What About It?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")
The Road to Perdition is both a great hit man movie and coming of age story. Sam Mendes does a wonderful job maintaining a dark and somber mood and creating a world where gangsters operate as a family business. Everything, including betrayal is handled in order for the business to look out for it's own interests. While the relationship between John Rooney and Michael Sullivan Sr., is more family than business, we see that on higher levels, the same principles apply. Rather than everybody rushing to kill each other, they first attempt to use the proper channels. Undoubtedly already aware that Michael Sullivan will not stop at anything short of killing Connor, attempts are still made to settle things quietly. John Rooney offers him money, Nitti offers him a reminder of their resources.
Rooney's line that "Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers" is a large theme in the film. We see that Rooney loves Michael like a son, and has open contempt for his own son Connor. Yet, bloodlines are important here, and no matter his feeling Rooney can't choose over his own family no matter how disastrous the decision is. Likewise, when all Michael has left is Michael Jr., his first thought is to take care of his own family. The circumstances force him to be a father in a way he probably never had to before. Although their bonding experiences are far from conventional, such as teaching his son to drive a get away car, the time and interest are what come through as real. Despite living in the same house for his entire childhood, Michael Jr. knows little about his father, who has been content to keep the bills paid while his wife "manages: the kids. His father has been a figure rather than a man. The dire circumstances allow them to connect on a human level, each directly interested in the other. Michael Jr., finds that his father is tough and uncompromising but not uncaring. Michael Sr.'s fear that his son will be like him, has never been put into words, but they both come to see it and confront it.
Both John Rooney and Michael spend most of the story acting to protect their sons, although Michael must also avenge the rest of his family. The differences in their backgrounds is another key factor in their struggle. Raised with the surroundings of privilege, Connor sees himself as untouchable and justified in acting out his every whim. The scene early in the movie where he prevents Michael Jr. from retrieving John's jacket, tells us all about his character. Although allowing him to get it would be no more trouble than having the conversation with Michael Jr, already is, he prevents him simply because he can. It's also telling that John passively allows this to occur, only rectifying it later in order to make a point to Michael Jr. Jr.,on the other hand is raised working class. He has no idea how much money his family has, but he thinks of his life as average. He has a respect for authority, because he sees his father's respect for his employer, even seeing John as a grandfatherly figure until he realizes what he's really about. He refuses, however to call Connor, "Uncle Connor" showing that his respect does have a limit.
Michael makes no apologies for what he is or does. He sees his occupation as an honorable way to make a living. He doesn't hesitate to kill people, but neither does he kill anyone or do anything without a practical end in mind. Robbing banks of "only dirty money" shows his practical sense. The money, to him, is only a means to exert pressure having little interest as a thing on it's own. He deduces accurately that Capone's organizations greatest loyalty is to profit, and then to John Rooney, and acts to position himself so that allowing him to kill Connor doesn't conflict with either motive. The ease with which he kills Connor after the elder Rooney is dead, shows how exact the organization's principles are, Connor's protection even holding open the doors to allow him in.
This is a film where all the parts work perfectly, great direction, a smart script, and a dream cast combine to form an authentic story. The screenplay by David Self, based on a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, is based on true events.While I don't always care for Tom Hanks' choice of roles, there's no doubt he's a great actor and he shines here, while playing against his usual type, but still using his "wholesome" persona on some level to give his character depth. We need to believe that Michael Sullivan is a man of contradiction as suggested in the opening narration. He's a loyal family man, who also kills people for a living. Tyler Hoechlin is great as Michael junior giving us a convincingly young twelve year old, with enough sense and gravity to be taken seriously as a player in the story. Paul Newman's part is small by comparison, but his presence in small scenes is memorable enough that his presence is never absent from the film. We can believe him as the father Michael never had, his sorrow at his own choice, and as a result we feel Michael's regret when he must eliminate him. Daniel Craig is also perfect, his spoiled arrogance is played well, his absurd constant smile giving us this character exactly. Entitled, but fatally shortsighted, playing on loyalty without grasping the responsibility that comes with it.
Jude Law's Harlen is perfect as a foil for Michael Sullivan. We sense that no one is a match for Michael one on one. The way he effortlessly mows down John's men, indicates that. Harlen is the sneaky where Michael is straightforward. Where Michael is used to death he isn't blood thirsty, while Harlen revels in it to the most ridiculous degree imaginable with his dead body pictures. Harlen although completely repulsive, is also very capable and efficient, which Michael sees immediately, taking great pains to avoid Harlen while he has a mission to complete.
We begin with the question was Michael Sullivan a good man? or without any good at all. What we see in the film is that Michael Sullivan contains all kinds of things, but with "he was my father." we grasp the enormity of what family means. Both Michaels understand this. After finding Michael Jr. had witnessed Finn's murder, Connor asks if Jr. can keep a secret and Michael Sr. answers with similar language, not saying yes or no, but only "He's my son." Questions of good or bad and right or wrong, take a back seat to the idea that this is who you have in the world. Connor is the only one of the four characters that doesn't appreciate this, though he does realize it, using it in an opportunistic way, without a sense of reciprocity. You could almost say, there's good and bad, and then there's family.
You could spend a long time assigning blame, but as John says to Michael, "There are only murderers in this room." The situation Michael is in is a fact of his lifestyle, always a possible consequence. The same is true of the Rooney's, and John to his credit, doesn't claim otherwise. Michael addresses his son's concerns that it was his fault everything happened due to his sneaking in the car, and although he doesn't say it, we sense that he agrees with John's assessment. What happened was a result of the business he's in. Michael doesn't spend time bemoaning his fate, only attempts to correct it in a way that gives his son a chance to be different than he himself was. His last act is an act of giving Michael Jr. the chance to keep his hands free of the blood, that Sr. is so used to, by killing Harlen, a figure who couldn't be a better symbol for an obsession with murder. So Michael Jr. is "raised on a farm" but he sees the road trip as "a whole life before that." He's seen one road all the way to it's end, and whatever anyone can say of his father, he did succeed in giving his son a chance to "see Heaven."
"There are many stories about Michael Sullivan. Some say he was a decent man. Some say there was no good in him at all. But I once spent six weeks on the road with him, in the winter of 1931. This is our story."
This narration by Michael Sulivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) begins the film and we're quickly brought in to take a look at family life in the Sullivan household.
Young Michael Jr. and his little brother Peter sit quietly at the kitchen table while their mother Annie (Jennifer-Jason Leigh) oversees. He struggles with his homework until his mother tells him to go get his father. His father is in his bedroom in the process of emptying his pockets, and taking off his jacket, getting ready for dinner. Michael walks quietly up to the room observing as his father takes his gun out of his pocket. Although fascinated, he doesn't mention it, just waits a moment and tells his Dad that dinner's ready.
We then see the Sullivan's heading to a wake thrown by John Rooney (Paul Newman) who greets the Sullivan kids warmly asking for hugs and even taking them off privately to throw dice. After Michael Jr. comes out ahead, Rooney sends Michael upstairs to get something from his jacket pocket. He's unable to get the jacket though as Rooney's son, Connor (Daniel Craig) is lying down in the room smoking and tells him to come back later. Downstairs the wake is underway and John says a few words about the man saying "lose one of us it hurts us all." He tells a story about the dead man tackling his own quarterback in the last moments of a game, adding "Mistakes, we all make em." John then calls the dead man's brother, Finn McGovern to say a few words. McGovern says his brother was "loyal, brave,and he never told a lie." However, possibly due to being a little drunk, McGovern says a few words against John Rooney, saying "You rule this town as God rules the Earth, you know, you give and you take away." Michael escorts McGovern out of the room, with Connor following along. John also follows them out. McGovern threatens Connor before Michael puts him into his car. John asks for Connor's thoughts on McGovern's condition. Connor says he probably had too much to drink and he'll be fine. He does say he's going to go "talk to him" John insists that he bring Michael along and that he "just talk to him"
They all rejoin the wake and John and Michael have a moment playing the piano together. Connor looks on grinning. The younger Sullivan brother taps Connor and asks "Why are you always smiling?" Connor stoops down to look him in the eyes and says "because it's all so fucking hysterical." They go home and the kids go to bed. His little brother asks Michael Jr. what their Dad does for work, Michael Jr. says "He goes on missions for Mr. Rooney." The next morning Michael tells Peter that he can't make his concert that evening because he has to work. Michael Jr. asks "working at what?" prompting a stern look from his mother who says "putting food on your plate young man."
We see Michael loading his case in his car and leaving. He stops to pick up Connor. Michael asks "We're just talking to him right?"Connor gives him a flip "Sure." We see that Michael Jr, is hidden beneath the back seat, lifting the seat slightly, trying to sneak a look at the front. Michael and Connor head into a warehouse to meet with Tim McGovern. Michael Jr. sneaks out of the car and peeks in at them pressuring McGovern to come to his senses. McGovern agrees to keep quiet for the sake of his life and job, and leaving, Connor says he's "sorry your brother was such a fucking liar." This prompts McGovern to disagree, which Connor doesn't appreciate. McGovern insists that his brother never stole anything but that he 'knows something is going on" and will find out what it is. When McGovern almost accuses Connor of stealing the money his brother was blamed for, Connor shoots him in the head. Michael shoots McGovern as well to make sure he's dead. He then berates Connor for what he did. Connor notices, movement where Michael Jr. is hiding and watching and they scramble towards him. Michael finds his soon huddled against a fence, he asks if he saw the whole thing and Michael Jr. nods. He tells him not to speak of it to anyone. Connor comes out and sees that it's Michael Jr. and asks if he can keep a secret. Michael says "He's my son." which Connor claims is good enough for him.
On the ride home, Michael tells his son about the house that Mr. Rooney gave them and the life he made possible. Michael Jr. says he understands, but seems upset at home, prompting Michael to tell his wife that Michael had hidden away and seen his work. Michael Jr. is about to take a bike ride and finds John Rooney in the driveway asking about "their secret." Michael Jr. doesn't say a word, but Rooney says "I'm talking about the dice. A man of honor always pays his debts and keeps his word." He hands Michael Jr. a coin and smiles at him, but Michael Jr. just says he's late for school and leaves.
John and Michael have a drink alone discussing the issue. Michael assures John that his son understands. John tells him he sympathizes, telling Michael that "sons are put on this Earth to trouble their fathers." We see a flash of Michael Jr. at school, fighting. We then see a board meeting with all of John's people. John asks Connor if he has anything to say about it. John gets angry with Connor's smirk stating "we lost a good man. Do you think it's funny? Try again." He tries another time angering John for saying he's "like to apologize" and finally at his father's insistence, he stands and directly apologizes. One of John's men mentions a lot of unpaid debt, and Michael says "just give me the names" They all head upstairs to do so except for Connor who sits at the table stewing. When Michael leaves, Connor rushes out to catch him,handing him a note, saying his Father forgot to give it to him and it's a reminder that a Tony Calvino "is light again." Connor apologizes again and Michael accepts before driving off to see Tony Calvino. He heads to a busy nightclub to find Calvino. The doorman clearly knows his name and Michael has to tell the man to frisk him He asks if he can put a good word in to Mr. Rooney for him and escorts him to Calvino. When the doorman announces that Michael is there to see him, Calvino isn't pleased and hides a gun beneath a magazine, before having him sent in. Michael hands Calvino what he says is a letter from Mr. Rooney. Michael watches Calvino's expression change reading the leader and also realizes there is a gun beneath the magazine. When Calvino attempts to reach for it, Michael grabs it and shoots him and then the doorman. He reads the letter,finding it says "Kill Sullivan and all Debts are Paid"
He attempts to call the house realizing his family is in danger,but the phone is off the hook. Connor is in the house already and kills Michael's wife as well as Peter. Michael Jr. gets home on his bike and hears the shots from outside and sees Connor leaving. Michael Jr. enters the house and sees what's happened. Michael Sr. arrives soon after and wails when he sees what's happened. He tells Jr. that this is no longer their home.
John has been informed about what happened and furiously curses Connor, who tells him the kid would have talked. Michael makes a stop to see someone, telling Michael Jr. to wait in the car. He pleads with his father not to go,but he explains that he has to protect them now as people will be after them. He forces Michael Jr.to take a gun, and tells him if he's not back in ten minutes to go see at Reverend Lynch at First Methodist, and NOT to go see Father Callaway. He enters a building and finds a Mr. Kelly.Michael says he doesn't have business with him, but Mr. Kelly says that he has business with Michael. Mr. Kelly offers Michael a case with $25,000.00 in it and tells Michael that Mr. Rooney has said there's more if he needs it. Mr. Rooney suggests that Michael take Peter and go to Ireland. Michael informs him that he can't take Peter, as he's dead. Michael asks where Connor is and Mr. Kelly tells him he's in hiding, but refusing to tell him more, explaining that if he tells he's a dead man anyway. Mr. Kelly reminds him that he's only the messenger. Michael nods and says "Then give Mr. Rooney a message for me." When Mr. Kelly asks what the message is, Michael shoots him in the head. Michael gets back to the car and takes the gun back from his son. He explains that they have to go to Chicago to see "a man who runs things" and where he stands.
They get to Chicago and Michael has his son wait while he goes to see Mr. Nitti., (Stanley Tucci) one of Al Capone's officers. He offers Mr. Nitti his services in exchange for him turning a blind eye to him killing his family's murderer. Nitti tells him it isn't possible, and Michael concludes that Nitti is already protecting Connor. We then see that John and Connor are also in Chicago and had listened to the whole conversation. Connor tells his father they should get him while he's in the building, but John tells Connor to go upstairs, as if sending him to his room. John struggles to make a decision and Nitti advises him to think objectively, as if Michael were "just some guy." John says "Make it Quick" but tells him not to hurt Michael Jr. Mr. Nitti mentions they have a "gifted" guy who's done work for them in the past that can handle killing Michael.
We then see Harlen Maguire (Jude Law) bringing camera equipment to a crime scene. He's taking photographs of a stabbing victim. The cops give him two minutes to take pictures. When Harlen sees the victim move, he chokes him cloth and then takes his pictures. Harlen takes the call from Mr. Nitti, who agrees to his rate. Maguire tells Mr. Nitti that he knows Michael's work.
Michael Sr, and Jr. talk in the car, about going to Michael Jr's. Aunt Sarah's house in Perdition, as she'll take him in. He tells Jr. that it's by a lake and they all went there together once. Mike Jr. remembers there was a dog there. We see Harlen attending Michael's family's funeral although Michael isn't there. He calls the house and speaks with Sarah telling her that they're heading to her place,if it's alright. Harlen picks up the phone after Sarah hangs up and tells the operator he was cut off and needs to be reconnected.
Michael stops at a diner for food, although Jr. says he isn't hungry and wants to stay in the car and read. Harlen shows up the dinner, and gets a table facing Michael. Michael talks with Harlen about a camera he pulls from his pocket. He tells Mike about his job photographing the dead and his fascination with the look of them. Mike excuses himself to use the restroom and Harlen gets his gun ready only to realize Michael snuck out and is driving away, having popped his tires on the way. Harlen shoots after the car,and when a cop asks him what he's doing, he shoots the cop dead. Michael realizes they can't go to Sarah's as Harlen knew they were headed there. He tells Mike Jr. that they're going to convince Capone to give up Connor by taking their money until they do. He teaches Mike Jr. to drive and they stop at a bank where Michael asks for "dirty money only" demanding everything they're holding off the books for Capone. When the bank official tells him they'll figure out who he is, he volunteers his name even spelling it. He informs the bank manager that he "won't be happy" if he reports it or hears about a farmer's savings being wiped out by a bank robber.
They continue robbing banks, Mike Sr.,getting the money while Jr.drives. Over dinner Mike Jr.asks when he can have his share of the money. "How much do you want?" his father asks. He says "$200.00" to which Sr.says "Ok. Deal." After thinking a minute Mike Jr. asks "Could I have had more?" and his Dad answers"You'll never know."
We see John Rooney in Chicago ignoring a ringing phone looking angry. We then see Connor with the phone in hand, getting angry and throwing furniture when his father won't answer. Nitti gets a call about the stolen money. Connor bursts in on Nitti, yelling that he's not a prisoner and wanting to see his father. Nitti is clearly not pleased with Connor, reminding him that he can't take care of himself or he wouldn't be there. Connor tells him not to talk to him that way again, as he is "the future" his father being an old man.
Michael hits a bank and finds that Chicago took out all their money two days ago. He gets the name of the accountant that withdrew it, Alexander Rance (Dylan Baker) We see that Harlen has a room rented across from Rance's room and is waiting for Michael to show up. Rance knows Sullivan so is immediately frightened when he enters the room, instead of the room service he expected. Rance makes a point of walking past the windows causing Michael to shut the curtains, which makes Harlen grab his gun and head across the street. Mike Jr, sees Harlen heading into the hotel with a gun and starts honking the horn, although Mike Sr. can't hear it. Rance tries to stall Michael acting as if he doesn't know which key will open the trunk with the files Michael wants. When Michael tells Rance he gets one more try, he finds the key, but jumps out of the way as he opens out. Michael avoids the blasts from Harlen entering with his shotgun and manages to hit Harlan,disfiguring his face. He sees that the blasts hit Rance, killing him, and he takes the files and leaves Harlen in the room, finding himself shot in the arm. When Michael Sr. passes out in the car, Mike Jr. stops and screams at people on a farm they're passing to help.
They take him in and remove the bullet, letting him recover. Mike Jr. helps them with the work on the farm and they come to really like having him there. They get some time to talk, and Mike Jr. asks if he liked Peter better. His father explains that he was harder on Mike Jr. because he reminded him of himself and he didn't want him to be like him. Going through the files, Mike Sr. realizes that Connor has been stealing money and blaming the men that got killed. Michael drops in on John Rooney at church and tells him they need to meet downstairs. He tells John what Connor's been doing. John asks "Do you think I'd give up my son?" He says he knows that Connor betrayed him and tells him he should leave before it gets worse. Michael points out that when John dies they won't need to bother protecting Connor anymore and will likely want to get him out of the way. John tells him he still can't deliver his own son to be killed. When Michael mentions that Connor killed his wife and son, John says "There are only murderers in this room. Michael, open your eyes!" John begs him again to leave if only for Michael Jr.'s sake.
That night, Mike Jr. sees his father assembling a gun. When he asks what he's doing he tells him he has one more thing to do and he'll be done, and tells him to go to bed. We see John being escorted to his car in the rain by a group of men only to find that his driver is dead. Michael kills every one of them except for John and then approaches him walking up close. John looks at Michael and says "I'm glad it's you." before Michael shoots him.
Michael calls Nitti for Connor's room. Nitti says that Al Capone wants his assurance that after this, it's over. Michael walks into the hotel, all of the guards move aside for him and allow him in and he shoots Connor while he's sitting in a bath.
With Connor dead, they head for Sarah's house. Mike Jr. plays on the beach with a dog that runs out to greet them and Mike Sr. goes in the house to look for Sarah. He finds the house immaculate but Sarah isn't there. Standing at the window watching Mike Jr. on the beach we see Mike Sr. get shot from behind by Harlen, who is now getting his camera ready for the death picture. Mike Jr. then comes up behind Harlen pointing a gun. Harlen tells him not to do it and tries to ease up closer to him. We hear a shot and see that his father has shot Harlen so he wouldn't have to do it. He tells his father "I couldn't do it." and he smiles and replies "I know." His father repeats "I'm sorry." several time and dies. We see Michael Jr. driving to the farm where they had nursed his father to health and we hear him in voice over:
"I saw then that my father's only fear was that his son would follow the same road. And that was the last time I ever held a gun. People always thought I grew up on a farm. And I guess, in a way, I did. But I lived a lifetime before that, in those six weeks on the road in the winter of 1931. When people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a good man, or if there was just no good in him at all, I always give the same answer. I just tell them... he was my father. "