Road to Perdition is available to rent, buy or stream.
Let me start this retrospective of Sam Mendes’ exquisite 1930s depression crime drama with a question. Can you name the film that won the Best Picture Oscar in 2003? I am sure many of you will know the answer without turning to Google; it was Rob Marshall’s Chicago. Meanwhile, Roman Polanski walked away with Best Director for The Pianist, a highly controversial choice due to his history. Even though his directorial debut American Beauty had swept the board at the Oscars in 2000, Mendes Road to Perdition was all but ignored in 2003. Road to Perdition would walk away with just won Oscar for the sublime cinematography of Conrad Hall, who had passed away just a few months before the ceremony.
Of course, anyone who follows the Oscars will know that the winning films are not always the ones that find longevity despite their initial success. Sometimes it’s the ones that got away that become undisputed classics; these are the movies you can repeatedly watch, finding something new in every viewing. Mendes, Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, is one of those rare films; it’s a masterpiece that never received the credit it deserved on release despite its box office success.
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Based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Road to Perdition views the mob through a lens of family, loyalty and business, much like The Godfather. There are no clear heroes or villains, despite many pointing to Connor (Daniel Craig) as the latter. Equally, many point to Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) as the antihero of the piece; after all, he is a dedicated family man who gave up his security to offer his family what they needed. Yet, in reality, his character is far more complicated.
Micheal Sullivan has purposefully held his family at a distance, his relationship with his eldest son Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), a casualty of his loyalty to John Rooney (Paul Newman), a surrogate father to him from a young age. Sullivan is a killer and a gangster, his family man image a mere mirage. As he seeks revenge, Michael embraces the darkest side of his personality while protecting his remaining son at all costs, just as he always has. Yet, as the father and son embark on a forced road trip that can only end in tragedy, Sullivan is faced with the fact that he doesn’t know his boy. Here Sullivan embraces his final opportunity to be a father knowing his destiny is already pre-determined.
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Rooney is equally conflicted, trying to protect his son Connor at all costs, despite Connor’s wayward and dangerous behaviour. Meanwhile, Connor sees Michael as a threat to his father’s love, a love he has tried to gain repeatedly before resorting to the one thing his father understands, violence. Here Road to Perdition is about the complex relationships between fathers and sons. Connor believes his only route to his father’s love and approval is his ability to be ruthless and play the game. While Michael Jr believes he has somehow failed his father and never fully earnt his love. In both cases, the children are held hostage by a culture of male emotional repression and silence.
Some may point to Shakespeare’s line from The Merchant of Venice, “The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children.” to summarise the events at play. However, Mendes weaves a complex tapestry that sees both fathers take a different road as the film nears its unforgettable climax. While accepting his fate, Michael Sullivan embraces a window of healing on the road with his son, finally allowing himself to show some of the love he has kept locked away. In contrast, Rooney protects Connor but maintains an emotionally closed and distant approach, never learning from his mistakes as the net draws in.
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Bathed in the stunning cinematography of Conrad Hall and the haunting score of Thomas Newman, Road to Perdition is a sublime character study of two fathers and two sons. Perdition may be the name of the peaceful and safe lakeside location Michael and his son attempt to reach, but its meaning runs deeper. After all, Perdition is defined as a state of eternal punishment and damnation into which a sinful and unrepentant person passes after death. Here Michael Sullivan’s only wish is to save his son from his mistakes. Road to Perdition is a story populated by ghosts and haunted by past choices, and it is one of the best 1930s depression-era crime dramas of the past thirty years.