Webster defines perdition as "eternal damnation." American Beauty director Sam Mendes interprets the word much the same way in his sophomore film, Road to Perdition. "There’s only one guarantee," Irish crime boss John Rooney tells his number-one enforcer, Michael Sullivan. "None of us will see heaven." Their particular road to hell is paved with brutality, ruthless extortion and countless murders, yet each cares more for his family than he does his own life. That seeming oxymoron is central to Mendes’ film, and the result is a vivid illustration of a singular truth: It’s not enough to be a good man at home if your day at the office involves broken bones and tommy-guns. A double life always merges into a single reality at some point.
Rooney’s devotion to his son eventually leads him to compromise what few ethics he still clutches after years of organized crime. He lets the "business" suffer and even turns a blind eye as his son kills an innocent woman and child. Sullivan’s domestic bliss is shattered when his own wife and youngest son, Peter, are gunned down (see the connection?) because his boss won’t put justice ahead of his son.
It's the winter of 1931. Half his family is dead, but it’s Sullivan and his eldest son, Michael Jr., who are the real targets, so the pair gets out of Dodge—fast. Sullivan, naturally, is seething mad, and being a killer by trade, he sets his sights on the perpetrators. The plot for revenge involves robbing banks (Sullivan teaches Jr. how to drive the car so he’ll have a getaway vehicle), toying with Al Capone and uncovering the truth about the man who attacked his family. It’s a long road for the father and son and you already know that the destination is perdition. Sullivan’s fate is sealed. The only question at hand is whether his son can be saved. Sullivan isn’t hoping for a spiritual salvation for his son, but he is desperate for the boy to not follow in his blood-soaked footprints. That goal of future non-violence is what attempts to redeem this movie’s morose themes of revenge, murder and enforced loyalty. As the promotional posters say, "Pray for Michael Sullivan."
positive elements: 1) Loyalty: real and contrived. There is no honor among thieves. That’s self-evident. Sullivan gave up his soul to serve a man who saved his family when they were destitute, but his loyalty proved to be in vain. Rooney tells Jr. that "a man of honor always pays his debts and keeps his word," but all he’s trying to do is keep the kid quiet about a murder he saw. Conversely, Sullivan’s emerging sense of obligation and loyalty to his son begins to hint at the true nature of the virtue. 2) Repercussions: Live by the sword; die by the sword. Amidst the artistic renderings of death and destruction, there’s a palpable sense of reaping what one sows. 3) Choices: the good ones and the bad ones. Sullivan wants his son to make better ones than he did—a noble ambition. 4) Families: healthy ones and dysfunctional ones. It’s all about the Sullivans’ slow and painful growth vs. the Rooney’s stubborn and prideful self-destruction. Both sides of the story point to truths best not forgotten in our own families. 5) Death: the wages of sin. One can never explain away or excuse sensational depictions of a human’s demise (and this film contains several), but mankind's destinty without God is still a biblical truth and Sam Mendes tips his hat to it. "There’s always money for frills and twists, but never money for food," one tough guy (who ends up dead) laments. "Sometimes I despair of the human species."
spiritual content: Jr. prays at dinnertime, thanking God for "the bounty of Jesus Christ our Lord." Sullivan seeks out his former boss in a church, knowing he’ll be safe within its confines (a priest is giving communion when he enters). At a wake, Rooney offers a toast, saying, "Let’s drink him into heaven, and hope he gets there at least an hour before the devil finds out he’s dead."
sexual content: Virtually none (astonishing considering American Beauty’s obsession with such material). A hit man hired to do away with Sullivan is shown in a hotel room with a prostitute. But he stands by the window watching for Sullivan while she lays in bed fully clothed, so her trade is communicated by implication (and payment) rather than action. Sullivan goes to meet with a nightclub owner and as he passes through the establishment it becomes clear that the bar is really a brothel. The owner makes a disgustingly degrading reference about women.
violent content: Here Mendes shows a talent for keeping moviegoers guessing. Nearly two-dozen murders are committed through the course of the story, but more than half are off-screen (or at least discreetly rendered). The movie opens with the brutal slaying of a man who mouths off to Rooney. It’s done in slow motion and blood gushes everywhere as a single bullet to the head ends his life and machine gun fire then decimates his already lifeless body. When Sullivan’s family is attacked, however, the camera doesn’t even enter the room in which they are killed. This trend continues as the film spools out. Bouncing back and forth between graphic depictions and circumspect distancing serves to elevate the tension of the events and it makes it all the more excruciating when gore is shown. A few of those scenes: A killer’s face is splattered with blood after he fires two bullets into a man’s chest. Another man’s face is lacerated when a bullet shatters a piece of glass near his head. Another is shown dying with a kitchen knife protruding from his heaving chest (blood gushes from the wound and trickles from his mouth, and when he doesn’t die immediately, he is smothered). Sullivan shoots a bar owner in the head with the man’s own gun, then kills a security guard. A man shoots and kills two police officers. A group of gangsters is mowed down in the street.
crude or profane language: About 10 f-words and 2 s-words. There are also about 10 misuses of the Lord’s name. Mild profanity brings the tally to just under 30. One of the f-words is said directly to a child who later repeats the word.
drug and alcohol content: Alcohol is omnipresent at Rooney’s house. Sullivan carries a flask of the stuff in his coat. While much of the alcohol use is gratuitous, several times it’s implied that it is a crutch needed to mask the despair created by a life of crime and killing. Tobacco is glamorized on a couple of occasions with the camera lingering on softly curling smoke and glowing cigarette embers.
other negative elements: Jr. steals a book from a store and his actions are never dealt with. Jr. and his brother play dice for money with Rooney (it’s implied that they have a habit of playing such "games").
conclusion: Three years ago, after a screening of Sam Mendes’ first feature film, the Oscar-winning American Beauty, I remember shaking my head and muttering the words of Romans 6:23. "For the wages of sin is death. . . ." This time around, after watching Perdition, my head wasn’t shaking quite as hard but those very same words trickled through my thoughts. Maybe it’s just because Mendes seems obsessed with death, but this director can’t seem to do anything without reminding viewers that nobody gets off this planet alive. Furthermore, he’s persistent in depicting the consequences of evil actions. One could say Road to Perdition would have made Shakespeare proud: Everyone dies! But just like Shakespeare’s tragic tales of mortality, this movie sports a hefty dose of caution. Still, Mendes is careful not to make any strong moral judgments. When Jr. raises the question of whether his father was a good man or a bad one, he concludes that it is impossible to tell. "He was my father," he finally says. Actions speak louder than words, though, and here they communicate a great deal about character, moral value and a man’s place in the world. "Sullivan considers himself to have been put on the road to hell," Mendes observes. "Now he is in a battle for the soul of his son. Can a man who has led a bad life achieve redemption through his child? That is one of the central questions asked by the movie."
Left there, Road to Perdition is a challenging, deep-thinking, gut-wrenching, soul-searching experience. But, of course, it can never be left there. A river of blood and a thorny patch of vulgarity have to be crossed before you can get there.