Road to Perdition

Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law.
Produced and directed by Sam Mendes.
Running Time: 117 mins
Rated: R
Every word in the title of this film is pregnant with meaning.

Michael Sullivan (Hanks) is a hit man for Irish mobster John Rooney (Newman). Sullivan's sons do not know what their father does for a living until Michael Sullivan Jnr (Tyler Hoechlin) steals away in his father's car and witnesses him and Rooney's son Connor (Daniel Craig) kill a difficult customer. His curiosity costs lives and so Sullivan senior and junior hit the road in an attempt to get Connor before Connor's father gets them. Michael Sullivan Snr doesn't want his son to enter the mafia, but he has a funny way of achieving this goal.

Road to Perdition is about the most accomplished gangster film you are ever likely to see. But be warned: for all the tense and tight direction from Mendes, of American Beauty fame, the excellence of the script, the moody cinematography, the expert editing and John William's score, this is still a gangster film. That means there are bullets and blood and bodies everywhere. In this genre most of the characters are unlikeable, life is cheap and everyone is corrupt. Road to Perdition mounts no challenge to the style or substance of the mob stereotype.

Similar to its predecessors this is a gangster film which drips Catholicism. This time, rather than the Corleone family, we have the Irish mafia, but their attendance at Mass, grace before meals, the rosary and corrupt clergy are similar to that of their Italian cousins in New York

We discover that while Perdition is a town wherein Sullivan senior thinks his son will be safe, writers Max Collins, Richard Rayner and David Self are not just interested in a placename. They are very clever in using some theological shorthand as well.

In the 4th century St John Chrysostom called Judas, the "Son of Perdition". He taught that Judas made a series of free choices that culminated in the betrayal of Jesus and so prefigures that there are some of us whose choices might see us go to eternal death rather than to eternal life. The screenplay has the murderous Rooney say, "This is the life we choose. And there is only one guarantee - we will never see heaven." He could be quoting Chrysostom on Judas.

Road to Perdition is all about loyalty and betrayal, freedom, responsibility and blood money. This is amplified by Mendes having the heavens pour down more rain on Hanks and Newman than that which fell during Noah's flood!

Chrysostom's other great insight into Judas' choices was that they emerged out of despair, which is a strong theme in Road to Perdition as well. The never-ending cycle of violence and revenge only begets despair, in this world and the next.

At best the Road to Perdition is an excellent and grim parable on some of the seven deadly sins. At worst this film leaves us believing that it's inappropriate to judge our fathers for the choices they have made. We may not want to condemn our parents as people, but they, too, are as good as what they freely choose and fail to do.

Forgetting is not the same as forgiving, for as the scriptures repeatedly tell us: the first stop on the road to perdition is amnesia.

Richard Leonard SJ

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