The Road to Perdition
"Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers."
OK, so the jury's still out as to whether Tom Hanks could really pull off playing a ruthless, murderous mobster, because Tom Hanks. But Sam Mendes' 2002 crime film was a beautifully understated- and underrated-study of the complexity of the father-son relationship. It's also one of the most beautifully-shot films that you will ever clap eyes on, with a tragic, redemptive ending worthy of Shakespeare. Oh, and it was Paul Newman's last appearance on film, which made his on-screen death somehow sadder.
Michael Sullivan works as a loyal henchman for an Irish crime boss named John Rooney, who has raised him since he became an orphan. Michael works alongside Connor Rooney, John's real son and a bratty, impulsive man-child who causes his father endless woes- woes which are added to when Connor murders an associate he is under strict instructions from his father to just talk to. The problem is compounded by the fact that the murder is witnessed by Michael's own son, 12 year old Michael Jr, who has stowed away in his father's car because he wants to find out what his father really does for a living (that'll teach him to be so vague). Despite Mike's assurances to both his father and John Rooney that he won't say anything, Connor isn't satisfied, and one evening he lures Michael Sr away on a job that is meant to result in his death so that he can kill Mike. However, he doesn't realise that Mike has a brother, and so believes he has finished the job when he executes Mike's little brother and their mother. Michael, who has narrowly avoided getting killed on the set-up, and Mike are then forced to go on the run, with Michael vowing revenge against the man who has killed his family and anyone who protects him, including John. As they head for the town of Perdition, where they have family who will take in the boy, Michael Snr robs banks that handle mob money and in the course of events finds out that Connor has been stealing money from his father. He heads home to try and use this new evidence to persuade John Rooney to give up his son, but he refuses, and is killed by a tearful Michael before finishing the job he set out to do, killing Connor in the hotel room where he has been hiding out, after being given his whereabouts by Rooney's associates.
With business seemingly concluded, father and son head for the lake house of their family member. However, a hitman who was originally hired by Rooney's associates to kill Michael Snr now has a personal vendetta, and lays in wait. He shoots Michael Snr before being cornered by Mike, who finds his gun. As his father lays dying, Mike tries to kill the hitman but finds he can't go through with it. Michael's last act is to shoot the hitman himself, sparing his son from having to kill a man and to live the life that he himself has had to lead.
Love in Perdition
Filial and paternal love are the major themes (well, and death) of this story, and are certainly not straightforward. Connor and John Rooney's love for each other, whilst evident, has been tainted by their lifestyle and the world in which they operate. But Michael Jnr still has a chance at redemption, and this becomes his father's focus as he tries to take him to safety. Michael Snr recognises that he can still do one good thing in his life, and that's to stop his son from following the same path as him. In their daily interactions, he is often a gruff (for Tom Hanks anyway) and occasionally hostile parent, and the relationship between father and son often feels strained and terse. He isn't exactly going for parent of the year awards either when he teaches his son to drive, specifically so that he has a getaway driver in his bank heists. But his final act is a redemptive one, and as we learn in the closing scene, one that works- Mike, recounting his childhood years later, reveals that he never held a gun again and that he lives an honest life, having grown up on a farm after his father's death.
Loyalty is always a huge theme in the male-dominated world of gangsters, and it often feels irritatingly macho and almost always misplaced. But the loyalty shown here by the two male leads goes beyond that, to the transcendental bonds that parents have with their children. Both John Rooney and Michael Sullivan pay the ultimate price for loving their sons, the two of them murdered trying to protect them. But whilst Rooney's is all the more tragic because he's protecting a son who has tricked him and already signed his own death warrant anyway, Michael Sullivan's act of redemption for his son is also, ultimately, his own.
Watch the trailer here: