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The Road to Perdition

Our philosophical film columnist Thomas Wartenberg ponders the complexity of human motives as he takes in the latest gangster movie, The Road to Perdition.

In the popular imagination, morality is structured by clear-cut and rigid dichotomies. There are good people and bad. Good people act morally while the bad are evil. Usually, ‘we’ are the good ones and ‘they’ the bad. Our motivations are pure and moral, theirs selfcentered and evil. Just think of George W. Bush’s emphasis, post 9/11, on an axis of evil and his villainization of Saddam Hussein among others.

One of the functions of art is to counter such simplistic thinking by showing that human character is more complex than such political pieties recognize. That men who do evil things may act from motives no different than yours and mine, for example, is something that art can show us by presenting us with fictional characters who exemplify greater complexity in their actions and motivations than popular moralism allows.

These ruminations were occasioned by my recent viewing of Sam Mendes’ updating of the gangster film, The Road to Perdition, based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins. Starring Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, as well as Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh, the film has attracted a great deal of critical notice. Although not a great film in my estimation – Mendes calls attention to his own artistry too obviously and emphatically for the film to be truly great – it does present us with a character who does not fit the simplistic understanding of a hit man as an evil person. Indeed, the film depicts the hit man who is its central character as something of a tragic hero.

Mike Sullivan, the film’s central character played by Tom Hanks, is a hit man in John Rooney’s (Paul Newman) mob. But he is also a strict father of two boys, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) and Peter (Liam Aiken), and a devoted husband. When his older son Michael accidentally witnesses the murder of an apparently errant member of Rooney’s gang by Rooney’s son, Conner (Daniel Craig), Rooney orders his son to kill the boy. When Conner accidentally murders the wrong son, along with Mike’s wife, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Mike flees with Michael and attempts not only to save his son’s life, but also to avenge the murders of his other son and his wife.

The Road to Perdition is the latest example of a gangster film, a film genre that has always been important in Hollywood filmmaking. The concept of genre is important for understanding Hollywood films. Originally developed in literary studies, its use for analyzing films arose in connection with the productions of the Hollywood studio system of the 1930’s and 40’s. In order to facilitate rapid production, the studios adopted a number of basic narrative patterns for their films. The ‘MGM musical’, for example, was a film genre that flourished during this period. Films of that genre were characterized by extravagant dance numbers and backstage romances. While genre films always fitted a general pattern, each individual film had sufficient variation on the theme to keep the audience engaged.

Along with the western, the gangster film has been one the staples of Hollywood filmmaking. From the great James Cagney films such as Scarface and White Heat to Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent Godfather series, gangster films have been among the most popular and successful genre films to be produced by Hollywood. One reason is that the gangster has been a persistently intriguing figure within popular culture. As an outlaw, the gangster clearly stands opposed to society, with its laws and rules necessary for preserving order. On the other hand, popular mythology often treats the gangster as opposing only the state and not its citizens. Because of this duality, it has been possible to invest the figure of the gangster with at least some of the moral grandeur of the Greek tragic hero. It is this feature of the genre that Mendes’ film explores in new and interesting ways.

The Road to Perdition (incidentally, ‘Perdition’ is the name of the town where Mike’s sister in law lives and to which he heads with Michael at the beginning of his quest) shows us the moral complexity of its hit-man lead character. The film itself spells out its ambitions in its opening voiceover, when Michael says that people repeatedly ask him whether Mike Sullivan was an evil man. (Only later do we realize that this is Mike Sullivan’s son talking.) To an extent, the appeal of this and, indeed, all gangster films is that we are captivated by the spell of men who violate the rules, who stake their lives on their skills with guns.

Depicting such men, the film paints portraits with a great deal more moral complexity than is conventional. For Mike, as well as being a hit man, is a father with the typical aspirations of immigrant fathers: to create a better life for his son than he himself has been able to live. That a man could become a hit man out of such a conventional motive undercuts our stereotyped view of gangsters by making them out to be more like us than we might like to believe. On the other hand, the difficulties facing Mike in his task are shown to be overwhelming: Michael Jr. seems doomed to live the gangster life that Mike himself has chosen but from which he has striven to insulate his son. In the aftermath of the murder of his wife and other son, the odds seem stacked against Mike and his fatherly ambitions.

The theme of fathers’ complex relations with their sons is underlined by the presence of another father-son relationship in the film. Rooney’s son Conner is a spoiled brat who, by rights, ought to suffer for his misdeeds. But, like Mike, Rooney is a father and he can’t bring himself to abandon his son, no matter what he has done and how appalling his actions. Although he thinks of Mike as more of a son to him than Conner, he can’t overcome his loyalty to his biological offspring. In the world of violent gangsters, this is his Achilles’ heel.

In order to avenge the murders, Mike uses his knowledge of the mob’s activities to steal their ill-gotten gains from secret stashes in banks across the mid-West. One of the film’s most interesting characters is Maguire, played by Jude Law, another hit man who always takes photographs of the dead bodies of his victims. Hired by the mob to kill Mike in retribution for his thefts, Maguire trails him on his cross-country travels. For much of the film, our attention is rivetted to this peculiar chase.

That Mike must die in order to keep his son from becoming a gangster himself is one of the truths that this film prepares us to accept and that mobilize themes from Greek tragedy. The seemingly endless string of revenge murders can come to an end only through Mike’s death, which settles the score and brings the cycle to a close. Only then can Michael Jr. emerge into a life untainted by his association with the mob.

This gangster film raises compelling moral themes through its portrait of mob fathers and their sons. As different as the mobsters may be from us normal folk, we leave the theater acknowledging more similarity between their lives and our own than we may have done when we entered. Fathers are, after all, concerned about their sons, and sons may not live up to their fathers’ ideals. In the mobsters’ world portrayed in Road to Perdition, however, these simple moral truths result in tragedy.

© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2002

Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

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