Today we dust off that Depression-era fedora and flatten the pedal on a rickety Model T to delve full-throttle into 2002’s crime-drama Road to Perdition written by David Self, adapted from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins. The flick follows a mob enforcer father and his sensitive-skewed son as they maraud across the Midwest robbing banks and evading all sides of the law. It’s equal parts Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Little Miss Sunshine somehow.
Symbolism is implemented to optimal effect in this screenplay. And themes are explored thoughtfully and thoroughly and characters fully-realized and presented with all the complexity and nuance that such fine writing warrants. Our two filial protagonists, Michael Sullivan, Sr. and Jr., are richly layered and undergo transformative journeys that not only muddy the moral waters of what’s right and wrong but strikes at the heart of humanity, coarse and often unscrupulous, and how and if it’s possible to retain integrity when the ethical rafters start crumbling around you.
It’s a finely honed story, one that uses a wide arsenal of verdant visual descriptions to communicate character subtleties. For example, the story takes place during the height of a socio-economic depression. We’re mid-winter and morale is at an all-time low. Optimism has been obliquely obliterated. And the bleak surroundings reflect the pervading grayness of the moralistic decisions that these characters must endure and the coldness of society that prevails in the trying times of the rock-bottom 1930s.
Less is more. The screenplay is all brute force when it comes to clocking you maximally with minimalistic dialogue. It’s nonverbal in its veracity. The story is lifted by the lack of loquaciousness. The script doesn’t brook superfluous sentences and instead relies heavily upon the unspoken spaces and subtext between dialogue. Each silence is kneaded with an abundance of emotional dimensions. We can see the internal wheels and cogs spinning wildly within in those moments of profound muteness. It’s a screenplay that is unabashedly trim and lean in execution.
The depiction of violence in the film is treated with an added aura of significance. The notion of inherited violence is exactingly examined and stands as the thematic fulcrum of the father and son relationship. Sullivan, Sr. seeks to shield his son from this seedy world of speakeasies and easy-murder. Sullivan shows signs of unresolved resentment as he sees much of himself in his son. His boy’s virtue and sense of justice is in jeopardy and Sullivan will stop at nothing to preserve it. Can a man seek a semblance of redemption through the salvaging of his son? The son himself questions whether or not he’s capable of such irredeemable acts but is conflicted as it took a horrendous family tragedy to finally bring them closer together. It’s an exemplary array of moralistic questions in which to build a strong screenplay around.
Suffice it to say the theme of fathers and sons plays a prominent role in the screenplay. It’s turgid with Turgenev-ness. Beyond the overt paternal back-and-forth between Sullivan and his son, there’s also the relationship between mob boss John Rooney and Sullivan himself. John is a surrogate father figure to Sullivan, and it makes his quest for vengeance all the more torturous. Their final climactic showdown is tinged with a bittersweetness as they share one last kindred exchange before what has to happen heartbreakingly happens.
It’s a well-weaved story that withstands the weathering of time. It’s a script that provokes thought and is economical in its ethos toward character studies. Silence begets more silence and acts of violence have import and go beyond mere gratuitous carnage. Set in a modernizing and weary world wherein lawlessness is slowing being eradicated and men must be held accountable for their sins. The story is mythic and epic in proportions and poses the same enduring questions that go unanswered today.
So beat a quick retreat to the library and get reading. It’s special.
And when you’re done excavating the cavernous depths of mankind’s capacity for corruptibility, lend your eyes to these other craftily-composed and newly-nabbed scripts:
- The pilot episode of Fox’s The Orville penned by animation-maven Seth MacFarlane.
- Emmy-nominated episode of The Americans “The Soviet Division” written by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg.
- HBO’s Westworld episode “The Bicameral Mind” written by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. Yet another Emmy nominated script.
- The Florida Project written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch.
- And please ponder our everlastingly expanding catalog.