The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, November 3, 2002
Lead Article

Hollywood hues
A well-crafted plot
Ervell E. Menezes

Road To Perdition has a look at the mafia through the eyes of a teenager
Road To Perdition has a look at the mafia through the eyes of a teenager

WHAT is it to be the son of a mafia man and not know it ? What are the ramifications ? What are the different factions and how does one keep one's skin intact ? It is six weeks of mind-boggling, heart-stopping drama for young Michael Sullivan Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) in Road to Perdition. Incidentally, Perdition is the name of a town in Illinois.

Michael Sullivan Sr (Tom Hanks), also known as "The Angel" works for Irish gangster John Rooney (Paul Newman) as a hitman of such sterling reputation that grown men just shiver at the mention of his name. But to many he leads a perfectly normal life with his two sons Michael and Peter (Liam Aiken) and his loving wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Then one night Michael Jr sneaks into his father's car and is witness to his father and crime partner Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig) murdering rival gangsters. Connor sees Michael Jr and is about to kill him as he's the only eyewitness but Michael Sr stops him assuring him that his son will not "squeal."


But Connor is the son of John the man who controls the area and who has brought up Michael Sr as a foster son and this does not go down well with Connor. How Michael Sr finds himself in all sorts of suicidal situations to inveigle himself out of the rigmarole he finds himself in is what Road to Perdition is all about. But its most potent selling point is seeing the mafia through the eyes of a teenager.

It is Michael Jr who narrates the story of what happened in the summer and winter of 1931. If Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus, Michael Jr's lesson is no less stunning , though of a different nature. If he was aghast at his father's links with the mafia, he is even more stunned to find out that his mother and brother are slain in cold blood. That is the reality. How does he come to terms with it ?

David Self's screenplay is brilliant and the intricate plot is a further embellishment. Add to this director Sam American Beauty Mendes’s deft handling of this awesomely grisly subject and you have just the prescription of an edge-of-the-seat humdinger of a suspense drama. It is peeling layers of an onion with a plethora of surprises and the best part of it is that right up to the end, like little Oliver, one is expecting more.

First director Mendes uses the death of one of the mafia men as the starting point of this ruthless, cold-blooded drama. The establishing shots build up John Rooney as the boss. Then comes the jealousy between Michael Sr and Connor. It is at once evident that they will on opposite sides. Will blood be thicker than water ? But before that father and son, Michael Sr and Jr find themselves on the road and the coverage is reminiscent of conman Ryan O'Neal and his daughter Tatum in Paper Moon nearly two decades ago. It is also not without touches of humour which becomes a necessary ingredient in this tense, ruthless drama.

"Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers," is one of the early lines in this very effective screenplay. But what about the father's responsibility to his son. By taking him to his aunt in Perdition does it end there?. But then that plan too goes phut when he finds himself being stalked by a killer, played to perfection by "To enjoy it and be paid for it, that's a dream…I shoot the dead, dead bodies, I don't kill them," are among the killer's early lines and quite a character he is.

Actually, Road to Perdition is a well-crafted film. There have been umpteen films on the mafia but few, if any, have dealt with it from a boy's eye view. Then you have the Al Capone era and there are also references to "the most notorious gangster."

The cinematography is brilliant and some of the long shots are just impeccable. Thankfully much of the violent scenes are off-screen. But it is the gelling of two big stars that takes centrestage. Paul Newman, tired and ageing but charismatic nonetheless, is still a force to reckon with. He can't show much anger, the character he plays probably doesn't have the energy to do so. But Tom Hanks is aptly low key and seems to adopt a totally new persona. I know he was bad in Castaway, but he is effective here reminding one even of a youthful Clint Eastwood in those ‘’Dollar" films and he underplays the part well. As for young Tyler Hoechlin, he surely puts his best foot forward like so many of these Macauly Culkin-like child stars. But it is Sam Mendes eventually who takes the most of the credit for churning out such an un-Hollywood-like opus. Don't miss it.