ROAD TO PERDITION
April 14th, 2004
(Draft date: 7/13/2000), written by David Self
Reviewed by Christopher Wehner
NOTE: The screenplays we review are often in development and may experience many rewrites, some could end up being completely different than what is reviewed here. It is our hope that our reviews generate more interest in the film. Thank you.
David Self’s first produced credit was for the remake of The Haunting. He followed that up with the historical drama Thirteen Days, and now Road to Perdition is his third produced script.
Road to Perdition is being touting as a "watershed" film for Tom Hanks. A movie where he plays, for once, a real bad guy who kills unmercifully. A character with a dark side and one who openly embraces it.
The script is by David Self and is based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard P. Rayner. Self has crafted a poetic and poignant story of deception, revenge, and redemption.
Here’s the gist of the story without giving away any major plot elements: Set in Prohibition-era Illinois, a poverty stricken, decadent and violent era when gangsters like Al Capone and Frank Nitti ruled Chicago and its underworld like emperors. The Italians didn’t own a monopoly on organized crime however. An Irish expatriate known as "Old Man" John Looney (Paul Newman) runs the rackets in Rock Island, IL. He has his hands in everything, from the newspapers to the unions. He considers the town, which appears to be made up of mostly Irish immigrants, his very own. His flagitious and unscrupulous son Connor and his "adopted son," Michael O'Sullivan (Hanks) are his most trusted cohorts. O'Sullivan is affectionately called "The Angel of Death," and is the most feared hitman in organized crime. As a World War I veteran with no family, Looney took O’Sullivan under his wing and gave him a purpose and a place in life. O’Sullivan has a wife (Annie) and two sons, and on the surface appears to be a normal everyday family man.
The script opens with an "Old Man" who appears to be in a "CELL-LIKE ROOM." He is recounting the story of his father, Michael O'Sullivan. We will come to know of this man as Michael O'Sullivan, Jr. He tells us of his father that, "Some called him a monster. A demon. A killer of men," and that others called him "an avenging Angel." He then asks the question, "Which was he? Neither? Both?"
And with this voice over starts the recollection of a story about innocence lost, at least, for Michael O'Sullivan, Jr. Two or three scenes into the script and little Michael is suspicious of what his father does for a living. He and his younger brother Peter are not sure what exactly their father does for Mr. Looney. They know he carries a gun. Little Michael surmises that his father, "…goes on missions for Mr. Looney. They’re very exciting and dangerous, that’s why he brings his gun. Sometimes the President sends him on missions too. To fight bad guys and save people. Because he’s a war hero and all."
Clearly Tom Hank’s isn’t playing a truly mean, down and dirty, bad guy. He’s a anti-hero to a degree, and as the story unfolds he does become a cold and calculating killer bent on revenge. Act one comes to an end with a tragic event. Michael Jr., curious as to what his father really does, stows away one evening in the back of his father’s car while he goes on a "mission" for Mr. Looney with his son Conner. He witnesses a brutal shooting (Conner is made to be the aggressor, as Michael O’Sullivan Sr. only fires in self-defense.) Little Michael is discovered by Conner, who nearly shoots him. O’Sullivan intervenes and assures Conner that his son will keep the secret. Now Michael must tell his son everything, and in a effect, wipes way all innocence the boy had about life in Rock Island and his father. A few days later O’Sullivan is asked to deliver a note to Tony Lococo, an arm of the Irish Mob. O’Sullivan is told, "no violence," and he can even go "unarmed." The note O’Sullivan delivers is his own death sentence. (Which was telegraphed by his instructions to go "unarmed.") He of course senses it and in the last moments, before it is too late, kills Lococo and his henchmen. Realizing what is happening he rushes home, only to find his wife and his youngest son Peter shot to death. Michael Jr. arrived as the events were unfolding and was able to hide, but not before seeing who the assassin was.
The title "Road to Perdition" is meant as a metaphor for the choices we make—the "Roads" as O’Sullivan Sr. eventually tells us, one chooses to travel (from page 114 of the script):
All we are is a million choices. You can choose right a million times. Until the day comes and you have no choice but evil. It’s then you know you’re not an angel. All you are is a man.
O’Sullivan clearly has a warped view of the world, which helps to explain his character. This is a story of O’Sullivan’s road to ruin. The choices he has made, and consequences of those choices. His only hope is that his son can avoid his fate. I’m not sure I entirely buy the story’s explanations, but it confronts the moral and social issues it raises, and it does so without too much premeditation or contrivances. The finish line for the O’Sullivan’s is Perdition, Kansas where Annie’s family lives. But it shouldn’t be confused with the title, for there’s a deeper meaning here.
The main nemesis of the story is an interesting character called "The Reporter," who will be played by Jude Law. A character that needs to be beefed up for the movie, and if subsequent rewrites have done this, so much the better. "The Reporter" is hired to hunt O’Sullivan, and his son, and kill them. The way he methodically chases them, and the reasons for his nickname, were fairly inventive I think. (I assume this character is from the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard P. Rayner, as my understanding is that Self’s script follows the novel pretty closely.) How he hunts O’Sullivan was very weak and also needs more substance.
This could be a really dark story, and I think there’s enough here (especially in the second and third acts) to back the claim that this is a "different" kind of role for Hanks. I suspect he’ll be nominated for another Oscar for this performance. Sam Mendes is the director, and that’s an interesting choice. His work on American Beauty was so fantastic, and he certainly has a unique visual style. He seems to be a filmmaker with something to say, which is refreshing. I’m really looking forward to seeing what these fine filmmakers do with David Self’s solid and engrossing script.