- 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 won cinematographer Conrad L. Hall a posthumous Academy Award. The gangster drama received five other nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Paul Newman), Film Editing, Music, Sound, and Sound Editing.
Road to Perdition movie review: Narrative issues hinder Sam Mendes’ great-looking Tom Hanks & Paul Newman showcase
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 second effort was Road to Perdition, the 2002 movie adaptation of writer Max Allan Collins and illustrator Richard Piers Rayner’s graphic novel.
For this gangster/revenge thriller, Mendes relied on the assistance of a couple of veteran American Beauty collaborators, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (In Cold Blood, Marathon Man) and composer Thomas Newman (Desperately Seeking Susan, The Player) – in addition to production designer Dennis Gassner (Bugsy, Barton Fink) – to create another stylized portrait of dysfunctional American families.
But instead of late 20th-century suburbia, Road to Perdition catapults viewers into the warped universe of a Midwestern town during the Great Depression; a place and an era where Family Values included faith, loyalty, a sprinkle of extortion, and wholesale murder.
Depression Era family values
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 reminisces about the winter of 1931, a period when he and his father were on the run from a hired killer and assorted gangsters.
Things had been less complicated during the time the father, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), worked as a hitman 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 changed for the worse 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 ends up killing the boy’s mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and younger brother (Liam Aiken) instead.
More murders ensue as the bereaved Sullivan Sr. – a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do – becomes obsessed with extracting revenge.
All the while, Sullivans Sr. and Jr. must keep running one step ahead of a bloodthirsty photographer (an appropriately creepy Jude Law) while dealing with the United States’ organized crime bosses – good capitalists all, eager to protect the stability of their businesses no matter what.
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 (credited to David Self), 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 Academy Award 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-trained Sam Mendes (Cabaret, Oliver!) 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 in 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 considerably closer to the great tragedy it aims to be.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Director: Sam Mendes.
Screenplay: David Self.
From Max Allan Collins & Richard Piers Rayner’s graphic novel.
Cast: Tom Hanks. Paul Newman. Jude Law. Tyler Hoechlin. Jennifer Jason Leigh. Stanley Tucci. Daniel Craig. Dylan Baker. Ciarán Hinds. Liam Aiken.
Cameo: Anthony LaPaglia (seen as Al Capone in a deleted scene included on the Road to Perdition DVD).
“Road to Perdition Movie (2002) Review” endnotes
Tom Hanks and Paul Newman Road to Perdition movie images: DreamWorks Pictures | 20th Century Fox.
“Road to Perdition: Implausible Narrative Mars Hanks & Newman Showcase” last updated in September 2021.