The Road to Perdition
(A very special thank-you to G-Man for the initial suggestion)
To be honest, this wasn't the column I wanted to write.
Originally, I was going to take my cue from Comic Related Forum user G-Man, and focus on non-superhero comic related movies. Even had two picked out - The Road to Perdition and A History of Violence. I had my notes set up and even had an idea of focusing on both as meditations on father/son relationships, on the impact of violence on families, and how both took their source material in bold (and sometimes unusual) directions.
But with the recent passing of Paul Newman, that changed, and I am choosing my focus this month on The Road to Perdition - not just because it was his final live action film appearance (he did voice for the Cars, and "retired" from acting in 2006), but because in many ways, his performance is the emotional centerpiece of the film...which takes the original graphic novel and turns it from a study of revenge into a parable about fatherhood, and the complexity of father/son ties.
The original graphic novel, written by Max Allan Collins (who, in many ways, should probably be the subject of a future blog post) and illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner, tells the story of Michael O'Sullivan, World War I veteran and local mob enforcer, and his son, Michael Jr. Working for John Looney, a local crime boss in the Tri-Cities area of Iowa, O'Sullivan is known as the Angel - in fact, part of both stories is about a son trying to understand his father. (Although in the graphic novel, the subtext is a little more blatant). After Michael Jr. witnesses his father "on the job", the rest of O'Sullivan's family is brutally murdered, and the elder O'Sullivan narrowly escapes an assassination attempt. Both father and son travel the Midwest, sharing encounters with both Al Capone and Eliot Ness, as the O'Sullivan seeks retribution for his loss, and his crimes. The graphic novel is rather good - it (admittedly) borrows much from Lone Wolf & Cub, and is a very well-told tale.
However, in translating it to the screen, director Sam Mendes and screenwriter David Self take some liberties with the graphic novel (including the ending), but in doing so, elevate it from just a meaningful adaptation of a graphic novel to an elegiac meditation on fatherhood, family, and loss.
In many ways, the movie follows similar story beats - Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) serves as a "soldier" to Irish crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). When Michael Jr witnesses his father and Connor, Rooney's son (played by Daniel Craig) in the midst of their duties, it is decided to "take care" of Sullivan's family. Although it's not a panel-for-panel adaptation of the graphic novel, there is a sense of familiarity with the material - almost too familiar. It's the subtext of John Rooney's relationships with both Sullivan and Connor that play out in the movie - yes, there's the obvious "adoptive son" relationship between the elder Rooney and Sullivan. Hanks and Craig give their characters a slightly additional weight and nuance - Connor Rooney doesn't quite seem like the hothead of the graphic novel, nor Sullivan the kind of hard-boiled archetype who thrashes his foes and takes no prisoners.
But Newman's performance in Road to Perdition, quite frankly, is rather haunting. As I was watching the movie, I had the eerie sense that Mr. Newman might not be around anymore. There's a frailty and weakness about Rooney...but in addition, there's also the sense of much never being said. The way Rooney interacts with his son, his slight regret at having to choose between "honor" and respecting Sullivan - there's much in his performance that gives the movie a depth and weight that belies its graphic novel origins. Newman, in a "supporting" role, is able to turn what could have been an easily sympathetic role filled with false pathos into a slightly more full-blooded character. In addition, I'm grateful that Mendes chose to end and shoot the elder Rooney's "arc" in the way that he did - given Mr. Newman's recent passing, avoided a relatively tasteless "this-is-how-he-ended" montage. Much of the movie has a grace, elegance, style, and realism that makes it feel much more honest. Something that could have been an easy Hollywood clich... - thanks to Paul Newman - now has a much broader palette, and seems much more honest, much more human, and makes the film incredibly moving.
Of course, the restructuring of the graphic novel does mean that there are a few flaws with the film, most notably in the character played by Jude Law. Yes, sometimes having a good antagonist helps a movie along, but for some reason, his character felt rather shoehorned into the plot, which leads to my major quibble - the ending. The movie deviates from the graphic novel dramatically - a key change in plot. It's hard to discuss without spoiling the movie or the book, but whereas one tells the story about how the sins of the father may be visited upon the son, the other provides an almost false hope. Despite the carnage and devastation, Michael Sullivan Jr. is given a "get-out-of-jail-free" card in one, and promised a happy ending. When you realize what Perdition means (besides being a town in Kansas), one of the two rings false...but thankfully, does not diminish the overall impact of the film.
But this is a film that moves beyond being a "comic book movie"...and really sets the bar higher for adaptations of graphic novels. With the all of the pre-release attention that Watchmen is receiving, one might think that the pinnacle of form would be a straightforward adaptation of maybe the quintessential graphic novel. But graphic novels and movies are not alike (and yes, I have stood on this soapbox twice before ), and sometimes, I wonder if a straightforward panel-by-panel adaptation does a disservice to the source material...because it doesn't allow for the kind of nuanced performance that allows a movie to open up, to move beyond simple popcorn thrills and into something alive.
Paul Newman has had an extremely diverse and outstanding career, and in his grand resume of performances, The Road to Perdition is little more than a footnote - a curtain call that may not be regarded as one of his classics. However, as a tribute to his talent as an actor, he deftly helps raise the game, and provides a subtle, gentle performance of a man moving towards his end...which may have reflected his real-life situation as well.
And also provides one of the best executed adaptations of graphic literature in cinema history.
But please, don't feel as if I need to have the last word - make your opinions known in the TV Party Comic Related forums. If you'd like to read more, please feel free to visit my blog at http://blogthispal.blogspot.com, or follow me on Twitter, Plurk or Facebook. (Just please send me a note when you friend me on Facebook - that way, I know where you're coming from). In addition, I also contribute to Junk Fewd, which is more of a social media/Internet-related blog.
Until next time....keep watching!
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