Gangster Movie Month: "Road to Perdition" Review

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Tom Hanks stars as Michael Sullivan, a morally conflicted Depression-era hit man committing murder in the name of his employer, John Rooney (Paul Newman). A kindly, aging Irish crime boss who raised Sullivan as his surrogate son, Rooney is affiliated with Al Capone in Chicago and thus wields great power in the "Tri-Cities" of Moline, Illinois.
3.5

Gangster Movie Month: "Road to Perdition" Review

-- Rating: R (language, violence)
Length: 117 minutes
Release Date: July 12, 2002
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

A relationship between a father and a son can be emotional and complicated, especially when dark secrets are involved. In "Road to Perdition," Michael Sullivan's (Tom Hanks) two sons, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken), don't know what their father does for a living. One night, to find out where his father works, Michael Jr. sneaks into Sullivan's car and hides there. It turns out to be a deadly mistake that could cost him his life.

Sullivan, not knowing that his son is in the car, picks up Connor (Daniel Craig) and they head to work. Sullivan and Connor are part of an organized crime syndicate run by Rooney (Paul Newman), an Irish immigrant who is Connor's biological father and like a father to Sullivan. With Michael Jr. secretly riding along, Sullivan and Connor arrive at a business meeting. The meeting quickly deteriorates into deadly violence. Stilling hiding, a stunned Michael Jr. watches in horror as Connor and his father execute several people. After the executions, Connor and Sullivan discover Michael Jr., and realize that he witnessed the killings. At first, Connor appears to let the incident go, but then changes his mind. Because Connor does not want any witnesses to the killings, he decides, without consulting his father, to execute the entire Sullivan family. Connor goes to the Sullivan home, but only Peter and Sullivan's wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), are home. Without considering the consequences, Connor kills them both.

In this film, there are consequences for everything, including murdering the innocent wife and child. Sullivan wants revenge, but he first has to find Connor. Rooney is hiding him in nearby Chicago. Rooney agonizes over whether to protect his biological son or his spiritual son. In the end, he chooses to support Connor and calls for the execution of Sullivan and Michael Jr. Sullivan is desperate to save Michael Jr., so they go on the run. Sullivan is angry with his son for causing the trouble but acknowledges that he could have made better choices in life. Now Sullivan is paying for his mistakes and hoping that his remaining son won't have to pay too.

Tom Hanks successfully sheds his good-guy, "Forrest Gump" image and plays a cold-blooded hit man, who sees murder as nothing more than a business transaction. Although he loves his family and tries to be moral, a murderer is still a murderer. However, unlike Rooney, Sullivan does not want his children to follow in his footsteps. This may be Sullivan's only redeeming quality. Paul Newman provides an equally good performance in his portrayal of the quiet tyrant Rooney. Viewers might initially underestimate Rooney because of his low, raspy voice and his deep love for Sullivan. However, anyone who dismisses Rooney does so at their own peril; Rooney is temperamental and can be gentle one minute and ruthlessly vicious the next. It's an inspired work from Newman, and the tense, tragic scenes with Hanks are especially moving.

Director Sam Mendes wisely allows the audience to decide whether or not Sullivan is a good man. Even in the film's narration, Michael Jr. directly implores the audience to decide if Sullivan is "no good" or a "decent man." Because the film's makers do not pass judgment, the audience must decide for themselves what to think. This approach invites viewers to invest their attention and emotions in the story, particularly in Sullivan's character. Other characters, like Connor, are clearly meant to be seen as evil. The rest of the characters are too complicated to be classified, and are presented in various shades of gray. Despite his relative lack of experience, Mendes, who has only directed two films, seems to understand how to frame complicated characters.

Cinematographer Conrad Hall, who previously worked with Mendes on his directorial debut "American Beauty," won an Oscar for his efforts on "Road to Perdition." Hall makes an audience shiver by setting the film's mood through masterful framing. In "Road to Perdition," the streets are either filled with snow or freezing rain is pouring down. Inclement weather as another character in the film, and Hall uses it to create a sense of cold and doom. Even if the temperature outside is warm, viewers may want to grab a sweater before sitting down to watch "Road to Perdition" because it will send chills down their spines.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars