Illinois town by the lake where the Sullivans hope to find safety.)
Mendes and Self have fashioned a deeply moral film. But it's not a Catholic one, despite the persistent religious imagery. The lives of Sullivan and Rooney are ruled by an implacable fate that's closer to the Old Testament and Greek tragedy than the Gospels or Church teachings. There's little sense of God's grace or miracles in their universe, and forgiveness seems a neglected virtue. Nevertheless, Road to Perdition is a challenging contribution to Hollywood gangster mythology. It touches our emotions and then makes us reflect on the ethical meaning of what we've seen.
John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.