Reflections on "Road to Perdition"

Directed by Sam Mendes

Written by David Self

(based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner)


Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Tyler Hoechlin and Jude Law


A video presentation of this material is available here.


When gangland enforcer Mike Sullivan's son, Michael, witnesses a murder committed by Connor Rooney, the son of gangland boss John Rooney, who is also Mike's boss and mentor, this sets in motion a chain of events that lead to the deaths of Sullivan's innocent wife Annie and his second son, Peter. Sullivan will consequently abandon the code he has always followed and will challenge the mores, social structure and hierarchy he has known all his life as he takes whatever measures are necessary to protect himself and his son from former colleagues and friends while seeking vengeance on the self-indulgent Connor who, desperate to ensure his own safety and survival, is responsible for the deaths of Mike's wife and child.

The film offers insight into the milieu and politics of Depression-era gangsters while examining father-son relationships and the conflicts and complications they can generate. Underpinning everything is the contrast between John and Connor's relationship and Mike's efforts to instil values and respect in his son amid a general contempt for law, order and morality.

There is no recourse or reference to law enforcement or religion. Instead, we have a pragmatic or Machiavellian gangster order in which morality, honour and rectitude are reduced to keeping your word, being discreet and protecting fellow gang members if that serves the greater good.

Connor's conduct goes beyond self-centred indulgence and borders on narcissism. He exercises emotional manipulation of his all-powerful father which may be due to his apparent inability to impress his father or gain his respect. In turn, Connor's perceived character weaknesses may be the result of John's apparent inability to impose discipline on his son and his mollycoddling of him. Of course, it may also be due, in good part, to the environment in which he has been brought up, with no respect for values or consideration for others beyond their use in the advancement of family "business". At one point, Connor is described as "a big baby" by another powerful gang boss, but he is so consumed by his own character and importance that he fails to recognise any truth in the description and instead offers vague threats based on his future position as the head of the family business, further confirming his delusions and lack of self-awareness as he fails to see that he is tolerated only because of his father and his influence.

John Rooney knows himself and recognises what he is. He is willing to steal, cheat and murder but he is aware of the pain and consequences he can inflict on others in pursuance of his business affairs. He appears to prefer a balanced and restrained approach to business, using violence as a tool and resorting to it only when necessary, and refusing to exploit his clientele at their work as well as in their leisure time.

His great weakness is his devotion to his son, Connor. Intelligent and insightful, John also knows who and what Connor is but he cannot discipline him and is obliged to cover for Connor's ill-considered actions and indiscretions. Perhaps he is clinging to the only meaningful blood tie left to him as all other relationships can be bought and sold, used and discarded. He is clearly close to Mike Sullivan whom he has brought up as a member of the family but whose life has been dedicated, or even sacrificed, to pursual of Rooney's nefarious interests as Sullivan was trained to be an enforcer and an assassin. There is a closeness, affection and understanding between them but Rooney requires complete devotion and compliance from Sullivan. Mike is not afforded the same freedom and indulgence as Connor yet Connor is envious of the respect and warmth shared by Rooney and Sullivan. Ultimately, however, Mike is treated like a loyal vassal and he is expected to accept the murders of his wife and son by Connor as part of that loyalty, but their loss proves too much for Mike, whose allegiance has reached its limit.

Mike's life appears to be governed by loyalty, gratitude and indebtedness, all of which lend a tragic and contradictory aspect to this unsmiling, taciturn, dangerous and profoundly conflicted man.

As a youngster, Mike was taken in by John Rooney who provided him with a home, comfort and security, all of which were appreciated by Mike to such an extent that they fostered within him a profound sense of debt, a reaction that suggests he is a man of honour in spite of his actions and profession. Rooney has continued to provide for Mike, his wife and his family, and gratitude, debt and loyalty are the price Mike feels he must pay for this stability, especially in these difficult Depression-era times.

Often silent and distracted, it seems that his life as an enforcer weighs heavily on Mike. He is aware of the effect he delivers, even dread, when he gives his name. At home, when his son Peter inquires about the nature of his work, there is a sudden change in atmosphere and Mike's wife snaps that he works to put food on the table. This telling response suggests not just a desire to protect the boys from the truth but also shame or embarrassment and that this is something he does out of necessity rather than through ambition or desire.

These are parents who seek to instil discipline and family values in their children. Mike and his wife could easily have lied about the nature of his work, but they choose not to do so. The boys are expected to show respect, not to question and to do household chores. They are encouraged to do their homework and they have a warm and loving relationship with their mother.

At home, it may be the true man we are seeing, a man of honour and values but one who loyally serves his criminal master by day, undertaking threat, violence and murder in his name, surely leading to internal conflict and depression which explain his silence and distraction. Mike may be trapped in his existential quandary and may be somewhat distant with his sons, but he is determined that his sons should have an outlook and options based on respect for others and a principled upbringing, all in direct contrast to the upbringing experienced by Connor.

Michael represents hope for the future in Mike's eyes. In the aftermath of the murders of their kin, father and son are united by common grief, experience and a need for one another. They get to know one another better and do what they must to survive, but their efforts are tempered by reason and control. They are pursued by amoral individuals and may use amoral methods to deal with them yet they show constraint and balance. Michael is forced to grow up quickly and he shows calm determination in helping his father. In part reflecting his maturity, his idealistic and romanticised view of his father and his work (symbolised in his interpretation of the graphic novel he is reading) is steadily replaced with respectful realism.

In contrast to Mike's human and flawed assassin, we have Maguire, a quirky hitman hired to take out Mike and his son. Maguire is an assassin who enjoys his work. He is totally amoral - he has no scruples and indulges his passion for death by photographing the recently dead or dying. Although ostensibly he and Mike have much in common, Maguire does not suffer from self-doubt or inner conflict and he is not acting to fulfil a perceived debt of honour. He kills because it gives him pleasure and fulfilment, and his very presence and motivation allow us to compare and contrast with Mike and enable us to gain a clearer understanding of Mike's existential position and attitude.

At the end of the film young Michael could have killed Maguire. He holds the upper hand, in the shape of a gun, but he is hesitant and unwilling to shoot, though he might have pulled the trigger if necessary. Fortunately, Mike removes that necessity and takes upon himself the guilt of killing Maguire, thus sparing his son from having to take a life and allowing him to walk away with an unblemished conscience. Mike dies happy in the knowledge Michael did not mindlessly pull the trigger - in a world where morality may not exist in itself and in an environment where it is certainly not respected, the values and self-discipline he has tried to instil in his son have won out over self-centred amorality.

This is a brooding, atmospheric character piece set for the most part in a dark, shadowy world which contrasts with the airy lightness and hope of the scenes at the end of the film. On the face of it, this is a well-constructed revenge thriller offering relatively familiar fare in terms of politics but its great strength lies in the contrasting father-son relationships and how they inform the moral choice at the core of the film.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie (