Road To Perdition Paved With Darkness Yet Riveting Viewing

road to perdition DVD

Maybe it is all the grim news that seems to pervade every news bulletin and many social media posts, combined with having time to clear shelves and files on the computer now I’m semi-retired, but virtual and digital worlds coincided yesterday.

I took a rest from deleting files when I discovered the first film review I ever wrote and searched to see if I still had the DVD. The review was an assignment for one of the units in my master’s degree, 2010, and the DVD was a bargain basement JB HiFi sale item – Road To Perdition.

Up until I studied for the Masters In Writing, my writing centred mainly on short stories and poetry – fiction writing. I also wrote reports for the Union of Australian Women and dabbled in life writing/memoir but never thought about being a reviewer of books, let alone film, which is not a genre I’d ever claim expertise in critiquing.

However, with one daughter having a Bachelor of Film & Television and the other a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Media Arts, and both loving film, I have been ‘turned on’ to the medium and love its ability to bring stories to life.

I happily absorb all the knowledge shared with me and one of my favourite pastimes is to go to the movies with one or both of the girls and then enjoy a great discussion afterwards.

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Reviewing Has Its Pitfalls

Writing my first review, particularly as an academic assignment was challenging but also interesting because there are many varied opinions about one film – like reading novels – you discover taste is extremely subjective!

There are of course necessary components and expectations of what makes a ‘good’ film just like the techniques required to craft a ‘good’ novel. 

I wrote for a general online audience because as a complete novice, no way could I emulate Margaret and David of television fame, or Jim Schembri, The Age’s regular reviewer in The Green Guide. (Definitely, showing my age here!)

I followed the lecture guidelines and tried to cover all aspects of the craft and techniques of film-making, including sound and cinematography, as well as the narrative and acting.

The title of the film was intriguing and I searched the dictionary for the exact meaning of Perdition:

First meaning –         (a)  archaic : utter destruction.

                                    (b)  obsolete : loss.

Second meaning –    (a ) : eternal damnation.

                                     (b ) : hell.

In Christian theology, it is a state of eternal punishment and damnation into which a sinful and unrepentant person passes after death.

The definition of going down the road/path to perdition is taken to mean travelling towards something very dangerous or harmful.

For example: ‘It’s this kind of selfishness that leads down the road/path to perdition.’

It is an old-fashioned word rarely used nowadays but as mentioned in my opening sentence, it’s a word that suits recent times – and certainly suited this film!

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Film Review: Road To Perdition

Perdition in some religions is the state of everlasting punishment in hell that sinners endure after death, or can mean hell as a location. Director Sam Mendes in his 2002 Road to Perdition, has a neat metaphor – not only are the main characters Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) and his son Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) driving to a town called Perdition but they are also on the way to damnation, unless as in all classical tragedies, they find redemption.

The film’s Oedipal theme explores several aspects of father and son relationships and Tom Hanks is magnificent as the main character, Michael Sullivan. (This is high praise from me because I’m not enamoured with Hanks as an actor.  I will compliment his acting in this movie. It was so good, you can’t recognise him as Tom Hanks!)

The story is about Mike Sullivan being transformed by tragedy to forge a new relationship with his son and to do this he has to destroy the relationship with John Rooney (Paul Newman), the only father he has known.

It is 1931 America, Prohibition is giving Chicago based Al Capone wealth and power and Michael Sullivan, Sr is an enforcer for John Rooney, an organised crime boss in an Illinois town populated by fellow Irish Americans. (Makes a change from the Italian mafia.)

Sullivan, an orphan raised by Rooney, is treated as a favoured son. The resentment felt by Rooney’s real son, Connor (a suitably brutal Daniel Craig), at this relationship, and his vicious murder of a disgruntled employee witnessed by Michael Jr triggers the unravelling of Sullivan Senior’s ordered life.

In his attempt to silence Michael Jr, Connor kills a younger son Peter (Liam Aiken) by mistake and Mike’s wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Sullivan has to salvage what is left of his family; build a relationship with a son he barely knows, and stop him following his path of being on the wrong side of the law.

Road to Perdition, written by David Self, is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, but is not just a pulp gangster movie, although the influence of The Godfather and The Untouchables is evident. (The latter movie with Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness is one of my favourites!)

An Irish wake establishes the culture of Rooney’s community whereas in The Godfather, it is a wedding, and Mike Sullivan’s perfectly executed campaign against Capone reminds us of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.

However, the usual Hollywood clichés associated with gangsters are missing – there are no spats, loud suits, and hats strategically placed over eyes or laconic bad guys chewing gum, incessantly smoking, flipping coins, or firing wisecracks.

These are businessmen, ensuring illegal enterprises remain profitable; their world is not glamorous. The film shows the impact of the violence on the person who commits it, or witnesses it. Although there is a lot of killing, much of it happens off-screen.

It is a film of lost innocence because the 12-year-old narrator, Michael Jr not only witnesses a brutal slaying but is suddenly confronted with the truth that his father is a cold-blooded killer and his cuddly ‘grandfather’ Rooney is a manipulative crime boss.

Dialogue is sparse. Based on a graphic novel the film is told in scenes that are sometimes silent — superb showing not telling. Tom Hanks is brilliant as the inarticulate cold hit man struggling with personal grief, not apologising for the life he has led, determined on vengeance while saving his only son.

Stillness and stunning imagery are used to build the powerful emotions of Rooney and Sullivan coming to terms with the changed circumstances precipitated by sociopath Connor’s actions.

There are few speeches of explanation, rather dialogue such as John Rooney’s statement to Mike that, ‘It’s a natural law that sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.’

And later in a pivotal showdown, ‘There are only murderers in this room, Michael. Open your eyes. This is the life we chose. The life we lead. And there is only one guarantee–none of us will see heaven.

Director Mendes says the film is ‘about the legacy that fathers leave sons and the secret worlds parents inhabit that the child never really knows.

Camera angles are deliberately chosen to see events from Michael Jr’s viewpoint. The New York Times described it as ‘a truly majestic visual tone poem‘ and it is true that cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall creates a world where light struggles to penetrate the darkness, sinister shadows bedevil the night, and long corridors intimidate, fearful faces are half-seen, and a ballet of looks and eye contact produce tension to keep the audience engaged.

The opening scenes of winter snow and ghost-like crowds change in a seasonal shift towards spring, new life and light, but the characters must first survive the visceral chill of downpours and more than one hail of bullets.

Rain runs off the brims of fedoras, soaks thick overcoats, bounces on streets and windscreens. Weather as uncontrollable as the violence set in motion by Connor.

Darkness stresses the atmosphere of destruction, and there is no character darker than Harlan Maguire (Jude Law) a strange, sinister, sadistic hired assassin who hunts the Sullivans at the behest of Capone’s organisation.

In one confrontation, Maguire is scarred and the mercenary job becomes personal. His pursuit of the Sullivans provides an explosive climax and an opportunity for amazing cinematography.

There are many captivating moments that are emotionally-engaging, particularly between father and son, and I guarantee you won’t see the surprise ending coming!

However, true to the era and the story’s comic book origins women are mainly background ‘broads’. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s appearance is brief. She cooks meals, is silently supportive, and is murdered.

Made in 2002, the other female roles of an aunt, waitress, a prostitute, and an old childless woman are even briefer but not sure I’d warm to any female character playing a prominent role in such a violent world.

Despite the macho emphasis, Road to Perdition is impressive and entertaining. The careful attention to detail (especially historical aspects of costumes, dialogue and attitude), the quality of the acting (Hanks, Newman, Law and Craig deliver excellent performances), and the haunting musical score by Thomas Newman crafts a fine tale into a memorable film.

Added Extras

Perdition, Michigan refers to a made-up town but the film is set along the shore of Lake Michigan and the graphic novel was based on a true story of Bill Gabel and the Looney mob hell-raising in the Midwest during the Great Depression.

News of the World gave it five stars, ‘The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.’

For writers and storytellers (and students of Masters in Writing!), it is the special features on DVDs that add to the enjoyment of the movie. This DVD is no exception with:

  • Audio commentary by Director Sam Mendes
  • 11 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
  • HBO Special: The Making of Road To Perdition
  • CD Soundtrack Promo
  • Photo Gallery (50 stills)
  • Cast and Filmmaker Bios
  • Production Notes

Finally, a quote from the blurb,

‘Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999) brings his haunting vision to a hard-edged story of lost innocence, conflicted loyalty and ambition.’

I still find writing reviews – whether of film or book – challenging but as a creative writer, it is a good exercise.

The deconstructing and examining of the narrative, layers and impact, the characters and details can only help my own understanding of craft and technique of different genres and even stimulate ideas.

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5 thoughts on “Road To Perdition Paved With Darkness Yet Riveting Viewing

  1. This is interesting… as you know, I’ve never had any lessons in reviewing… I just started my blog as a personal diary for the books I’d read, and I just wrote, more or less, in the way that I had been writing about them in my journal. And that’s what I still do, except that for some books where I need some background about the writer or whatever, I do a quick bit of research online and include what I find if it’s interesting or relevant. I don’t step outside my comfort zone to review film or drama, and I reckon there is definitely an online space to be filled for those genres. I’ve never found anywhere online that covers film or plays that are available to us here in Australia.
    But from what you say, there are some ‘rules’ to follow and components to include. I reckon it’s a good thing I don’t know what they are for books because I would feel the pressure to conform to them instead of writing from the heart – which is, for all my flaws, what I think people like about my style:)

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    1. I always write from the heart too Lisa which is why I don’t review everything I read or watch because my perspective is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea! My brother and I used to joke that if Jim Schembri didn’t like a film we would and go and see it. I always leaned more to David than Margaret😁 But the rules I’m referring to, especially to do with film are the use of techniques like music and light, the interpretation of story, the ability of actors, do they allow the all-important suspension of disbelief? Regarding books, there are the obvious questions to ask which because of your teaching experience and literary expertise are innate and grows with your vast output. There is the obvious – is the story original, interesting, well written, characters engaging, tropes stereotypical or surprising, does it fulfill its promise, what memories are left, topics thrown up, is it formulaic etc but most reviewers have their own style and basically are expected to be fair and balanced and consider their audience first and foremost as all writers should ie who are your readers. I think your following speaks for itself and the regular supply of books publishers send you!

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