"Road to Perdition" sounds like a man's movie. It has lots of gangster violence, but its theme is fundamentally female. It's the summer's big movie, playing to packed houses coast to coast, about what happens in a world without women. There's no female sensibility to civilize and sensitize men to rise above their brute nature. It's an unheroic "High Noon," a movie to invite reflection rather than impose dramatic tension. There's an unexpected lesson here.
It's hailed as a movie about the problems of fathers and sons - and it is that - but it's preoccupied with the dark side of a womanless world. A world without women is not only a bleak, dark world of gloom and rain, brutal with creative male energy run ruthlessly amok, but also a world anaesthetized in dark earth tones, empty of sensual colors to brighten a day. Women are significant only as the void they leave behind.
If women are from Venus and men are from Mars, to quote the cliché of our time, these guys are (begin ital) all Martians. While the critics are writing about "Road to Perdition" as an artistic masterpiece -and it is a little like visiting a museum with beautiful pictures in a frame - I see it as a strange, poetic icon more interesting to think about than to watch. Since the narrator asks us to consider whether the protagonist, a hit man who kills for a living, is good or bad, and the virtues of the movie are being praised on the cultural left and the cultural right, it's worth considering what's actually going on here.
First the plot, for those of you who still think movies require a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's told by Michael Jr., a 12-year-old boy who discovers that his father, Michael Sr., played by Tom Hanks, is a killer in the Irish Mafia of Chicago, 1931. His grandfather, who had adopted his father when he was a boy, saving him from a life of poverty on the streets, is the mob boss, an attractive aging man (Paul Newman) whose personality reflects an engaging immorality. Unfortunately, he has a natural son who is unnaturally nasty. Blood is ultimately thicker than common sense.
The young Michael, who doesn't know what his father does for a living, follows him on one of his jobs and witnesses a mob murder. When the natural son of the Mafia boss discovers the boy, he takes it upon himself to rub out his father's adopted family. He kills the boy's mother and younger brother, and father and son hit the road, following a crooked path of killing and robbing.
As you might have noticed, this is no Huck Finn, searching for his lost father, but a coming-of-age story, where a son works to understand his father without the protective guidance of a mother. Instead of the Mississippi River, the Illinois highways and crossroads reveal life at its most vicious, saved only by the stylized manner in which every murder is depicted.
If the story doesn't glamorize violence, it does separate it from emotion. Each murder is filtered through a moral perspective of relativism, rather than one of absolutes, in the confrontation of good and evil. Perdition is a pun: It's a state of mind, a way of life and death as well as the name of a small town outside Chicago that promises an idealistic peace of mind forever elusive for mortals who murder.
At my neighborhood movie house, lines wind around the block every night. I haven't taken surveys of the audiences, but I doubt that anyone who sees this movie will say it's about a world without women. I haven't seen that in any of the reviews. But that's what I saw.
The boy has no mother to assuage his nightmares, to civilize his manners, to comfort him with the incessant and tedious details that make up maternal love, to say nothing of bestowing upon him the sweet memory of the tender voice of his mother at prayer. Before she is killed, she appears in only a few scenes, doing what wives of gangsters always do. She watches her sons play, serves dinner to her family, shields the youngest boy with her body when the bullets fly.
Nothing softens the stark commitment to evil in this world of men except the yearning of a young boy for a mother who will never come back to smooth his troubled brow with a kiss. No greater loss will this child endure.
In a strange, evocative and inchoate way, the awful pain of losing a mother is the eloquent theme of "Road to Perdition," which makes this moving picture worth a thousand words of something to say to our times.