Movies We Love: Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition (2002)

This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.


In the world of Prohibition and mob-ruled financing, there are none more threatening than the enforcers who come to collect. Michael Sullivan is one such man. He is a hit man for Irish mob boss, John Rooney, a man he serves loyally almost as a son. Sullivan’s family stay separate from his nights of enforcement, but, when his oldest son, Michael Jr., witnesses a murder by Rooney’s biological son, Connor, the tables turn on Michael Sr. He takes his son away, and the bond they form on the road becomes just as strong as the revenge building up within the wronged hit man.

Why We Love It

Director Sam Mendes broke onto the scene of feature film making in 1999 with American Beauty. He had directed a few TV movies before that, but his stamp was made as soon as American Beauty got its release. It won Mendes an Academy Award for Best Director, and amazing feat for any director on his first theatrical film. Three years later, he would return with a film that many consider an underrated gem and even more consider Mendes’ best film to date.

Road to Perdition is a incredibly moving film about fathers and sons, children and men, and the trait-passing from generation to generation that some men, some cruel men, fear most of all. Michael Sullivan is afraid for his son. He treats his other son, Peter, more lovingly, because he sees less of himself in Peter than in Michael Jr. He knows the badness that has been born into him, no doubt instilled in him from Mr. Rooney at an early age, and his greatest fear in life is that his oldest son will grow up to be just like him.

There is no doubt of the emotion and power in Road to Perdition‘s story. The nature of the father-and-son quest for revenge and then redemption is an old tale. The Lone Wolf and Cub stories (both in manga form and in the films based on them) come to mind first. This film is even based on a graphic novel, one that had great changes made to it in the process of being adapted to the screen.

But more than the moving story, Mendes’ execution is flawless here. His direction and structuring was impeccable with American Beauty. Here, only three years after that, it is a work of art, a thing of beauty aided by the masterful cinematography from Conrad L. Hall and punched with emphasis by the quirky melancholy sounds of its Thomas Newman score. The care and time put into each and every shot within the film is noticeable, and Mendes utilizes all the modern techniques to the best of their ability, even CG when the shot calls for it. The shot that tracks around the front of Sullivan’s car as he and his son enter Chicago is evidence of that.

Hall, a legend in the field of cinematography pushes the color scheme to its very limit. Everything found within the frame is placed just perfectly for the full effect of the shot. Mendes and Hall have a very keen idea of the mis-en-scene in Road to Perdition, sometimes blurring out items in the foreground while the background is perfectly in focus. It’s all about manipulating the audience where to look at what point, and the team behind the imagery here were at their peak. It’s scene in the bustling city street of Chicago as Tom Hanks as Sullivan walks slowly in the far background. Mendes and Hall shoot it in just a way so that you are never searching for him in the crowd, never having to play Where’s Waldo with the star of their film.

Speaking of Hanks, it’s difficult to say he gives his best performance in Road to Perdition. As an actor who has turned in so many perfect and near perfect performances, it’s difficult to point to any one as his best. However, with Road to Perdition, he delivers just the right amount of harshness and gloom while never turning us off to the character as a protagonist. Much like Paul Newman as Mr. Rooney, Hanks has to bring out so many different emotions in his character, and he does so perfectly. Newman also delivers a powerful performance, and he is forced to trek across the spectrum of emotion even further than Hanks. Rooney is a charismatic man to the general public, but he also has to be convincing as a man who is feared. Newman pulls all of this and more out of a performance that garnered him an Oscar nomination in 2003. He lost out that year to Chris Cooper in Adaptation, and the debate continues as to whether or not the true best performance won that year.

Even beyond Hanks and Newman as two fathers and their fight for their sons’ futures, secondary performances from the likes of Daniel Craig as Connor and Jude Law as a hit man hired to kill Michael are great. Craig, flawlessly ridding himself of his accent here, brings a childish intensity to his character, a man who acts before he thinks. Law is creepy to say the very least as a man who collects photographs of the people he kills. Each character in Road to Perdition is unique, even those we never see. Al Capone is very much a character here, but he’s only referred to once or twice, a technique that creates a mythological perception of him in our minds. Scenes were shot with Anthony LaPaglia playing the crime lord, but they were ultimately cut. It was an intelligent decision. The things we build up in our minds can never be surpassed by what we are shown.

Moment We Fell in Love (SPOILER WARNING)

In a film that delivers flawless shot after flawless shot, it may be tough to choose one that stands out more than any. However, the best shot of the film may very well be the best shot I’ve seen in the last decade. It comes late in the film when Sullivan, hiding in a dark alleyway, is firing his tommy gun on a group of men and Mr. Rooney standing out in the rainy street. Mendes tracks around the group of who are being mowed down with Rooney always in the center of the shot. He doesn’t turn. He knows what is happening. He just stands with his back to the gunman staring off into space, possibly reflecting on the events that have led here.

It’s an amazing shot, but the scene itself is more powerful than anything else found within the film. Rooney, the last of his men standing, continues to face forward, as Sullivan walks out of the alleyway and towards his father figure. The crime boss finally does turn, and, just before Sullivan kills him with a flurry of bullets, Rooney simply says, “I’m glad it was you.” The man who knew he would one day die violently just as many in his position have in the past finds solace in the fact that it was done for a purpose, and it was done by someone who loves him but who is standing with their own back against the wall.

Final Thoughts

Road to Perdition is an amazing film, a highly engaging story set in a world of cruel men who still care how they are viewed in the eyes of their children. Michael Sullivan is a killer, a man who knows his future is bleak, and he wants so much more for the son whose survival he now finds himself literally fighting to uphold. Opposite him is Rooney, a man who feels sons are only put on the earth to cause trouble for their fathers. That is all he knows from his own son, and he craves the relationship he sees in Sullivan and his sons.

This film, the second feature from Sam Mendes, still remains his best both in concept and in execution. He would go on to make other fine films, films like Jarhead in 2005 and Away We Go in 2009. The less mentioned about Revolutionary Road, the better. However, as great as those other films are, nothing stands up to Road to Perdition, a film that has so much to say and says it in the most stunning way possible.

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Jeremy's been writing about movies for a good, 15 years, starting with the film review column of his high school newspaper. He stands proud as the first person in his high school to have seen (and recommend) Pulp Fiction. Jeremy went on to get a B.A. in Cinema and Photography with a minor in journalism. His experience and knowledge of film is aided by the list of 6600 films he has seen in his life (so far). Jeremy's belief is that there are no bad films, just unrealized possibilities. Except Batman and Robin. That shit was awful.

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