Father Figures Loom Large in Rich Road to Perdition
- Friday, June 14, 2002
Best for: Mature adult audiences who enjoy a Godfather-type movie.
The plot: The story takes place in Chicago during the winter and spring of 1931. John Rooney (Paul Newman) is a prominent leader both in the community and in the Irish mob. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a devoted hit man for Rooney who performs whatever tasks he asks him to do, out of loyalty and allegiance for the only father he's ever known. Rooney makes it clear that he favors Michael and his two sons over his own biological son, Connor (Daniel Craig), a self-centered, immature embarrassment to his father. One night Michael accompanies Connor to a meeting. When bullets fly and men are killed, the two make a fast getaway, only to discover that Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hid in his father's car and witnessed the entire incident. The jealous Connor sees the situation as a way to get rid of the man (and his son) that his father adores, so he devises a plan to kill the two and regain his father's favor. When the plan backfires and Michael's wife (Jennifer Jason Lee) and other son are killed, the two are forced to flee for their lives, with Michael vowing to expose the truth and get revenge. Jude Law, Al Molina and Stanley Tucci also star.
The good: Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) has delivered another powerful, introspective look at an American family, but this time the term "family" has a double meaning. The story, built around a six-week period of time, centers on a man who has lived his life doing something he know is wrong, but he justifies his actions by separating them from his personal life. Michael's blinded loyalty to the only father-figure he's ever respected overshadows his own role as a father and, in the end, robs him of the only thing he's ever loved.
The story intricately weaves together several father/son relationships (Newman and his son, Hanks and his son, Newman and Hanks), each representing a different aspect of fatherhood and each making a profound statement about the important role fathers play in shaping and determining the destiny of the children who look up to them. This is a story about a hit man who hates what he has become and strives to prevent his son from becoming like him. When the son is unwillingly thrown into the father's lifestyle, the father realizes that his son is just like him, and both desperately need to be loved and accepted by the other.
I have to admit, it's strange seeing Hanks in a dark, "bad-guy" role, but his ability to gradually add warmth and self-discovery to his cold character is essential to the character's redemption and helps make the story work. I always love seeing Paul Newman on the big screen. He brings dignity and (ironically) integrity to this story about criminals, and since the plot is built around the fatherly relationship he has with Hanks' character, his profound and stinging words power some of the most emotionally moving scenes.
I don't know if Mendes had a good relationship with his father, but judging from the films he directs and the scripts he picks, it would be easy to assume he didn't. The father/son relationships in this story are for the most part cold, strained, conditional and, sadly, lacking any moral fiber. These characters know they are going to hell (the title represents a place the characters are literally and figuratively going to).
Mendes skillfully uses the monochromatic dark colors in the wintry first half of the movie to represent the dark and cold lives of the characters, but in the second half, his palate warms to represent a new life and new beginnings. I thought it was also interesting that he sends a continuous but subtle "religious" message (with shots of crucifixes, Mother Mary statues, a scene in a church, etc.) implying a sort of spiritual damnation for the characters and, in some cases, a protection (over the boy) as well.
The plot is layered with meaning, and I dissected it in my head for days after seeing the movie. If I list too many of the layers concerning the main characters, I will spoil the story. Suffice to say this is an introspective look at the dark side of man's nature and how he will justify and rationalize who he is and what he does out of a desperate need for love and acceptance, especially from a father. I'll take liberties and take it another level deeper by saying that this story biblically proves how important the earthly father is in raising a child and how a father's acceptance or criticism can shape and mold how that child sees himself through his own eyes and through God's eyes.
The bad: This is a movie about the mob of the 1930s, so it's dark, has several scenes of men being killed, photos of dead people and sadly, the name of Jesus used numerous times. The language, religious profanity and violence don't make for an upbeat movie with a happy ending, so go expecting it to be interesting and well-acted but likewise dark and violent. Truly, the biblical principle of "you reap what you sow" plays out in this movie, as most of the characters get what's coming to them.
Offensive language and behavior: Unfortunately, there's some profanity, but mostly it's religious profanity using the name of Jesus in vain.
Sexual situations: No sexual situations.
Violence: Plenty of bloody mob-style violence with men being shot, knifed and killed. A woman is shot protecting her son (the hit takes place off screen and bodies aren't shown). Michael Jr. witnesses a man being killed, and it traumatizes him and makes him angry. Later we see him discover his mother and brother's dead bodies, but we don't see the bodies, just Michael. A hit man doubles as a photographer taking pictures of the dead (we see them on his wall). He kills a couple of people himself and then takes their picture. So, while there is plenty of bloody violence in some scenes, in others it isn't shown at all.
Parental advisory: Obviously, this is not a movie for kids or immature teens. This is an adult drama that may even disturb some adults.
It's a wrap: This is not a "feel-good" movie with an upbeat message, and it's not necessarily an enjoyable movie to watch. It's filled with pain and violence. But it is a visually interesting and richly layered story that will have you thinking about it and wanting to discuss it with your friends long after you leave the theater. Fathers, it will challenge you to take a close look at your relationship with your children (your sons especially) and examine how you think they see you versus how they really do.
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