“You were more like me. And I didn’t want you to be.”
In Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, the bond between father and son is built through a series of observed secrets. Around a bedroom door left ajar, a son watches his father remove a rosary and a gun from his overcoat. During a wake turned into a riotous party, he learns his father can play piano, setting a tune that the boy’s grandfather follows on the black and white keys. And while spying through the cracked wall of an abandoned basement, he sees his father with another gun in hand, watching over a captive man begging for mercy. An argument rages, shots are fired, and the boy learns that his father is a murderer.
The stories we tell ourselves about our parents are one part of life, and the traits we inherit from them are another. Their anxieties, fears, hopes, and dreams are the legacy of identity, passed from generation to generation. This is evident in Road to Perdition and the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins that inspired it. The gangster genre to which both belong is a persistent American formula, with the criminal gang as an individual’s primary family, the mob boss as the patriarch, and the prolonged success of the enterprise as the descendants’ responsibility. To step out of line is often an unforgivable offense, punishable by death. And so, second acts are nearly impossible in gangster films: The transformation of starting over takes a phenomenal amount of self-will, and not every adult has it. Some have lived too long to begin again. In The Godfather series, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone promises that the family business will be legitimate in five years; decades later, they’re still pulling him back in. In Michael Mann’s Heat, Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley makes a fatal mistake when he breaks his own rule about walking away from an attachment in 30 seconds flat. And in Road to Perdition, a World War I veteran turned mob assassin hides his job from his family, fearing that their knowledge of who he is will put them in danger.
The life Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) chose for himself is one of delivering death, and it’s a responsibility that weighs on him, its heaviness symbolized by the tweed overcoat he wears as protection from the snowy Illinois winter. “Mistakes, we all make them. God knows,” says Mr. Rooney (Paul Newman), Sullivan’s father figure. To Sullivan’s sons, in particular the elder, curious Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), Mr. Rooney is a kindly, mischievous old man. Michael and his younger brother Peter (Liam Aiken) have no idea that the man who plays dice with them and gives them candy, the man they consider a grandfather, is the head of an organized crime family.
They’ve been told to tiptoe around Mr. Rooney’s biological son, the mercurial and reckless Connor (Daniel Craig), but they don’t know that his explosive temper often leads to bloodshed. And they’re unaware of how their father is positioned among those two men: between Mr. Rooney, who took him in so many years ago, and Connor, who has resented him ever since. The heavy, the patriarch, and the heir—the son who never was, the father who couldn’t be touched, and the son who would be king.
Road to Perdition begins with Michael, rosy-cheeked and impish. He is 12 years old in the winter of 1931, and more child than adult: stealing chocolate bars from the pharmacy owner who shorts him on his newspaper route, throwing snowballs at Peter when he gets home, struggling with his math homework. Although close with his younger brother and his mother, his relationship with his father is one of wariness and weariness, of physical proximity but emotional distance. When Michael speaks to him, it’s a tone of deference, more often “Sir” than “Pa,” and when dinnertime comes, they don’t sit next to each other.
Everything Sullivan does is a mystery to Michael, who treats his father with fear and adoration in equal measure, a direct contrast to the unabashed love Sullivan exhibits toward Mr. Rooney. It’s jarring for Michael to see Sullivan and Rooney share a moment of affection. At a wake-turned-party held at Mr. Rooney’s home, Michael realizes the bond between his orphaned father and the man who stepped in to take care of him. Mendes presents the moment with great tenderness, pivoting around the men as they play piano together, letting us see the crowd that gathers. He shows us Michael in the background, directly behind Sullivan, watching their performance with a mixture of surprise and pleasure. And Mendes lets us see Connor, too: a man whose smile, at this moment between his father and his sort-of brother, eventually falls. In a few days’ time, Connor—convinced that Michael will be unable to keep the Rooney family’s criminal secrets—will murder Sullivan’s wife, Annie, and Peter, thinking that he killed Michael, and set off a war that will ultimately destroy his family.
But in that moment, the music is loud. The dancing is exuberant. And Michael is just a boy at a party with his parents, unaware of what is to come: the realization that his beloved Mr. Rooney demands loyalty over honesty, and a journey with his father that provides him with a second chance at a life free of violence, a chance Sullivan never got.
After Michael escapes with Sullivan, he finally has an opportunity to get to know his father. Although consumed by terror and grief, Michael must trust Sullivan in order to survive. When Sullivan tells Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) of his revenge plot to kill Connor, the underboss to Al Capone warns him, “You won’t make it, not on your own, and not with a little boy.” When assassin Harlen Maguire (a feral Jude Law) receives the job to kill Sullivan via phone call, he transforms the “12” he had written down for Michael’s age into a rudimentary drawing of a dead face, complete with crossed-out eyes. All the gangsters Michael and Sullivan encounter believe the boy’s knowledge about Mr. Rooney’s operation make him compromised and irredeemable, and therefore disposable. They can’t imagine that Michael could live on, and they view Sullivan’s fatherly devotion to his son with caution and mistrust.
The suspicion Michael and Sullivan face pushes them closer together. When they barely escape an ambush from Harlen, it fully hits Michael that his father is all he has left—and Sullivan’s knowledge, from years serving in World War I and with the Rooney family, is a resource. Sullivan, in turn, learns how to trust his son, providing Michael with responsibilities that move him further away from the boy he was back in their Rock Island home. The secrets Michael discovered about Sullivan, the revelations about what violence shaped his father’s life, are steadily replaced with moments of honesty and partnership. On an empty road flanked by barren trees, in preparation of a plot to steal enough of Capone’s money to draw Connor out of hiding, Sullivan teaches Michael how to drive. During a shared meal at a diner, when Sullivan agrees to give Michael $200 for his cut of the stolen cash, there is gentle humor to Michael’s offended realization that he could have asked for more. As Sullivan recovers from a gunshot wound, Michael nurses him back to health. When the elderly woman who lets the pair stay at her farmhouse points out how much Michael dotes on Sullivan, the look on the man’s face is just as shocked and pleased as Michael’s was while watching his father play piano.
But there is a limit to how much Michael can do. His refusal to wield a gun is a choice Sullivan cannot understand. How old was Sullivan when he first held a gun for Mr. Rooney? When he first killed? Yet it becomes clear to Sullivan during their journey together that Michael could have a better life than Sullivan did—a real childhood, followed by an adulthood unbeholden to anyone, an existence that isn’t tied to another man’s ruthless ambition. “None of this is your fault,” Sullivan tells Michael, and that reassurance is a turning point. Michael’s second chance outside of the Rooney family shadow, outside of the reach of Capone, is worth fighting for. And Sullivan is willing to sacrifice his own life for it.
Throughout Road to Perdition, Sullivan is sturdy and steady, an honorable man aware of his reputation and confident in his skills. When he encounters a new bodyguard at a club from which Mr. Rooney collects payments, he asks the man, with a touch of amusement, “You gonna frisk me?…It’s a good idea.” But in that farmhouse, when Michael comes to him with a bad dream, he sees an entirely different side of his father: slightly chastened, a little out of his depth, and gently curious about his remaining child.
Their evolving relationship opens the door to a question Michael has pondered throughout their journey: whether Sullivan loved Peter more. Sullivan answers him with a level of tenderness only equaled by his piano duet with Mr. Rooney:
Sullivan: No. No, Michael. I loved you both the same.
Michael: But you were…you were different with me.
Sullivan: Was I? Well…Maybe it was because Peter was just such a sweet boy, you know? And you…you were more like me. And I didn’t want you to be. I didn’t mean to be…different.”
The hug that follows cements Sullivan’s understanding of the son who shares his name: Michael is not a boy who can shoot a gun, and Michael is not his father. “He’s my son,” Sullivan tells Connor earlier in the film, when Michael’s loyalty is questioned. But that no longer means what Sullivan thought it did.
It’s difficult to think of all the ways you are similar to someone, and to realize that’s not quite enough. It wears on you, to love someone and feel like you are constantly letting them down. “We owe him,” Sullivan tells Michael of his relationship with Mr. Rooney, the man who took him in, who gave him everything, who molded him into the person he is. But it’s also Mr. Rooney who, despite his deep shame and anger at what Connor did, cannot bear to admit that Connor deserves punishment for killing a defenseless woman and child. “I curse the fucking day you were born,” he tells Connor in one breath, and in the other, “God help us. God help us.” The protection Sullivan gives to Michael is the same Mr. Rooney gives to Connor; these sons are quite different from their fathers, but the bond is unbreakable. And this exchange, between two men who love each other, but whose intentions are diametrically opposed, is a heartbreaker:
Mr. Rooney: There are only murderers in this room. Michael, open your eyes. This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: None of us will see heaven.
Sullivan: Michael could.
Mr. Rooney: Then do everything that you can to see that that happens…Leave. I’m begging you. It’s the only way.
Sullivan: And if I go?
Mr. Rooney: Then I will mourn the son I lost.
To secure his son’s second chance, Sullivan must kill the father who sentenced him to death. There is no dialogue, just pouring rain, Thomas Newman’s swelling score, a bright flash of gunshots, and our perspective swirling around Mr. Rooney as his men fall around him. Sullivan and Mr. Rooney stand alone, Paul Newman’s legendary blue eyes glowing as he sees his fate—and accepts it: “I’m glad it’s you.”
“Sons are put on this Earth to trouble their fathers,” Mr. Rooney once said, and everything moves quickly after he’s killed for protecting that troublesome son. Mendes builds a rhythm throughout the film, centering characters directly in the middle of the frame to demonstrate their loneliness and their intention. And he does it again with a single take in the film’s penultimate scene: Sullivan stalks out of a hotel elevator and into a room where an unknowing Connor bathes; a swinging mirrored door showing us Connor’s bloody body. It’s a gorgeously realized sequence that reinforces a foundational aspect of the gangster genre: Violence begets more violence.
The final minutes of Road to Perdition carry the haze of a nightmare, an idyll turned sour. Sullivan and Michael finally reach Perdition, where Michael can build a new life—and where Harlen is waiting. When Michael intrudes upon his ambush but can’t pull the trigger against Harlen, his inaction results in Sullivan killing the assassin. It’s a moment of justice and self-actualization: Sullivan’s life may be over, but his final seconds are spent setting his son on a different path. “I saw then that my father’s only fear was that his son would follow the same road,” he tells us. Michael never held a gun again.
“One day the kid becomes a man. Think he won’t remember?” Nitto asks Mr. Rooney as they consider how to deal with Michael. In Collins’ sequels to Road to Perdition—the novels Road to Purgatory and Road to Paradise, and the graphic novel Return to Perdition—Michael does continue the feud. In those books, Michael goes by the adopted name Michael Satariano. He is a war veteran, becomes a hitman, and pursues his own revenge against the gangsters who allowed for his father’s murder. He declares war against the Capone family and eventually winds up in the Witness Protection Program. Each of those developments unravels the satisfying conclusion of Road to Perdition, doing a disservice to its narrative of redemption. The original ending made it an outlier in the gangster genre; Collins’ continuations of the story eroded that singularity.
Still, Mendes’ adaptation understands and honors the reinventive power of Road to Perdition’s original ending. Michael is elementally changed by his six weeks on the road with his father, and his character’s concluding narration confirms that the boy who was Michael Sullivan Jr. is no more. “People always thought I grew up on a farm. And I guess in a way, I did,” we hear Michael say as we see him drive up to the home where he nursed his father back to health. Michael uses the knowledge Sullivan taught him to move onto the next chapter of his life, “but I lived a lifetime before that.” The curtain has fallen on the first act of Michael’s life, the one bloodied initially by a misunderstanding and then later by revenge. And in that farmhouse, as a child again under the care of the woman who opened Sullivan’s eyes about his son, Michael’s second act begins.