While recently talking about the movies which would make up his retrospective, Tom Hanks, the star of Big, Splash, Philadelphia, and Saving Private Ryan, told CinemaBlend’s ReelBlend Podcast: “For one reason or another, no one references Road to Perdition.” It’s a curiosity he can’t really explain, but he makes a strong argument for the 2002 film, emphasizing how it features “two guys who turned out to be two of the biggest motion picture presences in the history of the industry with Jude Law and [Daniel] Craig.”
Hanks is only saying what mob movie aficionados have been whispering because of omerta laws for years. Road to Perdition is a gangster film classic even if it is based on a graphic novel (written by Max Allan Collins with illustrator Richard Piers Rayner, and further inspired by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima’s 1970s manga Lone Wolf and Cub).
Cinema legend Paul Newman was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in his final feature film performance, here as crime family boss John Rooney. It was also director Sam Mendes’ second film after his Oscar-winning American Beauty, and cast a new light on crime, family and America. And Mendes did that with cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, the genius who framed films like Marathon Man and In Cold Blood.
So let’s remember why you need to be talking about Road to Perdition more.
Playing Against Type
On top of the above qualities, Hanks told the podcast listeners, “You have me, Don-Mustache-with-a-hat-on, in it,” describing his lead role as the gangster enforcer. This is no minor detail. His role in Road to Perdition was a major break from everything audiences expected from the actor at that time. Hanks’ Michael Sullivan is a bad guy. He kills people for a living and tells his young son to deal with it when he first finds out, by accident, after hiding in the backseat of a car on its way to an unsanctioned mob execution.
Can you keep a secret? The 12-year-old son, Michael Sullivan Jr., was played by then-15-year-old Tyler Hoechlin, who went on to play Superman, Teen Wolf, and the lead in a 2019 indie romcom called Can You Keep a Secret. His scenes with Hanks grind the audience through an emotional cheese grater, centering the film on a sustained flavor of melancholy. That is until the kid giggles while learning to drive stick shift, careening around a tractor, or pulls some dice out of a shoe to shoot craps with Newman’s John Rooney.
The Irish mob family patriarch is intimidating, playful, loving, and mean. He doesn’t have to raise his voice but when he does, one or two words can take down a raging beast. His whispers are even more lethal. Newman exudes gravitas, menace, acceptance, and regret in perfectly measured doses. Subtle and powerful, Newman’s Rooney is a reasonable man who considers violence an avoidable expense, much like The Godfather’s Vito Corleone.
“What men do after work is what made us rich,” Rooney explains after turning down a labor union takeover. “No need to screw them at work.” It is easy to see why he is a respected man, as well as a feared one. As the rift grows between him and Sullivan, this line never breaks. This makes it even more painful as the two characters are forced to oppose each other.
Sins of the Father
“There are only murderers in this room, Michael,” Rooney explains in the dark cellars of an old Catholic church. “Open your eyes. This is the life we chose. The life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.”
The story was very loosely inspired by real-life crime boss John Patrick Looney, who ran the underworld in Rock Island, Illinois. His son, Connor, was indeed known for being unpredictable, but he also had street cred as an expert shot. He was killed on Oct. 6, 1922, opening fire on a rival gang who were attempting to execute his father.
“Natural law,” Rooney tells Sullivan. “Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.” There are two dads in Road to Perdition, but three fathers. Sullivan is father to Michael Jr. and loves his boss like a father. Rooney treats Sullivan like a son but has to protect his real child.
Daniel Craig’s Connor Rooney is one majorly conflicted character. Vengeful, resentful, tortured, and not very bright, he’s next in line to the Rooney family’s crime syndicate and brings an uninformed but emotionally ambiguous ruthlessness to securing his claim. He can’t seem to wipe that grin off his face, even when he knows he should. Connor thinks he knows a lot of things and even believes it makes him a big man. Then he breaks down like a frightened child, crumbling into his father’s shoulders in abject humiliation, each time he tries to think like an adult.
Michael Jr. is thrust into the grownup world without warning. He witnesses Connor shoot Finn McGovern (Ciaran Hinds) in the head point blank and kill three other gang associates, while his father looks on. He loses his mother, Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and brother Peter (Liam Aiken) in Connor’s botched slaughter of the aftermath. Michael Jr. thus becomes a target, as well as an accomplice.
“This house is not our home anymore,” his father tells him while packing a getaway car for a hurried road trip. “It’s just an empty building.” Michael Jr. is given no time to mourn before being tossed behind the wheel. As the car speeds past a bicycle discarded in the snow, we realize he’s also forfeited his childhood.
In a very revealing scene, Michael Jr. nonchalantly tells a waitress named Betty (Mina Badie) he and his father are bank robbers. It gets a chuckle behind the counter, and a barely repressed grin from Sullivan. The son still worries whether his father liked his recently murdered baby brother Peter better, and Sullivan’s answer is really the best under the circumstances. There is more than one reason they share their name. The young Michael is too much like his father, who sees this connection as a fate worse than death for the boy.
This may be Hanks’ most understated performance to date, and the temptations to break that control must have been enormous. Sullivan is haunted, hunted, harried, and on the run, with a very young person to protect. Not just on this short ride to a beach house in Perdition, Michigan, but from damnation itself, or a damned life. The silent look he gives Michael Jr. before the film’s concluding decision conveys more than whether to kill a dangerous man, but to factor in where that choice will lead.
Like The Godfather, Road to Perdition contains the casualties to the criminal community. Even Annie and Peter are not innocent bystanders, but mistaken targets, related to the marks, which is officially off-limits to the mob code but who often wind up on the premises. Even the gunfire on the open streets never ricochets into a lawful crowd. The film never devolves into a bloodbath, cameras cut away before fatal shots connect with bones, massacres are captured from ground-level, obstructed underfoot, all leaving a deeper impact on the imagination, and maintaining an increasingly tense pace.
The adapted screenplay was written by David Self, who keeps the story compelling with shades of crime noir double crosses, ulterior motives, and inscrutable internal communication, allowing the actors to flesh out their characters with glances.
Jude Law turns a one-dimensional hitman into an eccentric scene-stealer by developing his character’s second gig as a picture snatcher. The concept of a mob executioner whose cover story is a crime scene photographer is a novel one, in the graphic sense, and Law gives it life in very few scenes. His Harlan Maguire really wants to tell Sullivan, a fellow hitman whose work he knows when he takes the job, how exciting it all is. His passion is palpable. “To be paid to do what you love,” he nakedly enthuses. “Ain’t that the dream?” Law also finds a way to make it feel like this professional assassin might even practice his trade for free. He is chilling.
As Al Capone’s lieutenant Frank Nitti, Stanley Tucci makes all the most reasonable acting decisions given his character’s known history. The real-life Nitti brandished a baseball bat along with Capone when offering a legendary ultimatum, and took over the Chicago outfit when Al went to prison. Tucci never lets his Nitti lose composure; he is the most affable man Sullivan connects with but he also allows the murder in his eyes to peek through.
Destroying the Evidence
Each time I watch Road to Perdition, I notice something new. This time it was a glance Sullivan gives Michael Jr. after the high-speed giggle on the road. Annie, Jason Leigh’s character who is sidelined too quickly, is editing room roadkill. She commits to the emotional imperative of a gangster’s wife, unquestioningly protective of indictable secrets, so completely, evidence gets consigned to the cutting room floor.
A deleted scene from the film, which can be seen on YouTube, has very little dialogue, two words at most, but includes a pivotal piece of information. Cut from the opening sequence, Annie first walks into the wake to find the other mob wives are keeping their distance. It wordlessly shows that her gunsel husband is implicated in the death of the young man in the casket.
The Shots Seen Round the World
Conrad L. Hall won a posthumous Academy Award for Best Cinematography for the film. His previous work with Newman alone would be the dossier of a world class career: Harper, Cool Hand Luke, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Utilizing what he called magic naturalism, Hall could light Michael Jr.’s room through a rain-spattered window for mournful foreshadowing, angle a camera to impose a hierarchy of dramatic interest, or frame a shot to highlight shifting allegiances and growing isolation. The gloomy meeting rooms of Road to Perdition, whether they are in or under a church, or the bright lights of an executive boardroom table, are stained with pessimistic resignation. Small splashes of optimism are hidden in the beautiful texture, as the neutral color palette paints a timeless portrait of celluloid darkness.
Hall had been a camera operator on East of Eden and the 1962 adaptation of Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando, and went on to do cinematography for such films as The Day of the Locust, Morituri, Tequila Sunrise, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and American Beauty. Hall determined the atmospheric conditions of In Cold Blood, which informs Road to Perdition immensely.
Death is linked with water as a motif throughout Mendes’ film. At the opening wake, a bucket catches water from the ice keeping the body fresh in the coffin. The final climax is set against the slowly lapping waves of a lake shoreline. Connor is in a full bathtub when vengeance pulls his plug. So many gangsters are killed in the rain, and it’s pouring so much when Newman’s Rooney is waiting for his final exit, we can truly appreciate the resiliency of old-style fashion.
Looking the Part and Acting the Age
The costumes are a glowing testament to the authentic detail of the wardrobe department. The turned-down brims of the mobsters’ tilted fedoras complement the flappers’ cloche hats. Production designer Dennis Gassner and Nancy Haigh’s art direction bring the viewer believably into a Midwestern town during the Great Depression, and move into the urban flow of 1930s Chicago with artistic ease.
The handheld camera which follows Sullivan through the after hours, all-purpose, and ultra-permissive speakeasy captures set design in motion. It works in much the same way as how Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas moves through the opening sequence and gives the audience a view behind the scenes at the Copacabana when Henry (Ray Liotta) leads Karen (Lorraine Bracco) through the kitchen entrance to the best seats in the house to enjoy the music.
The musical score by Thomas Newman, with snippets composed by John L. Williams, is a masterwork of evocative tonal understanding. It compliments every mood, bringing sadness to danger, hope to loss, and tension to burn. This is done most effectively through emotional subversion. The big shootout, when Sullivan assembles his Tommy Gun and lets loose a barrage of bullets into a quartet of armed men shooting back, is accompanied by a beautifully haunting orchestral flourish. Not a shot is heard, only felt, and seen.
Gangster movies are some of the greatest gifts we get from Hollywood, especially if they come wrapped in a bulletproof vest with a dead fish in it. The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, Scarface, New Jack City, Public Enemy, and Little Caesar sit on the ruling commission. Dead End and Mean Streets control the stoop to the curb. Donnie Brasco, The Departed, and Ragtime are all of the highest caliber, even if most real hits are done with smaller-gauge pistol rounds. Mob movie fans can’t drive by any of these films when cruising the remote without giving it a shot. Even if we’ve seen the movie a dozen times.
Road to Perdition is worth repeated viewings. It is in the upper echelon of gangster genre greats. Newman’s boss doesn’t have the influence of Marlon Brando’s don but brings a more vulnerable wisdom. Hanks’ prodigal son will never have the family connections of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, but matches him in cool calculation. The actor who played him is certainly right about one thing. This movie should be on any list of top films: crime, family, crime family or otherwise. Now put the word on the street.
Road to Perdition can be streamed on Netflix.