- Road to Perdition (2002) movie review: Sam Mendes’ expertly assembled but cliché- and plot-hole-filled gangster thriller is a must-see largely thanks to the excellent performances of Tom Hanks and veteran Paul Newman.
- Three other notable Road to Perdition contributors: Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, composer Thomas Newman, and production designer Dennis Gassner.
- Road to Perdition synopsis: Accompanied by his oldest son (Tyler Hoechlin) and with bloody revenge in mind, Depression-era enforcer Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) goes on the run after his wife and youngest son are murdered by the psycho son of the local mob boss (Paul Newman), who, as it happens, was Michael’s father figure.
- Road to Perdition won one Academy Award: Best Cinematography. It received five additional nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Paul Newman), Best Original Score (Thomas Newman), Best Art Direction (Dennis Gassner and set decorator Nancy Haigh), Best Sound, and Best Sound Editing.
Road to Perdition (2002) movie review: Screenplay deficiencies tarnish Sam Mendes’ great-looking showcase for stars Tom Hanks and Paul Newman
British director Sam Mendes won an Academy Award for his first feature film, the 1999 U.S.-made psychological drama/social critique American Beauty. His less widely acclaimed – and less persuasive – second feature came out three years later: The gangster/revenge thriller Road to Perdition, starring Oscar winners Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, 1993; Forrest Gump, 1994) and Paul Newman (The Color of Money, 1986).
For his sophomore effort, Mendes relied on the assistance of a couple of American Beauty collaborators – cinematographer Conrad L. Hall and composer Thomas Newman – in addition to a couple of behind-the-scenes talent that had helped to conceive the period look and feel of Barry Levinson’s 1991 gangster biopic Bugsy – production designer Dennis Gassner and costume designer Albert Wolsky.
This experienced, Oscar-pedigreed quartet was tasked with the creation of another stylized depiction of a dysfunctional American family – but one, at least on the surface, far different from the bourgeois clan seen in American Beauty.
For instead of late 20th-century (or early 21st-century) suburbia, Road to Perdition catapults viewers into the warped universe of a Midwestern town during the Great Depression, a place and an era in which American Family Values included love, respect, loyalty, faith, a side of extortion, and, as warranted by circumstances, wholesale murder.
Road to Perdition plot: Remembering the good ol’ days
Adapted by David Self (and several uncredited hands) from author Max Allan Collins and illustrator Richard Piers Rayner’s 1998 graphic novel – itself inspired by the lives of Illinois-based organized crime boss John Patrick Looney (1865–1942) and his son, Connor, and by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima’s 1970s manga Lone Wolf and Cub – Road to Perdition begins as a teenager, Michael Sullivan Jr., reminisces about the winter of 1931, a time when he and his father were on the run from a hired killer and groups of gangsters.
Things had been less complicated in the days when Michael Sullivan Sr. (Tom Hanks) worked as an enforcer for Irish mafia boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivan, in fact, had been raised by Rooney and cared for the old man as if he were his own father. (Unlike the relationship between Edward G. Robinson’s Rico and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s Joe in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar, there’s no gay angle here.)
That feeling of mobster family intimacy is destroyed after 12-year-old Michael Sullivan Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) sneaks into his father’s car and witnesses Rooney’s psychopathic biological son, Connor (Daniel Craig), kill a man at point blank. Connor attempts to get rid of the young witness but instead ends up killing the boy’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and younger brother (Liam Aiken).
More murders ensue as the bereaved Sullivan Sr. – a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do – becomes obsessed with exacting revenge.
All the while, Sullivans Sr. and Jr. must keep one step ahead of cunning, bloodthirsty photographer/free-lance assassin Harlen Maguire (an appropriately creepy Jude Law), while also attempting to stay on the good side of the United States’ organized crime bosses – good capitalists all, dedicated to protecting the stability of their business endeavors no matter what.
The final showdown takes place in the forbiddingly named (fictional) community of Perdition, located on the otherwise serene shores of Lake Michigan.
Absurdities & clichés
Considering all the spilled family blood, Road to Perdition had the makings of a great modern tragedy. That promise, however, goes unfulfilled.
The chief culprit is the screenplay, which, whether or not faithful to the original graphic novel, is filled with absurdities (e.g., Connor doesn’t know, nor does he apparently care which Sullivan boy he murders) and clichés (e.g., Farm life = Wholesome; City life = Evil).
On the positive side, Sam Mendes and Conrad L. Hall (who received a posthumous Oscar for his work on the film) create a whole array of brilliant atmospheric shots, most notably a dreamlike rainy night massacre that is as stirring – partly thanks to Thomas Newman’s music – as it is unrealistic.
As a plus, Dennis Gassner’s period reconstruction – with the assistance of art director Richard L. Johnson and set decorator Nancy Haigh – is for the most part remarkable; the phony speakeasy-cum-bordello sequence is the one glaring exception.
Superlative Paul Newman
On top of that, the stage-schooled Sam Mendes (e.g., Cabaret and Oliver! in the West End) does wonders with his lead actors.
In American Beauty, he elicited what is arguably career-best work from Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. In Road to Perdition, an unusually stolid-faced Tom Hanks is a memorable Angel of Death figure, while Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Paul Newman delivers what may well be the most impressive performance of his nearly five-decade film career.
Had the other Road to Perdition actors been given as many good lines as Newman – “Natural law. Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers” – and extracted as much out of them as Newman does, this handsome but ultimately no-more-than-average thriller would have reached far closer to the great tragedy it aims to be.
Road to Perdition (2002) cast & crew
Director: Sam Mendes.
Screenplay: David Self.
From Max Allan Collins & Richard Piers Rayner’s 1998 graphic novel.
Tom Hanks … Michael Sullivan
Paul Newman … John Rooney
Jude Law … Maguire
Tyler Hoechlin … Michael Sullivan Jr.
Jennifer Jason Leigh … Annie Sullivan
Stanley Tucci … Frank Nitti
Daniel Craig … Connor Rooney
Ciarán Hinds … Finn McGovern
Liam Aiken … Peter Sullivan
Dylan Baker … Alexander Rance
Doug Spinuzza … Calvino
Anthony LaPaglia … Al Capone (LaPaglia’s scene is included on the Road to Perdition DVD).
Cinematographer:Editor:Production Designer:Production Company:
Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall.
Film Editing: Jill Bilcock.
Music: Thomas Newman.
Producers: Richard D. Zanuck, Dean Zanuck, and Sam Mendes.
Production Design: Dennis Gassner.
Costume Design: Albert Wolsky.
Production Company: Zanuck Company.
Distributors: DreamWorks Pictures | 20th Century Fox.
Running Time: 119 min.
Country: United States.
“Road to Perdition (2002): Tom Hanks + Paul Newman” notes
Composer Thomas Newman has been nominated for six Oscars, including Little Women (1994), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and American Beauty. (Update: As of 2023, Newman has amassed a total of 15 nominations. No wins.)
Production designer Dennis Gassner won an Oscar for Bugsy, shared with set decorator Nancy Haigh.
Costume designer Albert Wolsky won two Oscars: All That Jazz (1979) and Bugsy.
 Paul Newman lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Chris Cooper for Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. Coincidentally, Cooper has a key role in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.
This was Newman’s first supporting Oscar nod and ninth overall in the acting categories. It was also his last.
Road to Perdition movie credits via the American Film Institute (AFI) Catalog website.
Tom Hanks and Paul Newman Road to Perdition movie images: DreamWorks Pictures | 20th Century Fox.
“Road to Perdition (2002): Tom Hanks + Paul Newman” last updated in September 2023.