THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The relationship between father and son is a complicated one. One of the characters in Road to Perdition even suggests that it's a son's duty to disappoint his father. That character is John Rooney (Paul Newman), the leader of an Irish mob in the Depression-era Midwest. He ought to know; his own son, Connor (Daniel Craig), is a perpetually loose cannon. Rooney's other son isn't biological. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a hit man for the mob and sees his boss as a father figure. Rooney provided him with a job and a home during a time when he had nothing. They have grown fiercely loyal to one another ever since. Rooney and Sullivan are so in tune with one another that they can even sit down at a piano and pound out a tune together.

Hit man Tom Hanks confronts mob boss Paul Newman in Road to Perdition
Sullivan's wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) knows of his occupation but doesn't ask any questions. His sons, Peter (Liam Aiken) and Michael, Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), have no clue what he does. "He works for Mr. Rooney," is all they can come up with. One night, Michael sneaks into his father's car looking for answers. He is led to a building in the middle of nowhere. Peeking through a hole in the wall, he sees Connor murder an associate. His father guns down several other people in the process. Sullivan is not pleased by what Michael has witnessed and gives him a stern warning about keeping his mouth shut. Rooney isn't happy either, although he believes the boy can be trusted. The wild card is Connor, who thinks the boy may talk and therefore needs to be silenced. Sullivan and Michael go on the lam. Eventually, a hired assassin named Maguire (Jude Law) is brought in to find and kill them.

(SPOILER ALERT!) Complicating matters is the fact that Connor kills Annie and Peter, then has to go into hiding to prevent Sullivan from carrying out his threatened revenge. Young Michael, meanwhile, feels responsible for what happened. If he had minded his own business, his family wouldn't be dead.

You can tell just from reading the credits that Road to Perdition is an A-list project. There are probably no bigger stars in the universe than Hanks and Newman. The director is Sam Mendes, who won an Oscar for American Beauty, and writer David Self also penned the Kevin Costner drama 13 Days. Even the technical crew is first-rate, most notably esteemed cinematographer Conrad Hall. All these talented people work together to create a film that looks and feels like a masterpiece.

And it almost is a masterpiece. I love the father/son dynamics between Rooney and Sullivan as well as between Sullivan and Michael. The story draws a parallel; both fathers want something very specific - but very different - for their sons, and both sons threaten to shake everything up. This is especially visible in a final confrontation between the mob leader and the hit man. Both men wear expressions of resignation, as though they knew it would come to this sometime and unfortunately that time is now. Newman and Hanks really click together. You can see it in that scene where they play the piano. This is a case of two great actors excelling together.

The movie is also full of great scenes: a slow-motion gunfight on a rainy street, a bloody confrontation in a hotel room, a tense encounter in a diner. These moments are great in terms of story and theme, but they're also great movie scenes, full of drama and artistry and vision. Road to Perdition is based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins. For those of you who aren't familiar with graphic novels, they are similar to comic books but more ambitious and having the length of a regular novel. Mendes beautifully captures both the visual intensity and the heightened emotions of the form.

There is only one place where the film faltered for me. It starts off being about the boy's loss of innocence and ends up being about the father's redemption. I would have liked to see these two ideas run more parallel than they do. Early on, there's a shot in which Sullivan looks at his son and seems to be thinking this is your fault. Later on, though, he has a scene in which he tells Michael that it isn't his fault. It would have been more interesting for the father to blame the son, even if just a little bit. More scenes focusing on Michael's guilt would helped too. Because the emphasis shifts, Road to Perdition loses some of its realism and takes on a more symbolic tone. Increased realism would have kicked this over into being one of the best pictures of the year.

That said, I'm content with the fact that this is still an extremely good picture. There is merit in its ideas about the legacies fathers pass on to their sons. There are some individual scenes and superb performances that I will remember for a long time. Most of all, there is the fact that Road to Perdition grabbed my attention simply by being a solid story told with style and intelligence.

( 1/2 out of four)

Road to Perdition is rated R for language and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.

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