What strikes you first about “The Road to Perdition” are the
images. Bleak, cold and monochromatic -- images of northern Illinois
The year is 1931; prohibition is on its way out; and economic
depression is tearing at the country. Then coming to the center of
the screen, but still in shadow, is Michael Sullivan, played by Tom
Hanks, a man who is as bleak, cold and colorless as the landscape.
Sullivan’s sins are about to catch up with him, to send him on a
mission of revenge and give him a final chance at salvation.
Sullivan is a thug who works for an Irish mob boss named John
Rooney, played by Paul Newman. Rooney took Sullivan in as a young
orphan. He gave Sullivan a home and a profession. Sullivan pays
Rooney back by being a loyal soldier and a ruthless killer. He is
also a devoted, although distant, family man. Sullivan’s grim but
stable existence is turned upside down by Rooney’s son, resentful of
his father’s close relationship with Sullivan. Sullivan and his
12-year-old son abandon their home and begin a six-week road trip
during which Sullivan confronts his enemies, and his son learns how
to be a better man than his father.
Inevitably, “The Road to Perdition” invites comparisons to
gangster movies of the past, like “The Godfather.” In some ways it is
also reminiscent of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy and those
Japanese Samurai movies of several decades ago. The film’s makers may
not have achieved all of their ambitions, but what they put on the
screen is a wonder to behold.
Visually, the film is stunning. The sets and costumes evoke the
time. The winter landscapes, subdued lighting and omnipresent
freezing rain define a mood of danger, if not despair.
The script has a few weak spots. The most notable of these is
Sullivan’s decision to get the attention of Al Capone’s outfit by
robbing banks where it keeps its cash -- a dangerous move at best.
The film uses these robberies as a way to bring a little humor into
the otherwise grim, unfolding tragedy. Humor may have worked in
“Bonnie and Clyde,” but is seems out of place in this dark drama.
Hanks, as Sullivan, never smiles and rarely betrays emotion. He
plays Sullivan as if he is imploding into the moral vacuum he has
made of his life. Newman effortlessly plays mob boss Rooney, who has
built an empire of crime, power and wealth, with the full expectation
that he will spend eternity in hell. Both actors turn in outstanding
performances as friends who become mortal enemies.
If you’re thinking of seeing “The Road to Perdition,” know what
you’re getting into. Summer is the time when theaters play
empty-headed comedies, action-filled escapism and sequels. This
original film is as far as one can get from that pattern. “The Road
to Perdition” takes the moviegoer on a grim and emotional journey.
* DENNIS PISZKIEWICZ is a Laguna Beach resident.