ROAD TO PERDITION JUST SLIDES PAST GREATNESS
“Could I have had more?”
Road to Perdition is not a masterpiece. It’s certainly not an exceptional story with capricious lead-ins to engage viewers much like you would expect from the crime and thriller genre or even mob films in general. But, it’s a feel good story about the love between a father and son. It’s about Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), a pathologically cold assassin and father and his endearing relationship with his son Michael (Tyler Hoechlin) during a very trying and harsh moment in their lives.
Their relationship is the charm of the film and if you hold on long enough to actually finish the movie, and to actually observe their love for one another, its warmth sneaks up on you. But it takes a while. The slow pace of the story early on, makes the film feel a bit like it drags. So much so, in the first half hour instalment, it felt like a punishment to keep watching. Granted I had a lot of reservations that likely coloured how receptive I was to the story. Firstly, I was critical of Tom Hank’s ability to even play the role of a callous assassin given his soft presence, then later troubled by the strange tension between Sullivan and his son Michael (which is probably realistic to their time period given the films setting in the 1930s). Still, it was strange that Michael would address his father so formally, calling him “sir,” appearing to be nervous in his presence, but in the end, it all leads to something.
Sullivan is not a good man but he’s loyal. As an enforcer for John Rooney (Paul Newman), a mob boss who took him in as a young boy, he was put into a very precarious position when deciding what to do after he was wronged. Rooney’s uninhibited son Connor (Daniel Craig), had committed a grave mistake against Sullivan, maybe out of a feeling of jealousy or perhaps, pure recklessness and Sullivan felt like he had no other option but to get his revenge. This meant that Connor had to die.
Obviously, the betrayal was grave, but everyone around him tried to gaslight him into believing otherwise. For his own good, of course. Since John’s status is so established and far reaching, when Sullivan decided to retaliate against his son, and by extension him, he was taking on everyone in John’s network. But Sullivan didn’t know so, he wasted his time trying to recruit support from another mob boss in Chicago by the name of Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), which ultimately speeds up the conflict in the story. At just over an hour into the nearly two hour film, the story beginnings to build tractions of excitement, brought on by the use of ominous music, montages and high-speed thrilling effects of a chase adorned with cat-and-mouse elements. Jude Law’s villainous role, Maguire, is partially the cause of this change. (See? It takes a while to get into it.)
Admittedly, the second half of the film almost makes up for the unmistakably weak introduction and feels much more effortless, almost floating into place. At this point, I smiled. Sullivan is proven to be likeable: capable of being gentle and of giving affection to Michael, even choosing communication as his chief parenting tool instead of screaming and commanding orders. We also see that Michael is a quick learner, highly adaptive and appealing, even with his weird eye brows. He’s so affable, his innocence and naivety is the film’s virtue. One memorable moment that illustrates this personality was his negotiation with his father about money. He’d been presented with an opportunity any kid would dream of; after toiling to collect money which would be instrumental to their survival, he had a man-to-man conversation with his dad about splitting their earning, but instead, low-balled his offer and mistakenly asked for a small sum. “Could I have had more?” he asks later, after realizing his error. “You’ll never know,” Sullivan replies.
None of this appreciation is a given though. It takes almost an objective lens to understand the intention of screen writer Max Allan Collins which means, this lapse immediately marks the film and makes it unique to a certain type of audience. Maybe an understanding of Collins inspiration from the Lone Wolf and Cub mangas by Kazuo Koike, would have balanced this effect but as it’s stands, the film isn’t for everyone. Essentially, early on, you’ll need to decide what metric you will use to determine wether it’s worth your time once it becomes apparent that the story isn’t grabbing you. For instance, will you keep watching this film past say 30 minutes, for it’s so-called potential? If you feel pained to watch anymore, do you continue to drudge on based off of the acclaimed actors involved in the project? Unfortunately, this is one of those films that forces this sort of hesitation. Road to Perdition definitely forced me to reconsider whether it’s fair to give up on a story because of how exhaustive the plot is early on and to be honest, after finishing the film, I’m still unsure if it’s worth a watch.
I would have liked if director Sam Mendes, had maintained an element of mystery (which is essential in all thrillers). Maybe it would have also been great to have a better narrator, other than Michael given how untimely and therefore banal his reflections feels both at the end and beginning of the film —since he is still clearly too young during both moments to see the wider picture. Hence, the gravity of his reflections would have been more sound if he came to them after years of separation from those events, after becoming an adult, to effectively examine his history. But mostly, the film was missing a shock factor.
I feel ambivalent about Road to Perdition. So, in all fairness, it’s detractors, who have called the film “mindless” or “detached” have an argument. After all, the film glamorizes the gangster and criminal lifestyle and doesn’t really offer much in it’s place. Hanks, role is relatively ordinary and so subtle, the film is easy to forget which is especially displeasing since the film’s predecessor, Léon: The Professional, took on a similar plot line and successfully carved out a permanent position as one of the most brilliant crime films ever created. (So what’s your excuse Mendes?) To its credit though, Road to Perdition is comforting and easy. Still, it’s doesn’t quite win your attention; it’s slippery, and so, it’s one of those films that requires your patience because it’s so easy to detract from its story and to become absent-minded during its entire viewing experience.