Heroism in “Road to Perdition”

There are many stories about Michael Sullivan. Some say he was a decent man. Others say there was no good in him at all. But I once spent 6 weeks on the road with him, in the winter of 1931. This is our story. (Allan Collins, 11)

The film “Road to Perdition” and the graphic with the same title present a portrait of father and son who seek survival and in this pursuit build their relationship as relatives. In both the novel and the film father named Sullivan/O’Sullivan and his son Michael Jr. try to escape mafia to stay alive. They build with truth their relationship with each other. Sullivan decides to kill the mob and save the remains of his family because mafia boss Rooney/Looney orders the Sullivans to get killed. By escaping mafia and revenging the murders of Mrs. Sullivan and Michael’s younger son Michael and his son Michael Jr. really establish the strongest bonds between them. The heroic quest of Michael and Michael Jr. is heroic because, even though they only try to save themselves, it takes a lot of courage, effort, and power of will to bring justice as they define it.

The complex relationships between the father who kills people for money and his son who, practically, accidentally gets in crossfire of a criminal deal makes this a story of moral compromise. Both the film and the novel “Road to Perdition” end with Michael Sullivan being killed and his boy saved which can be considered a happy ending. The nature of heroism depicted in the film and the novel allows claiming that complex nature of heroism and morale standards apply to Sullivan as father (Allan Collins, 78). Even though he is a criminal, he becomes a heroic father as he eventually sacrifices his own life and makes everything possible so Michael Jr. could live despite father’s mistakes. Therefore, even though Michael Sullivan only deals with the problems he himself created being a gangster the way he handles these problems makes his and his son’s revenge quest a triumphal mission (Allan Collins, 112). Both of them achieve peace and redemption in the end no matter what cost they pay for it. Michael Jr. loses his father but stays alive while Michael Sullivan Sr. gains forgiveness sacrificing his life and exults to see his and his son’s enemies die. Michael Sr. dies being content.

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One of the main messages of the story in the film and the novel is that a bad man can be a good father. Michael Sullivan is a gangster who kills people for money. He is a soldier in Irish mafia; he is an assassin whose main job is to kill people (Selfб 65). The most complex question raised by the novel and the film is that of human nature. The story clearly illustrates that the world cannot be divided on black and white (Morris, 49). Michael Sullivan acts both as an embodiment of evil and as a holy man at the same time. Sacrifice, according to many philosophical and spiritual truths, is the strongest possible expression of love, empathy, and compassion (which are all the same). For Sullivan a quest for revenge and a long journey to keep his son alive is a way to die a better person that he had lived his life before.

“Road to Perdition” is a very philosophical story. The nature of conflict touches ethical questions and topics of morale. The messages implied in the story express the ideas of justice, duty, suffering, fear, love etc. The story of the main characters contains universal ideas of love, care, and compassion. The film and the graphic novel teach to defend the family and lives of close ones. Michael Sullivan show with what price serving the duty can come. Michael Sullivan sacrifices himself so his son could live and with this action he becomes absolved of his sins. By dying as hero and saving his son Michael Sullivan erases his guilty past. Therefore, the story’s message is also about forgiveness and a need to believe that people can change anytime for the better.

It is not morally acceptable to use violence or kill people and it is also unacceptable to seek revenge under any conditions. However, one can justify the murder if one does not believe in ethics (Kant, 35). A person who is a nihilist can do whatever he or she thinks necessary as long as one can live with the made decisions (Nietzsche, 140). To kill some other person to recognize oneself as better and worthier that another person’s self. A person who acts in a nihilistic way considers his or her actions as righteous due to the undeniable feeling of power and most certain assurance in own vision.

His whole life Sullivan followed orders and killed people living like a wild animal. The people he were killing he did not know personally and, therefore, he was killing the enemies of others and not his own. As the story shows to deliver justice and balance the scales Sullivan kills those he were killing for before. The father finally sees his real enemies when it becomes clear that his only real family (mafia) consists of his kids and wife (Allan Collins, 176). They are the ones to care about is father’s duty. By eliminating his bosses and saving his son Sullivan achieves redemption and dies a good father even though he lived his life as a bad man (Morris, 51). This transformation and the nature of Sullivan’s character development are the reason why Sullivan’s death justifies his live.

“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.” (Self, 15)

Towards his end Sullivan really obtains a real reason to kill and because killing is not new for him he does the only thing he knows how to do (no matter how bad it is) for an ultimately good cause. In many ways Sullivan only kills his real enemies (mafia) because he acts in a self-defense. Sullivan defends something that is natural for him to defend and by defending his son he defends the only good thing he has ever done in his life (Allan Collins, 86).

Michael Sullivan Jr. also kills. Father who saves his son eventually becomes a witness of his son saving himself (Morris, 57). This fact is very important because Sullivan Jr. shows that he knows what it is to protect his family as well. He follows his father’s example but only to save himself. Therefore, both Michael and Michael Jr. kill in self-defense.

It is important to highlight the fact that the two main heroes, Michael and Michael Jr., considering all that happens in both the novel and the film do not really have a choice what to do. Their only alternatives are to either die or fight (Allan Collins, 78). It would be fair to state that around half of all people (if not more) would act in the same way in case they were put under same pressure. Technically, murder that is done in self-defense does not qualify as murder. It is not so ethically but because all people want to live the one who attacks another person should always be ready to be attacked as well. It is said in the Bible that whoever takes a sword will be killed by a sword.

Because the film-adaptation of the graphic novel was done almost identically with the novel there is not much difference between them. Due to this and considering a crucial need to evaluate Michael as an honorable man attention was paid to the character development of the main heroes in both the novel and the film. The film tells the story almost identically as it is done in the novel. All the main characters are identical, the plot of the novel and the film present one message. This message can be formulated in the following way: Michael and Michael Jr., father and his son help each other to achieve peace and become close as they fight a common enemy. Through participation in a revenge quest son and father both achieve peace and become content with their destiny. Michael Sullivan is both a hero and an anti-hero. He lives his live as a villain but ends up being a force of good. Michael’s death evaluates his life and gives him a chance to die happily in peace.


Works Cited

Allan Collins, M. Road to Perdition. New York: DC Comics 2005. Print

Kant, I. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. New York: Courier Corporationб 2005. Print

Morris, C.The Figure of the Road: Deconstructive Studies in Humanities Disciplines. Chicago: Peter Lang, 2007. Print

Nietzsche, F. Basic Writings. London: Random House Publishing Group, 2011. Print

Self, D. Road to PerditionThe Shooting Script. Boston: Newmarket Press, 2002.

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