The most appealing thing about Road to Perdition is its over-arching theme of redemption. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), an Irish mafia heavy, wants more than anything to keep his son from following in his criminal footsteps. Even though father and son will eventually drive to a place called Perdition to lay low, the story’s title suggests that Michael has for many years been traveling the road to hell.
He understands as much, and wants his son to avoid the same highway, a road with no off ramps. Then there is John Rooney (Paul Newman in his last feature film role) who is the embodiment of Satan in the film, the pitiless head of an Irish crime family. If his actions weren’t clear enough, he includes the devil in a toast, and late in the film in a conference with Michael below a church tells his younger protege, “there are only murderers in this room,” and “there is only one guarantee, none of us will see heaven. ”
Early in the movie, at a wake in his home for Danny McGovern, a foot soldier he has had killed, Rooney ominously acts the charming father to the Sullivan boys, Michael and Peter, one his son will soon murder, and the other he will personally order a contact on. He playfully tosses dice with the boys in a kind of gangster pastoral, in reality gambling with their very lives. With a disarming charm, reminiscent of the Prince of Darkness, he establishes an early connection with the youngsters, so that later when they are older they’ll feel taken care of by the family.
By the time they learn the truth about the business, they will be less horrified, and will be drawn into the web of sin just like their father. Rooney also functions as the surrogate parent to Michael Sr. (Hanks), but whereas it’s usual or a father to protect his child from sin and danger, Rooney has molded Michael into the ruthless enforcer for his evil organization. The story heads in another direction when Rooney’s son Conner (Daniel Craig) slaughter’s Michael’s wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and his youngest son Peter to hide his own corruption within the corrupt world he inhabits.
But if there is any good in Rooney, it’s his refusal to give up Connor, even though the son has betrayed his father and put him in a mortally precarious position. Thus, the plot becomes increasingly parallel as the two fathers face each other and certain death to protect their offspring like so many lionesses. With the Rooney’s demonic hit man (Jude Law) on their trail, Sullivan goes to see the powerful Frank Nitti with the vain hope of obtaining mafia justice.
But when Nitti tells Michael that he will not give up Conner because of the crime connections with Rooney, Michael realizes that his only recourse now is to eliminate his boss before Rooney kills his remaining son. In the great scene when Michael guns down Rooney and his intimates with a Thompson sub-machine gun that lights up the dark, it is a toss up of whether Michael is revenging himself, giving into his darkest, most vengeful lust, or that he is redeeming himself by saving Michael Jr. the only way he can.
The interweaving stories of the two fathers, combined with the closure of the main plot in which Michael Jr. abandons the mafia road to be raised on a farm and never hold a gun again, leaves the viewer with a sense of hope: amazing considering the film’s dark themes. This spirit of hope is brought home by the film’s musical score, the most appealing aspect of the movie for me. Thomas Newman—my favorite film composer—wrote the soundtrack, and the one for this film is my favorite work of his.
Newman’s patented swelling strings and simple but central piano motifs drive every important scene in the film. The despair of the Midwest’s great depression era, the tension of carrying out a job accomplished with guns, the absolute peace of completing life’s final task, these along with every shot in the movie are underscored by beautiful music, which itself functions as an actor in the film, every bit as important as Tom Hanks or Paul Newman. My favorite example of the music’s effectiveness is the scene when Rooney nd his gang leave a pub one evening and walk out into the rain to their car, only to find that the car’s driver is dead. For me, it is the most powerful scene in any movie I have ever seen. The song that plays at this moment is called “Ghosts. ” Sam Mendes, the film’s brilliant director, decided that even though what we are seeing is an action scene, he was not going to make it about action. For Mendes, it is a scene about emotion, and so we hear no sound other than Newman’s score, save for a couple of transitions where the rain can be lightly heard.
The five gangsters are looking around when one of their cronies gets shot up from behind. They all turn and start firing hopelessly into the darkness, at the end of the street where the muzzle flash is coming from. Only Rooney remains rooted, with his hand on the car door and his back to the mysterious gunman. The camera then moves into a mid shot of Rooney looking downward, and the mostly ambient score now adds a low string that slowly increases in volume as recognition dawns on Rooney’s face. He now realizes the killer is Sullivan, and he knows he is going to die.
He remains frozen as his henchmen are picked off one by one, but not one sound of gunfire is heard, no cries, no footsteps, no shouts. As the last body falls to the street, some sparse piano notes are heard traveling down the scale, which seems to echo the ease in which Sullivan drops Rooney’s bodyguards, like fingers traveling down the piano, ending a life on every key. The sound impresses on us how alone Rooney is now, standing in the rain before his final judgment. Next, we see a long shot of the dark end of the street, and after a time a figure appears out of the darkness walking towards Rooney’s back next to the car.
At this moment, the sound of the rain drifts back in. Now a similar shot from a reverse angle, then an over the shoulder shot where we see Rooney beside the car, facing away from Sullivan, and over his shoulder, Sullivan moves towards him. As Rooney lifts his head and his gaze from the ground to camera level, every element in the soundtrack fades away and we understand why Thomas Newman owns this scene, for we are presented with five of the most powerful chords that a string section has ever played. They can’t be described in words so I won’t try.
As the 5th chord fades, Rooney turns to face Sullivan, whose face is set in unhappy determination, which we see in an over the shoulder shot from behind Rooney. Again, there is no sound except the rain falling around them and the water dripping from their drenched fedoras. Now the camera moves in on Rooney’s face as he delivers his signature line, “I’m glad it’s you. ” Then the camera cuts to a close up of Sullivan, and we see he is shaken by Rooney’s statement; he is near on the verge of tears, but in spite of his emotions raises his Thompson to the firing position in steady resolve.
After Rooney’s coda, the chords play again but end on a different, more conclusive chord, which adds closure to Sullivan’s act before it even happens. This scene was Paul Newman’s final theatrical screen appearance, and I think it does justice to him. It is uncanny how many fine actors died in life not long after they died on screen. This is the scene that proved to me that Thomas Newman was the master. In many ways, Road to Perdition is the coming together of many film masters.
Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, two of the most highly acclaimed actors of the last 2 generations, Thomas Newman, a 10 time academy award nominee, and Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, who won an Oscar for his moody and contrasted lighting. Road to Perdition was also Hall’s last film before his death, and Mendes dedicated this, perhaps his greatest film, to him. A long time ago, I gave up on the gangster film. I just didn’t like the subject matter.
And although Perdition is one of the greatest examples of the genre, surpassing in my mind the celebrated Godfather films, it is arguably much more than a mob picture. It is a film whose writer and director were tantalized less by the sensationalized lives of the thieves and murderers of organized crime, and more with the idea of how one conducts and makes meaning of life under extraordinary conditions. Like Hamlet, Shakespeare’s greatest hero, Michael Sullivan is also turned into a scourge who might have cried, “Oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right. ”