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Road to Perdition

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
Road to Perdition
from Film Forum, 02/07/02

The high-profile revenge picture of the year will be The Road to Perdition, from Sam Mendes, the director of American Beauty. In that Oscar-winning film, Mendes seemed to justify all sorts of immoral and inappropriate behavior in the name of self-discovery and enlightenment. Will he be justifying a gangster's wrathful quest as he tries to bring down vengeance on the crook who killed his wife? Or will this be a more thoughtful contemplation of sin and consequences? Tom Hanks and Paul Newman star.

from Film Forum, 07/11/02

Tom Hanks and Paul Newman face off in a new gangster flick this month, Road to Perdition. The film, directed by Sam Mendes (who won the Best Picture Oscar for his first film, American Beauty), will surely be nominated for Academy Awards. And, in just a few months, Martin Scorcese will present Gangs of New York, an epic about the conflicts between the Irish and the Italians in the early years of the Big Apple. It's clear that gangsters are still a hot subject in Hollywood. The men in the long black coats continue to provide compelling drama for audiences. And classic genre films like The Godfather and its sequels, Millers Crossing, and GoodFellas continue to show up on critics' favorites list.

Why are we as a society so interested in these corrupt, shady characters? Do we relate to them on some level? Or are baser appetites drawing us to stories of sin and corruption? Send me a note with your thoughts, or tell me about a particular gangster film that has impressed you or meant something to you. Or tell me why you avoid them. We'll take a closer look next week.

Road to Perdition doesn't open until Friday, but Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) is one of several critics who has already posted a rave review. He calls it "a rock-solid gangster movie with a fair amount of suspense, intriguing characters, and bizarre bank robberies, plus a heavy dose of father-and-son dynamics, which is anything but a staple of the gangster genre. David Self's screenplay … contains surprising twists and macabre portraits of crime figures. When the boy at one point says he enjoys Bible stories, you realize you may well be watching one. For Perdition views the sins of both fathers with stern Old Testament morality, allowing neither to escape the consequences of his actions."

I was quite impressed by Mendes, who makes this a subtler and more haunting work than his smug, overrated American Beauty. Here, he effectively illuminates how the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons. He also demonstrates the nightmare of living in a world of law that offers no possibility of grace.

Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a thug in a long black coat, as well as a loving husband and father. He owes his life to Mr. Rooney (Newman), a godfather/tyrant who rules his small community with a smile and an iron fist. But when Rooney's own son Connor (Daniel Craig), a reckless and power-hungry crook, deals Sullivan a grievous personal blow, Sullivan's desire for revenge makes him an exile from Rooney's body of villains. Thus, this fallen and violent man struggles with a desire to be free from this system of cruel Mafia law, his desire for revenge, and his desire to protect his innocent son from the stain of violence.

It's a simple story that could have dealt more effectively with some fundamental spiritual questions. Is the God to whom he prays a God of law and vengeance, like Rooney, or is he a God of grace? Redemption is portrayed as something we must earn with our own goodness rather than accept as God's free gift. David Self's script instead focuses on earthbound father/son issues. This is unfortunate, especially since the book on which the film is based spent more time on spiritual issues. Nevertheless, Perdition joins Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and this year's Insomnia as another haunting film about how violence begets violence, and how grownups must strive to be virtuous role models for impressionable young people.

from Film Forum, 07/18/02

Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) turns to the ever-popular gangster genre for his second outing. The result is a dark troubling drama of revenge that explores the ways fathers influence their sons in ways both desirable and destructive.

As is often the case, this mobster movie introduces men caught up in the violent cycle of "an eye for an eye." Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a murderous gangster in the employ of Mr. Rooney (Paul Newman) who rules the town with crime and a grandfatherly smile. Rooney treats Sullivan like a beloved son, which drives his own boy Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) to dangerous jealousy. Connor is a reckless monster with an itchy trigger finger, and eventually his behavior deals Sullivan a devastating blow. Sullivan vows revenge, hoping Rooney and the mob will see his cause as just. They do not. Mr. Rooney reluctantly hires a perverse assassin (Jude Law) to hunt down Sullivan, who has taken his young son Michael Jr. and gone into hiding. So the chase is on as Sullivan plots his revenge.

Road to Perdition may look like just another way for Tom Hanks to make a bid for the Best Actor Oscar. Hype for film has centered on Hanks playing a "bad guy" for the first time. And yes, Hanks is impressive. But this is more than just an actor's showcase. Perdition is full of real questions and moral dilemmas. In a year when Americans have suffered grievously at the hands of violent men, the theme of revenge carries added weight. You may find it troubling as Mendes skillfully sways you to sympathize, and perhaps even cheer for, Sullivan as he guns down his colleagues. Sure, he's protecting his son, but he also has a bloody agenda for revenge. Is there a similarity between Sullivan's quest to gun down blood-seeking mobsters and America's quest to bomb out the men who would violently strike us in the future?

Regardless of its muddy ethical dilemmas, many critics in the religious and mainstream press agree that Perdition is stylish, well-acted, and perhaps Oscar-worthy. Some add a disclaimer because the film is quite violent. A few take a harsher view, arguing that the film is a pretentious case of style over substance.

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls it "a visually interesting and richly layered story that will have you thinking about it and wanting to discuss it with your friends. Fathers, it will challenge you to take a close look at your relationship with your children … and examine how you think they see you versus how they really do."

Similarly, Lisa A. Rice and Tom Snyder (Movieguide) praise it as "a fascinating study on the dangers of 'religion without relationship,' and the need for children to know their father's heart."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic observes, "As Mendes examines moral decisions with generational repercussions, the actors' nuanced performances stand out in a sea of popcorn summer movies. The divisive morality tale is layered with regrets, bad decisions, and a good dose of gruesome violence. But also weaved in with the theme of betrayal is redemption, filial love and family responsibility." Regarding the violence, he adds: "The camera is unflinching in capturing its ugly brutality, never glamorizing the crimes. And yet there is a certain strange beauty in seeing Hanks walk determinedly though puddles with a machine gun in his hands."

Mary Draughon (Preview) finds all of these gunshots off-putting: "The intense violence and foul language make it a poor choice for discerning moviegoers."

Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) asks, "Is this visual assault desensitizing us to the loss of life?" Yet he concludes, "As filmmaking goes, it's as good as it gets."

The same dichotomy is emphasized by Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family): "Perdition is a challenging, deep-thinking, gut-wrenching, soul-searching experience. But, of course, it can never be left there. A river of blood and a thorny patch of vulgarity have to be crossed before you can get there."

In a chat with critics at the Chiaroscuro Discussion Board, Darren Hughes criticizes the way Mendes aesthetically manipulates the viewer. "Perdition wants desperately to be a film that is recognized for complicating and questioning morality. But [it] never lets its audience wrestle with honest moral ambiguity. We're steered constantly by Thomas Newman's score … and by Mendes's heavy-handed, self-conscious direction, which combine to create exactly the opposite effect of a film like The Godfather. Instead of confronting us with the consequences of violence, Mendes aestheticizes it. We see a man shot point blank in the head, then watch as his body falls gracefully to the floor in super slow motion. We see Hanks tommy gun ten men, again in slow motion, in the rain, under lamplight, to the sound of beautiful music. Mendes takes every shortcut imaginable, apparently so that he won't alienate our affection for Hanks and his character."

After praising its "visual richness" and cast, Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) writes, "the central characters are inaccessible to me; the story left me emotionally detached throughout. 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."

Greydanus is also displeased by the use of religious symbols in place of real spiritual exploration. "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."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees: "It … includes a fair amount of religious referencing although it never delves into the spiritual truths which are supposed to dwell behind the symbols and rituals," Still, he is impressed: "Mendes shows a level of artistry and craftsmanship which is truly enviable."

As I've thought over the film, I've become troubled by how Mendes portrays Sullivan's sufferings, but not those of other gangsters that Sullivan guns down. I must assume some of them were loving fathers and husbands as well. Such details would show us more clearly what kind of man Sullivan really is, what kind of damage revenge can do. In spite of some token words that say otherwise, he appears to be an admirable figure, sorely wronged, with every right to lash out at whomever gets in his way. Thus, Perdition never achieves the profound impact of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, in which the hero's revenge quest leads us to question if he is really so different from his enemies, or if the ends justify the means. And yet, like the recent Insomnia, Perdition affirms (just barely) the hero who refuses to start down the path of violence in the first place. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)

Mainstream critics compared the film to other famous gangster films—especially The Godfather saga and Miller's Crossing. Others even mentioned Shakespeare and Greek tragedy. But some were not so eager to sing its praises.

Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago Reader) says the film continues a dangerous, dishonorable trend in American revenge-plots. "[Perdition] exploits infantile notions about vengeance, even though it's careful to tack on a moral disclaimer at the end. What bothers me is the compulsive reliance on revenge in movies, not only as a dramatic staple but as an embodiment of this country's sense of ethics. It's seldom examined in detail; instead it's usually glamorized, with the avenger most often seen (as he is in Road to Perdition) as a model of grim stoicism, driven by some sense of a higher purpose."

Rosenbaum goes on to point out the danger of such glorified revenge epics. "The sanctioning of such ideas has real consequences, reinforcing, for instance, the idea that the recent invasion of Afghanistan was an appropriate response to terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, even though the attackers were dead, most of their sponsors weren't caught, and many innocent Afghans' lives (the current estimate is more than 3,000) have been lost."

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) praises the cast and cinematographer, but finds Perdition to have the grim mechanics of Greek tragedy. "It has been compared to The Godfather," he writes, "but The Godfather was about characters with free will. There is never the sense that any of [Perdition's] characters will tear loose, think laterally, break the chains of their fate. Choice or its absence is the difference between Sophocles and Shakespeare. I prefer Shakespeare."

Both Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) and Stephanie Zacharek ( complain of heavy-handed "deliberateness." Zacharek argues, "When a gangster takes a drag on a cigarette, the plumes of smoke that wreath his head look as if they'd been called in from central casting. ('We want something round, not too wispy, with a little curlicue at the end.') Its deliberateness becomes oppressive."

Katrina Onstad (National Post) muses, "At one point, Michael tells his father that he likes Bible stories, and Road to Perdition feels like one, in the best ways—rich, elegant, well-intended—and the worst—pompous, a little dull, and joyless."

Whether this Scripture-esque story will make Mendes the first director to win Best Picture on his first two movies remains to be seen. But he has certainly given audiences some serious questions to consider, something few other films this year have done.

from Film Forum, 07/25/02

Elsewhere, Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) calls director Sam Mendes's Road to Perdition "the best film so far this year." He also explores the religious elements of the film. But Ryan Izay (Christian Spotlight) offers a caution: "Although this may possibly be the best film in years, don't rush out to see it unless you are sure that you can handle it. Perditionis filled with violence and men who know that they are on their way to hell."