Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. This time, he celebrates 15 years of Road to Perdition by looking at the father-son stories so often at the heart of mob movies.
“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight, from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” –S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders
Don’t you just hate it when someone nabs the perfect line before you? I hadn’t yet fallen in love with Paul Newman as an actor when I stepped outside a Cineplex 15 years ago after a matinee screening of Road to Perdition. I had fallen in love with mob movies, though. Not many teen males don’t. It’s easy at that age (and any age really) to romanticize that hyper masculine code, operating on societal margins as a tough guy, and the black-and-white dichotomies: friend or enemy, stand-up guy or rat, bada bing or bada boom. However, Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner’s beloved graphic novel of the same name struck me differently. I recall passing the movie’s poster on my way out – Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) obscured in shadow, silver rain slanting down, a machine gun in one hand and his son Michael’s (Tyler Hoechlin) small hand clutching the other – with the film’s final words still lingering in my ear: “He was my father.” In that moment, I began thinking of gangster films less as coarse, action-packed, bloody spectacles and more as father-son stories.
The father-son dynamic has always fascinated me. I’m not sure the reason. As far as I know, I’m not harboring any debilitating daddy issues, and I share a deep friendship with my own father. Hollywood returns to the dynamic all the time as a relatable framework across genres. For instance, we may know zilch about rebellion in a galaxy far, far away, but something familiar registers in all of us when we hear, “Luke, I am your father.” At the time, Michael Jr.’s final line reminded me of one of the most affecting scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird. After Tom Robinson has been found guilty, the courtroom clears, all but for the black townspeople in the balcony who wait for Atticus Finch to collect his belongings and depart. Reverend Sykes nudges Scout and insists, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up … your father’s passing.” Those are loaded words, of course, “father” in particular. Most of us start at a common baseline – father as provider, father as protector, father as someone who wishes for his child better than he had – and then build out from there. In Scout’s case, father as white attorney representing a black man charged for raping a white woman in a small town in the Jim Crow south. In Michael Jr.’s case, father as bank-robbing partner and co-avenger. Roles can complicate quickly in Hollywood.
Fatherhood, of course, isn’t simple, not even at that baseline level. It’s why George Carlin once joked, “Hell is just full of dads.” Take a basic tenet we can all agree on, like wanting what’s best for your child. Now listen to a song like Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” — in which an ostensibly loving father advises a son with his best interests at heart but no real understanding of what’s right for him — and tell me things don’t get messy quickly. Conflict is inevitable. If studies in psychology and human development aren’t reporting that father and son are natural combatants, if only symbolically, for Mom’s affections, then there’s the undeniable reality that as the son continues to carve out a larger place in the world for himself, the father naturally sees his own sphere of influence begin to shrink. That age-old rite of passage of a boy finally beating his dad at hoops in the driveway can be seen by the father as a joyous milestone but also as an ominous mile marker – a sign that the road before him shortens and no U-turns are permitted. And it’s these types of inherent conflicts, often underlying and taciturn, that frame so many mob movies. Beneath the flashy nicknames, coldblooded hits, and fuggedaboutits play out some of cinema’s great father-son dramas.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather was the first mob movie – probably, movie in general – that I absolutely obsessed over. Each night for nearly a year, I’d fall asleep to a grainy homemade VHS copy, usually dozing off around the scene where Luca Brasi takes his fatal meeting with Sollozzo and Tattaglia. The film depicts the fateful journey of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) from college student and American war hero to the most ruthless and powerful crime boss in the country. In the opening scenes, at his sister Connie’s wedding, Michael tells his betrothed, Kay (Diane Keaton), about his father’s violent business but insists: “That’s my family, Kay. That’s not me.” However, it’s Michael’s deep love for his father and later his need to protect him and avenge him that leads to him tragically following in his footsteps. In one of the film’s more touching scenes, a visibly burdened Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) laments that Michael had to take to a life of crime – that his youngest son, for all his sins and blood, had forged a path no better than his own. Coppola doesn’t belabor the sentiment, but the scene makes it impossible not to see Michael’s ascent, at least in part, as a tragic fall and a father’s failure.
Before cable began running Godfather marathons nonstop, A Bronx Tale was another mob movie that would turn up frequently as a weekend matinee. The film, based on the play by co-star Chazz Palminteri, marked Robert De Niro’s directorial debut and added a second father to the typical father-son tale. From a young age, Calogero (called C) had been fascinated by a neighborhood gangster named Sonny (Palminteri) and the wiseguy lifestyle taking place just a few stoops down from his Bronx apartment building. When a young C witnesses Sonny murder a man, he follows the neighborhood’s street code and doesn’t snitch. From that day on, Sonny takes him under his wing, much to the consternation of Lorenzo (De Niro), C’s straight-arrow bus driver father. Every film we’ve ever seen tells us that C should listen to his actual father and steer clear of Sonny – that he’s the angel on one shoulder and Sonny’s the devil on the other – but we also hear Sonny, though the polar opposite of Lorenzo, giving C the same fatherly advice to go to college and stay out of trouble. And while the two father figures vie for influence over the young man, it’s actually Sonny who ends up in a position to save the boy’s life. In this Bronx tale, it actually takes two fathers to shepherd an impressionable boy into manhood.
Donnie Brasco surprisingly didn’t turn up on my radar until just before I saw Road to Perdition. In both The Godfather and A Bronx Tale, our attention is drawn to sons and how their father figures guide them or fail to. In Donnie Brasco, however, it’s the surrogate son, FBI agent Joe Pistone undercover as Donnie (Johnny Depp), who ultimately tries to keep the father type, Lefty Ruggiero (Pacino), from harm. “Your family’s your family,” Lefty explains to Donnie early on. And Donnie does become like a son to Lefty – after all, it’s his job as an undercover agent to get as close as possible to him – but he doesn’t count on Lefty becoming like a father to him in return as he disappears deeper and deeper into the character of Donnie Brasco. It’s a relationship tinged with pity but also legit affection. Donnie looks at Lefty and sees a weary man beaten down by the wiseguy life with nothing to show for a rosary’s worth of mortal sins. He’s a nothing, a nobody but deserves better, which Donnie attempts to give him before his mission gets cut short. One of the greatest scenes in the genre finds Lefty and Donnie outside the hospital room of Lefty’s junkie son, the failures of his life heaped at his feet and only Donnie’s there for him. “I love you, Donnie,” Lefty says softly before turning to look into his son’s room, a reminder that a few point-blank words from Pacino can often trump his more flamboyant deliveries.
But no mob film places father-son relationships at its heart quite like Road to Perdition. “Natural law: sons are put on this Earth to trouble their fathers,” aging crime boss John Rooney (Newman) tells enforcer Michael Sullivan, who Rooney had taken in as an orphan and raised. And whether it be the deceitfulness or unruliness of his biological son, Connor (Daniel Craig), or the mischievousness that causes Michael Jr. to become an inadvertent witness to an impromptu hit carried out by Connor, Rooney’s words about sons ring painfully true. Once Connor murders Sullivan’s wife and other son, Peter, in an errant attempt to further cover his money-skimming tracks, the film really becomes a question of which father, Rooney or Sullivan, will go to greater lengths to protect his son.
In Rooney’s case, he actually loves Michael more than Connor, who’s selfishly reckless and lacks all integrity. At a wake held at the Rooney house, there’s a tender scene in which Sullivan joins the old man at a piano for a duet. Connor looks on smiling but unable to hide the sibling jealousy burning inside. But even though Connor goes on to personally murder Sullivan’s family after marching Sullivan off to his own death, Rooney still sides with his biological son. In one scene, the old boss repeatedly thrusts his arms down on Connor, cursing the day he was born, only to sobbingly embrace him moments later. No matter how much he loves Sullivan and knows what is just, Rooney will never give up his own flesh and blood. His fatherly duty to protect his son leads to a beautifully shot final showdown, Thomas Newman’s score floating through a downpour as an obscured Sullivan washes away Rooney’s associates in a silent hail of gunfire. Raindrops splashing on the brim of his hat, Rooney turns to Sullivan and says, “I’m glad it’s you.” It was Paul Newman’s last great onscreen moment, every fiber believable in those final words suggesting that if he had to pay for his sins, he’s glad it was for justice for a man he considered a son. Hanks equally delivers, his eyes straining to hold back tears as his character feels for the trigger, putting his duties as a husband and father before his pain as a son as he kills the man who raised him.
The bulk of the film, of course, finds Sullivan and Michael Jr. on the road together, raising their profile as bank robbers, yes, but more importantly getting to really know each other for the first time — information as basic as favorite subjects in school. When Michael asks his father why he had always been more cold and distant towards him than his little brother, Sullivan admits: “You were more like me, and I didn’t want you to be.” It’s then that we really understand the mission the two are on. Yes, it’s about revenge, but it’s even more about a father securing a new path for his son so that he doesn’t end up following his own. After Sullivan squares all debts with the Rooneys, Maguire, the macabre, dead-filming hit man (Jude Law), surprisingly re-emerges to fulfill his contract. Michael Jr. pulls a gun on Maguire, Sullivan laying fatally wounded in the background. As Maguire coaxes Michael to give him the gun, we see a terrified Sullivan behind him shaking his head no. But when a shot rings out, the hit man slumps forward to the floor like a plank, and we see Sullivan shakily holding a gun, we know what that fear had signified. He didn’t want his son to have that blood on his hands. “I couldn’t do it,” Michael says, before rushing over to his father’s side. “I know,” says a smiling Sullivan, knowing that his son has been safely delivered from following in his footsteps.
There’s a line early on in Road to Perdition that I only really noticed recently. After Connor finds out that Michael Jr. saw him kill an associate, he turns to Sullivan and asks, “Can he keep a secret?” Sullivan responds, “He’s my son.” Connor says that’s good enough for him. It’s clear to me now that audiences are supposed to connect that moment to Michael Jr.’s final voiceover: “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.’” We now see son vouching for father just as father once did for son, and that should be good enough for all of us. You can imagine Sullivan smiling somewhere, seeing that his boy turned out like him only a little better. And isn’t that every father’s hope?
Okay, so we did the Paul Newman part. Now, where’s my goddamn ride home?