Jen Malone puts her art history degree to work in her discussion of the many beautiful images in Road to Perdition, including Jude Law’s bloody, glass-studded face.
Note: I considered “writing” this re-view in graphic form, but abandoned this notion for two reasons: (A) whilst my quirky comic drawings are mildly legendary amongst my immediate family members, I cannot actually draw. Or, rather, I can really only draw robots. Simple ones, and quite poorly, indeed. (B) this film, despite being based upon the graphic novel of the same name, really has almost nothing to do with the graphic novel (more about that later). Perhaps in future I shall invite you to accompany me on a Whimsical Multimedia Re-view Adventure, but today is not that day. So, let’s move on to the words then, shall we?
The Then (in Brief):
Ten years ago, when this film came out, I was still working at the supercool video store I’ve mentioned in my earlier reviews for this site. I had just graduated from UVa with an oh-so-useful undergraduate degree in Art History (you may see evidence of this later in this review, my apologies in advance for that), and was awaiting a visit from the Life Direction Fairy (who eventually led me to my current PhD program in English Lit. My particular Life Direction Fairy, it seems, was both highly impractical and deeply unconcerned about my eventual income). I saw pretty much everything that came out, usually as soon as we received an advance screener for the film, and Road to Perdition was no exception. I thought it was great — spare, compelling, tremendously artistic, and I endlessly recommended it to customers who also thought it was great. No story there, really. Over the past ten years, I’d pretty much forgotten about the film, save for some of the images near the end (which I’ll discuss in a few moments). When I volunteered to re-view this film, I was pretty sure it I would find it solid, probably visually dated, and that I could say some snarky things about all the big-headed Irishmen therein (but, of course, not too snarky — I am myself a big-headed Irish lass of sorts).
The Now (Less Brief):
It is even better than I remembered, for all the reasons I just mentioned and more. It’s pretty fantastic, actually. And it holds up remarkably well. But, more importantly, Road to Perdition is an example of filmmaking that exhibits both an unusual sense of play and a love of craft, and, even more than that, it is an interesting movie. Let’s talk about why…
The film is set in Depression-era Illinois and follows the favorite “son” of an Irish crime boss as he ‘goes rogue’ in an attempt to protect his own son. One could very nearly count on one hand the number of women who appear in this movie: the little girl dancing a jig at the wake and the few mourning women at the funeral, the aunt who is necessary to the plot only for her ownership of the house on the beach, the kind lady who takes in a wounded Mike Sullivan and his son (a lady who is a visual cross between the women from Grey Gardens and the wife in Grant Woods’ American Gothic painting), and, finally, Jennifer Jason Leigh in a largely thankless role as the wife, who stands alone (literally, she is always framed standing alone, as an outsider just beyond the circles of masculine influence, power, camaraderie) and shoots a few worried glances at her family from between the perfect Marcelled waves of her hair, and is then promptly shot by James Bond (well, the character played by Daniel Craig, who is, yes, technically not playing James Bond in this film). For this, you see, is a movie about men.
And what men they are. This is a strong cast, folks, a cast no doubt lured in by the sirenic call of director Sam Mendes’ recent Oscar for American Beauty (in 1999). The line-up:
Paul Newman as head mobster/patriarch John Rooney. At this point in his career, Newman is basically an eagle statue (but an eagle statue that can really act), stony and proud and fierce, with the sort of shrewd side-eyed expression that skewers you through the movie screen.
Daniel Craig as his son Connor Rooney, who realizes that he is a disappointment to his father, but seems confused as to precisely why that might be, failing to realize that his job within this criminal organization is to take orders from his mob boss dad, not to gun down whomever makes him angry. This is a pretty great performance by Craig (who will work again with director Sam Mendes in the upcoming Bond film Skyfall) — equal parts miserable and smirky, brattily spoiled and deadly.
Tom Hanks as Mike Sullivan, John Rooney’s main muscle/intimidator and semi-adopted son. I should probably here admit that I have never been much of a fan of Tom Hanks; feeling, as I do, that he is hopelessly miscast in pretty much every movie in which he doesn’t play a cranky trench-coated door-to-door salesman from the 1950s. I realize that this is an unpopular sentiment akin to burning our nation’s flag, but before you accuse me of poor taste and/or witchcraft, please allow me to admit that I think Hanks is quite excellent in this film. His performance is remarkably restrained and understated, his “I’m just an ordinary, all-American guy” vibe works beautifully within the constraints of both the character and the film itself. His mustache still sits on his upper lip like an angry and faintly-Hitlerian tarantula, but that’s neither here nor there.
Tyler Hoechlin as Mike’s eldest son, Michael Sullivan, the child who witnesses the crime that leads to Connor Rooney’s murder of his mother and brother. Michael, a youngster who consists almost entirely of chipmunk cheeks and bushy eyebrows, is the narrator of this story. Hoechlin, who has since apparently starred in such not-so-award-baiting films as Grizzly Rage (2007), is not a bad child actor — almost preternaturally calm, with a periodic glint of mischief — but one gets the sense that this may have an awful lot to do with Mendes’ careful direction.
Stanley Tucci and Ciarán Hinds as Some Other Mobster Dudes (these characters probably had names, really, really Irish names, but I don’t remember them and neither will you).
…and Jude Law (keep in mind, this was back when Jude Law was a hot property of sorts) as the hitman/crime scene photographer/creepy photos of dead people collector Harlen Maguire. This may be Law’s best role (it is certainly his most interesting), and this character manages to be simultaneously quirky and threatening. It is also likely Law’s most appropriately cast role (save for the android-gigolo of A.I., which, despite the movie’s flaws, was able to harness both Law’s almost otherwordly beauty and his almost complete lack of any real charm), a role helped rather than hindered by the sociopathic emptiness of his glowing basilisk gaze (seriously, I have no idea why Hollywood kept casting him as a romantic lead for a while there, that never, ever worked out).
So, then, Road to Perdition is a film about men. Now, if I were a fellow, I’d probably speak here at some length about my relationship with my father, and it would be very Field of Dreams-y and some of you might tear up, albeit in manful fashion, as you recalled your own complicated relationships with your own fathers, as you played catch and mowed grass (or whatever it is fathers and sons do together in the nostalgic not-quite-reality of one’s memories). And you’d remember how you always drank milk together until the one day he offered you whisky and you knew you were really a man in his eyes, even though you were thirty-five and already had kids of your own at that point. Or whatever. And that would be cool and touching. And then I’d draw clear lines between that and the struggle that is masculinity within our culture. And that would be interesting and maybe totally important and stuff.
But I can’t really speak to that. Sure, sure, this film is all about the father-son bond (or non-bond), and the conflicts, idealizations, and disappointments therein — that theme cannot be escaped, it is the big, obvious heart of this story. It sets the narrative into motion (when Hanks’ Sullivan goes on the run in order to protect his surviving child), it provides the film with its few lighthearted moments (during that rather curious section, about three-quarters of the way through the movie, in which the chilly Sullivan father-son relationship begins to thaw, the father teaches the son to drive, and we are granted a lengthy montage of their good-natured bank robbery exploits set to jaunty music), and, in the end, it jerks the tears.
More than that, however, this is a movie about something else. On several different levels, this is a movie about doubles, about stand-ins and substitutions, about things that echo and/or replace one another, about things that appear to be fundamentally alike, but are ultimately dissimilar. And the thing (well, one of the things) that makes this film so very good is that it explores and plays with these notions of similarity and substitution in truly subtle, often visual, ways, creating a rather seamless marriage between form and content that is always, always compelling. The primary action of the film is set into motion by two versions of mistaken identity: (1) young Michael, hoping to convince himself that his distant, gun-toting father is actually one of the “good guys” (as he tells himself and his brother just before they go to sleep, his flashlight centered firmly on the drawings of the justice-wielding Lone Ranger of his nighttime reading) follows his father on a job and witnesses a murder that Connor Rooney didn’t want anyone to see, and (2) as no one can ever tell young Michael and his even younger brother apart, Connor accidentally murders the younger brother in an attempt to silence young Michael.
As established above, this is a film about father-son relationships, and about relationships between men in general. The script prefers not to hit us over the head by having the characters talk a great deal about their feelings (thank you, script!), and the film instead offers concise, and often beautiful, moments and images to illustrate the lines it wishes to draw between characters. Mike and Michael Sullivan are placed within the frame in ways that visually echo one another, as are John Rooney and Connor Rooney, as well as Mike Sullivan and John Rooney (there is a particularly wonderful scene near the beginning of the film in which Hanks’ Sullivan and Newman’s Rooney sit next to one another and play a very tender piano duet. Connor Rooney’s face remains completely out-of-focus during this brief interlude, but, as the blur of his features direct themselves towards the piano, we feel, rather than precisely see, the slow, seething burn of Rooney’s jealousy as he gathers further evidence of Rooney’s fatherly love for Sullivan). Further visual parallels are drawn between Connor Rooney and young Michael Sullivan, most notably in the gasp-worthy scene that takes place just after Rooney has murdered Michael’s mother and the boy he believes to be Michael himself. Young Michael, home late from school, warily approaches his front door after seeing flashes of gunfire upstairs. As Michael nears the glass door, Connor appears on the other side, furious face apparently directed through the glass at Michael, whom we assume will now go the unfortunate way of his mother and little brother. Then the camera cuts to a shot from Connor’s point of view, inside the house, and we see that he is actually staring at his own reflection in the glass, and that he has not seen Michael at all. Moments later, as Connor slowly opens the door, his dark, bowler-hatted profile is angled precisely beside the dark, bowler-hatted profile of young Michael as the latter flattens himself against the wall in the shadows of the porch. This is a neat visual trick that doesn’t come off as a gimmick, and it reminds us that these are both the sons of murderers, both jealous of another son’s (or son-like co-worker’s) relationship with their own fathers, both simply sons, men, etc.
But as much we are encouraged to think of the similarities between these figures, and to note the ways in which they might act as potential replacements for one another, it is also clear that they are ultimately individuals. Mike Sullivan is worried that his son will turn out to be like him, but his son cannot, in the end, bear to shoot the man who is about to shoot him (this, of course, is Mike Sullivan’s happiest moment in recent memory and, after then himself shooting the man who is threatening his son, a look of pride flashes across his dying face, his lips turning up briefly in a smile, as his son admits “I couldn’t do it, Dad”). John Rooney would like for his son to be more like him in pragmatic ways (if one can call ‘figuring out which people to kill’ pragmatic), but, despite their emphasized similarities, it is also clear that their value systems differ (again, if you can speak of the relative value systems of mobsters, which I believe you can — after all, their value systems are in many ways more subtle, and contain infinitely more complex gradations, than our own. In a fashion that most of us consider morally reprehensible, sure, as I think we can all pretty much agree that we shouldn’t kill people, but still). Connor Rooney intends to murder Sullivan’s entire family. John Rooney, when faced with a choice between the welfare of his son-by-birth and the welfare of Mike Sullivan, who is like, but is notactually his son, places a ‘hit’ on Sullivan himself, but attempts to spare the surviving child (and, further, is disgusted by the notion of murdering a youngster).
This film is also, of course, a story about stories, and it begins and ends with young Michael speaking lines that begin with phrases like “There are many stories about Mike Sullivan,” and “This is our story.” Michael’s favorite subject at school, as he tells his dad during one of their rare bonding moments, is “bible history” because he “likes the stories.” He carries dime-store Lone Ranger novels everywhere he goes. He tells his brother (and himself) stories about his father going on “important missions for the president of the country.” And the movie foregrounds the notion of the stories we tell one another, and ourselves, in order to explain, or to rationalize, the things we do (one might think here of the scene in which Mike Sullivan expresses his dismay that his son has discovered that he is a hitman, and in such a graphic way, and John Rooney responds with a version of “Oh, pish-posh, he would have witnessed something equally horrible eventually, might as well get it out of the way.” Note: I am paraphrasing here, as, at least as far as I know, threatening mobster-folk do not usually use the phrase “pish-posh”), or the stories we tell in order to alter, or perhaps replace, painful reality.
As an adaptation, of course, Road to Perdition is itself a story based upon, or which substitutes for, another story. Although the film is based on the graphic novel written by Max Allan Collins, it bears relatively little in common with the novel. It is restrained where the novel is pulpy. Its visual style is glossy, sophisticated, and thoroughly designed whilst the visual style of the novel falls more into the category of “classic comic.” Apart from the basic storyline, the film version of Road to Perdition makes its most substantial nod to the graphic novel by vastly limiting dialogue within the film, and by instead privileging imagery. Unlike other adaptations of graphic novels in recent years (Sin City, I’m looking at you), Road to Perdition claims quite a lot of independence from its source material, and, particularly in terms of visual elements, looks beyond the genre of the graphic novel to fine art and to the idea of visual media in general.
The cinematography of this movie, the work of the great cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (this, his last film, garnered him a posthumous Academy Award — his third — and Road to Perdition is dedicated to his memory) is crisp and clear, and the ways in which it works with the direction (and the art direction) are worthy of almost unlimited admiration. This is an extremely beautiful film, and the work and skill that has gone into the framing (and lighting, etc., etc.) of each shot are readily apparent. Hall based the visuals of this film around the works of American realist painter Edward Hopper, and the resemblance is both obvious and uncanny. The camera focuses upon lonely people in pools of light, upon images of classic Americana, such as diners, gas stations, the neon signs of pool halls. This movie is basically a moving Hopper painting. While we’re on the subject of artistic inheritance it might also be noted that early scenes in the film additionally resemble illustrations by Norman Rockwell (boys having snowball fights in their yards, etc.). And, further, the image which both opens and closes the movie, that of a boy (young Michael) seen from the back, standing before an endless landscape (in this case, the beach) would seem to have much more in common with the works of Caspar David Friedrich than with the works of Hopper. Friedrich, a 19th century German Romantic painter, often painted figures into the central foreground of his landscape paintings, figures which faced away from the viewer. The idea was, that if one couldn’t see the features of the figure, one could more easily “step into” the shoes of the figure, replacing the figure with one’s own self, and thus, (metaphorically) entering the image of the painting itself. These are sometimes referred to as Friedrich’s “doppelgänger paintings” for this reason, and this association (whether or not it was intended by these filmmakers) plays well with the film’s other images of doubles, replacements, and stand-ins.
Additionally, the film’s creators intentionally draw parallels, at several key moments, between the gaze of the viewer and the “eye” of the camera, substituting the movie camera for the camera belonging to the character of Maguire. Consider, if you will, the scene in which Law’s Maguire has been called in by the police to photograph the victim of a stabbing — a victim who, incidentally, is still breathing. As he sets up his camera, the victim begins to cough, and Law’s character steps into his own photographic frame in order to complete the job of the knife in the victim’s chest. As he crouches over the figure, a train passes by the windows, shaking the building, the flash of the train substituting for the flash of the character’s camera, the film’s camera pulling back, beyond the men and the camera equipment within the scene, in a series of stuttering increments that create an effect which mimics a series of photographic stills (thereby reminding us that it is also a camera and calling attention to its own premeditated filmic composition), then stilling and becoming grainy for a moment at the end of the scene, echoing the greyed-out photographs of dead people with which Law’s character decorates his apartment. And again, during the climactic scene of the film (which is stunningly composed — the whitest, lightest room you have ever seen, Mike Sullivan relaxed, gazing out the window at his son playing on the beach, the waves of Lake Michigan reflecting within the windowpane at Sullivan’s chest level…and then the image is layered with the spreading red blasts of Sullivan’s blood as he is shot from behind). Here, the camera is also eventually included in the shot, and we again stand-in for the now-dead Maguire, gazing at the body of Sullivan, his crying son adjacent, folded into himself.
After all of this visual and thematic play (and yes, a probably-moving narrative about father-son relationships), one of the things with which we are left is a note about the apparent failure of stories, of stand-ins, to capture the individual circumstances of reality. In the end, as young Michael’s voice brings the tale to a close, he decides that stories cannot replace, nor might they explain, his father. He tells us that people ask him so many questions about his father, about what and whom he was, and that he tells stories, but that his ultimate answer can only be: “He was my father.”
Free-Floating Thoughts and Suchlike:
Whoa. The intro shot of Connor Rooney: bright-orange cigarette ash, the silhouette of Daniel Craig’s lips, the sturdy wisps of exhaled smoke against the darkness. Pretty, pretty, pretty.
I probably should have said something about all the dripping water in the first half of this movie — from the ice melting into water-filled vases beneath the casket at the wake, to the melting snow, to the rain, the relentless, pouring, noir-ish, dark, glittering rain.
It is pretty much impossible not to talk about the pivotal scene in which young Michael witnesses the murder, framed as the entire scene is by the torn hole in the wall through which he peers, and then additionally by the feet of his own father. Just wow. And even more interestingly, the moment of the shooting itself ends up removed from the frame, and shot in slow motion, close(r)-up (a comment on the ways in which the experience of trauma expands to fill the mind and dislocates itself from orientating surroundings?)
Man, that is a clever match-cut between the circle of shouting schoolboys surrounding troubled young Michael as he fights a classmate, and the circle of quiet criminals being served drinks at a glossy table in Rooney’s home. Insert comment here about the rituals of masculinity.
It says quite a bit about Daniel Craig’s acting skills that I do not find him attractive in this movie.
Ooof. The moment when John Rooney starts raining blows upon his cowering, grown son.
“This house is not our home anymore. It’s just an empty building.” Sigh.
Damn, 1930s Chicago. You so pretty.
Also, more theme-type stuff I perhaps should have mentioned — loneliness. The Lone Ranger. The clear (and admitted) influence of Japanese manga/film series Lone Wolf and Cub on the graphic novel on which this movie is based. Stanley Tucci’s character (Tucci!) telling Mike Sullivan that he won’t make it on his own.
Does anyone ever say they want their kids to turn out just like them? Even when people are really happy with their lives, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that.
“I shoot the dead.” Shudder. Though I’ll give him this, he’s a heck of a (psychopathic, amoral, skin-crawlingly creepy) photographer.
You know, Tom Hanks can muster some scary when he needs to. I’ve underestimated him. Perhaps he can come to my birthday party, after all.
Great timing — we see so few of the actual murders, but often come in just after to see, say, the hand of Craig’s just-murdered character lolling from the bathtub, the blood stain on the wall of the white bathroom reflected in the mirror on the swinging door. That is a killer shot (yes, literally, I suppose).
The silver dollar appears several times (ostensibly a different silver dollar), acting as yet another tiny connecting thread throughout the film — during the wake at the beginning of the film, young Michael’s eyes focus on the silver dollars placed over the eyes of the grayish corpse. The avuncular John Rooney later gives Michael a silver dollar, on the morning after Michael finds out what his father really does for a living. And even later, Jude Law’s hitman repeatedly passes the gleam of a silver dollar under and over his long-nailed fingers as he waits for his opportunity to strike. Sure, we could talk about the film’s understated (and perhaps too easily understood) equation of money with death, but ooh, look! Shiny!
Sand dunes and Lake Michigan. Pardon me as I grow nostalgic for the Midwest of my childhood (which, fortunately, involved very few visits from hitmen).
Okay, Jude Law’s makeup in his last scene is fabulous (the glass-shard-induced red cuts that cover one side of his face like tiny porcupine quills).
Aw, Sad Couple gets to fix up their house! And they get a kid and a dog! Best day ever? I mean, not for all the people who just died. But for them!
Did I mention that this film is beautiful? This film is beautiful.