Shortly after Tom Hanks’ character Michael Sullivan discovers his wife and younger son had been killed, he walks to his car into the piercing cold night, looks at his still-alive, less-liked older son dead in the eye and says “This house is not our home anymore, it’s just an empty building.”
Sullivan is actively trying to be both loving parent and gangster enforcer to his son, tending to his emotional needs while stressing the importance of getting on the road ASAP. We get the impression that Sullivan wasn’t around much for his son, also named Michael’s, actual upbringing, instead focusing his time on debt collecting and hit jobs. That makes this the first genuine interaction that Sullivan and Michael have ever had. Everything prior having been masked in appearances and non-answers about Sullivan’s work duties and the misdeeds he must perform to take care of his family, creating an unfavorable but necessary distance between Sullivan and the dark past that haunts him at every turn. In this moment, where Sullivan reaches out to his son for the first time, Road to Perdition unintentionally states the underlying experience of watching this movie: a beautiful story to witness that is ultimately empty.
Directed by Sam Mendes, Road to Perdition is a beautifully haunting film with a simple story at its core. After Michael inadvertently witnesses a mob killing, Sullivan’s boss John Rooney (played with gusto and humility by Paul Newman) orders a hit on his former beloved workman. Sullivan and Michael then take to a life on the road, robbing banks and trying to buy back their freedom as they’re chased down by an expert, mischievous assassin and Rooney’s ambitious but flailing son (played by Daniel Craig, who admirably fails in his attempts to pull off an American accent.) It has the necessary pieces of a great film, with many things to admire, but the sum of all its parts fail to rise to anything greater.
Roger Ebert said something interesting about this movie in his original review, noting he was unsure if he liked it but certainly did appreciate it. I agree with Ebert’s assessment of the film, as I too appreciated the film’s majesty and grace, but wasn’t sure if it actually evoked anything strong or personal from me. If I even have to question if the film evoked a strong emotion in me, that probably means it didn’t, as it should just be readily apparent. In that sense, watching Road to Perdition is like going on a first date with someone who is perfect for you in every way. You appreciate their humor, their beauty and intelligence, but for some reason, that spark just isn’t there.