How does “Road to Perdition” use Catholic references to create irony?
Quick Answer: Sam Mendes’ film Road to Perdition refers to the name of a town: Perdition, Michigan. Though Perdition will ostensibly be a place of solace and safety for the Sullivans, a father and son who are running from the mob, the name of the town is ironically misleading. In the context of Christian theology, perdition refers to hell. Throughout the film, Mendes uses Catholic allusions to ironically emphasize the disparity between the characters’ surface religious devotion and their hidden dark agendas. Whether it’s the mob meeting that takes place in a church or the gangsters’ supposed piety, Mendes’ film is filled with moments that juxtapose the façade of faith with the underbelly of sin and violence.
In Road to Perdition (2002), director Sam Mendes uses Catholic allusions to ironically emphasize the disparity between the characters’ surface religious devotion and their hidden dark agendas. The title of the movie refers to the name of a town—Perdition, Michigan—to which hitman Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks, playing against type) is traveling with his son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), in order to seek protection. The journey is incited by the boy having witnessed a gangland killing perpetrated by Connor (Daniel Craig), son of gangster boss Rooney (Paul Newman). Knowing that the murder had a witness, Connor travels to Sullivan’s house to kill Michael Jr., who escapes the attempt on his life. However, Connor kills Sullivan’s youngest child and his wife to eliminate them as witnesses.
Tyler Hoechlin as Michael Jr. and Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan in Road to Perdition
Though Perdition will ostensibly be a place of solace and safety for the Sullivans, the name of the town is ironically misleading. In reality, “Perdition” refers to a place where all hope is lost. Specifically, when used in a religious context, the word refers to hell. As such, the town—and, as the title suggests, the entire film—has a darkly ironic twist. Sullivan believes Perdition will be a sanctuary for his son, a safe place where he can escape the immorality and violence that has permeated their lives. The town’s name, however, implies that the opposite is true; Perdition is where the eternally damned gangsters come home to roost.
This use of Christianity as a means to introduce irony is apparent from the onset of the film. At the beginning of the movie, there is a Catholic wake at Irish mob boss Rooney’s home. Though Rooney appears to be showing respect for a deceased comrade, it’s revealed that it was Rooney who ordered the man’s death. Throughout the film Mendes creates similar moments, juxtaposing the façade of faith with the underbelly of sin and violence. For example, there are several scenes in which Mendes places religious pictures and iconography in the rooms where violence is taking place, stressing the hypocrisy of these so-called devotees of Christ. In one scene, Sullivan meets Rooney in a church. There the hitman and his employer use the location as a cover to disguise their meeting where they discuss their sinful business. As they converse about murderous acts in the basement of the holy building, they’re surrounded by discarded religious statues. The detritus makes the room seem like a sort of Catholic garbage dump for those who have discarded their faith.
Paul Newman as Rooney and Tom Hanks as Sullivan
In ironic counterpoint to Jesus on the cross, an enduring symbol of self-sacrifice, there is a fair amount of selfish double-crossing that goes on in Sullivan’s world. Rooney betrays his subordinates; Connor steals from his father; and Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci), first helps Rooney, and then, after Sullivan kills Rooney, helps Sullivan kill the loose cannon Connor. In the end, Nitti finishes cleaning up the mess by having the assassin Maguire (Jude Law) kill Sullivan.
Tom Hanks as Sullivan and Tyler Hoechlin as Michael Jr.
Although Mendes may inject Road to Perdition with darkness and bitter irony, his tragic film isn’t entirely pessimistic. At one point in the film, Rooney tells Sullivan that there is no salvation for them given the road they have chosen in life. But, Sullivan counters, there is still hope for his son. Before he dies, Sullivan kills Maguire so that his son will not do the deed out of revenge, thus halting his offspring’s journey to spiritual perdition. In committing this final act of violence, Sullivan gives Michael Jr. the chance to have his outer devotion mirror his pure inner faith.