I enjoyed looking at Road to Perdition, but I didn’t especially enjoy watching it. The second film from director Sam Mendes, who won widespread acclaim with his 1999 debut American Beauty, Road to Perdition is technically superb. Gorgeous cinematography and lavish production design imbue it with a visual richness akin to painting, and it could hardly have been better acted. Yet the central characters are inaccessible to me; the story left me emotionally detached throughout; and the filmmakers’ serious aspirations seemed to me to jostle uncomfortably with their unconvincing stylizations. In the end, I found the whole thing self-conscious and artificial — a collection of momentous themes and evocative images that somehow never transcends technique and craft to become a real film.
Dissatisfied after the screening, I went out and bought the original 1998 graphic novel, written by novelist and "Dick Tracy" scribe Max Allan Collins and illustrated by comic-book artist Richard Piers Rayner ("Swamp Thing"), and read it in one sitting. ("Graphic novels" use comic-book storytelling for longer, and hopefully more substantial, stories than traditional comic books.) Immediately I understood why someone would want to film this story — and how the film had gone wrong. I also discovered that the movie’s pervasive Catholic imagery was ripped from more integral themes of confession, forgiveness, and redemption that in the book are tied to a faith-affirming final revelation that provides a moral context for the whole story, but which is omitted from the film.
Set in a period of Depression-era gangland legend, drawing on such historical figures as Al Capone, Eliot Ness, Capone lieutenant Frank Nitti, and Irish mob patriarch and Capone ally John Looney, Collins’s story takes the form of a father-son coming-of-age tale with shades of Kazuo Koike’s manga graphic novel Lone Wolf and Cub, which told a similar story set in feudal Japan. The story centers on two fathers and two sons. The fathers are the Irish kingpin Looney and his chief enforcer, Michael O’Sullivan — or, as the film has it, John Rooney (Paul Newman) and Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks). Their sons are the crime boss’s unreliable adult son Connor (Daniel Craig) and the hitman’s twelve-year-old boy Michael Junior (Tyler Hoechlin).
In adapting Collins’s story for film, screenwriter David Self (Thirteen Days) makes several canny choices, among them the decision to expand the father-son motif by developing a quasi-generational bond between old Rooney and Sullivan, whom Rooney (cognizant of his own son Connor’s weaknesses) affectionately regards as the better son he never had. Self also creates a recurring role for a fleeting but pivotal figure from Collins’s story whom the graphic novel allots only a few panels but who in the film becomes a full-fledged supporting character (played by a scene-stealing Jude Law). Yet somewhere along the way either Self or Mendes loses something critical: a point of view, a narrative or personal center to the story. The graphic novel is told from the perspective of O’Sullivan’s son Michael Jr., now an adult looking back on the events of the winter of 1930 (’31 in the film), when he was twelve years old and on the run with his father. This perspective — ultimately crucial to the story’s meaning — is lost in the film, which merely bookends its events with a few lines of banal, voiced-over narration from young Michael Jr. that, as one critic aptly put it, "carries about as much weight as a 12-year-old boy’s book report on why he loves his daddy."
Apart from the voiceovers, nothing distinguishes either Michael Sr. or Michael Jr. as the protagonist, or leads us to view events through the eyes of either one. With memorable exceptions, father and son remain largely enigmatic and emotionally distant — not just from one another, but from the audience (or at least from this audience member). The narrative touches upon potentially substantial themes: the unreasoning hero-worship with which all young children regard their parents; the inevitable disappointment when parents prove to be all too fallible; the fierce parental desire that one’s offspring do better than oneself; the sad resignation of parents who accept their own failings but seek redemption in their progeny. Yet the themes never come to life in a way that goes beyond the trailer blurbs ("Every Son… Holds the Future For His Father… Every Father… is a Hero to His Son…"). In making this criticism, I find myself wanting to give you examples of how these themes were more compellingly handled in the graphic novel; yet I don’t want to give the impression that my dissatisfaction with the film is that of a purist fan of the original. After all, I went into the film "cold," not having read the book. Reading the book only gave specificity to what had been my general dissatisfaction coming out of the theater.
There is one point about the book worth discussing: how its religious themes are resolved in the book’s denouement (which doesn’t spoil anything in the movie). On the penultimate page of Collins’s story, the adult Michael O’Sullivan Jr. concludes his handwritten account of his father’s sins by making a direct appeal to his readers "to pray for his soul. And mine." On the last page, we make a discovery: Michael Jr. has become a priest. In the very last panel, we see him in the confessional, hearing the confession of some penitent even as he continues to pray for his father. This climactic sequence gives moral perspective to the whole preceding story. The father’s actions matter to the son, not just because "he was my father" (which is finally all that the movie’s twelve-year-old narrator can say about the man), but because the son — now a "father" of a different sort — carries within himself a constant spiritual burden to pray for his father’s soul. We also see definitively that the elder O’Sullivan’s hopes that his son should walk a different road from himself are most strikingly and dramatically realized — a point the movie also seeks to make, though with less force.
The movie marketing retains a vestigial hint of the original ending in the tagline “Pray for Michael Sullivan,” yet the trancated ending of the film robs this phrase of any context or meaning. The omission of Michael’s eventual vocation is particularly unfortunate just now, at a moment when (as another Christian critic commented) positive depictions of priests in the popular media would be especially welcome. (The film does include a passing negative reference to a compromised priest — at one point Michael Sr. instructs his son that in a pinch he should "go to Rev. Lynch at First Methodist; do not go to Fr. Calloway" — but omits the more important positive depiction of a presumably good one.) There are still plenty of religious motifs in the story, though more for aesthetic effect than anything else. The juxtaposition of a rosary and an automatic represents the contradiction of Sullivan’s Irish Catholic gangster milieu, but we don’t get any hint of how Sullivan tries to make sense of his violent trade in relation to his faith tradition. (We do get this in the book, though of course it involves moral confusion.) And, of course, "Perdition" is a synonym for damnation, as well as the name of a fictional small town in Illinois.
Tom Hanks stretches a bit from his usual nice-guy roles to play a nice hitman; for him this film is a higher-grade The Green Mile, another prestige project that doesn’t quite deliver what it promises. Paul Newman captures the contradictions of his kindly mobster more effectively than Hanks; he’s persuasively ruthless, yet resigned to his path in life rather than embracing it, and yet genuinely conflicted over his affection for Hanks. Their scenes together, especially the memorable confrontation in the church basement, are electric. Jude Law brings additional juice as a hitman who enjoys what he does, as opposed to Hanks’s character, who merely accepts it. (Mendes manipulates our sympathies by having Hanks always kill people offscreen, while Law’s victims die in full view.) Law seems to be the only player who realizes that he’s in a cinematic comic book, and plays accordingly.
If the film evokes comic-book associations in its narrative weaknesses — more so, indeed, than the source material — its imagery evokes the visual strengths of the most elaborately painted graphic novels. Production designer Dennis Gassner (The Truman Show) creates a world that’s all fedoras and overcoats and period cars, while Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (Mendes’s collaborator on American Beauty, but long since known for films like Marathon Man and Butch Cassidy) craft impeccable compositions that more than do justice to artist Rayner’s beautifully textured black-and-white ink drawings. If only the film had been as interesting to watch as it was to look at.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.