Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition is, in many ways, a film about finality. Featuring a story about a father’s last-ditch effort to protect what’s left of his family, the film similarly serves as a swansong for some legendary careers. Boasting not only Paul Newman’s final live-action performance but also the legendary Conrad Hall’s last stint as cinematographer.
Released in the summer of 2002- 20 years ago this week- it was notable in how calm, peaceful, and yet, somber it was in its approach to the mob movie. The genre is famously home to visceral killings and chronic profanity but Road to Perdition maintains its tranquil ambiance even when it does go violent.
The wildly bombastic Gangs of New York was released the same year, amasing a hefty amount of Oscar nominations (Ten in total, winning none), but in retrospect, Scorsese’s gangster epic has gone down as one of his lesser efforts. However, Mendes’ gentler and more atmospheric period piece has since cemented itself as one of the genre’s best offerings.
Hot off the overwhelming success of his 1999 best picture winner, American Beauty, Mendes pursued a story that contained minimal dialogue and more thematically rich imagery. While his previous film was not lacking in great cinematography, it was a very talkative project that, at times, loved to pat itself on the back for its take on modern American suburbia.
With a greater emphasis on visuals, Mendes would be able to tap into the roots of what makes the cinematic medium so special. And with Road to Perdition being an adaptation of a graphic novel, this emphasis on more meaningful imagery would also make for a faithful translation. What results is another look at America, but through a historical lens that mostly succeeds in its commentary on the fraught relationships between fathers and sons.
Tom Hanks stars as Michael Sullivan, a depression-era mob enforcer who finds that the man who brought him up, John Rooney (Paul Newman), ordered a hit on him and his family. Too late to save his wife and youngest child, Sullivan goes on the run with his son, plotting revenge on the gangsters who took everything from him. Sullivan and his son, Michael Jr (Tyler Hoechlin) share little in common, but their journey bridges the divide that so many fathers and sons experience. This central theme is weaved into every plot beat of the film, serving as a direct catalyst that propels the narrative.
Rooney’s fateful decision to betray Sullivan is motivated by the mistakes his selfishly reckless son, Connor (Daniel Craig), regularly makes and it forces him to choose between his biological son and his surrogate son (Who he unquestionably loves more). There is also a cyclical quality to these paternal relationships that bolsters the film’s thematic ambitions, as much like how Sullivan both reveres and fears Rooney, his son feels the same way about him. This inherited idolization is key to the repeated disappointment many feel when their father figures don’t quite align with their picturizations.
Many great mob films place an emphasis on father-son relationships-take the genre’s originator, The Godfather, and its vivid portrayal of a son who’s forced to take over his father’s violent business. But no other mob film holds this dynamic as close to its heart as Road to Perdition, making it an unorthodox but great pick for Father’s Day.
Despite this, its overarching story is clearly its weakest link, as this father-son dynamic is sometimes mired in slight contrivances. One blatant example is when Connor murders Sullivan’s wife and youngest son, he oddly doesn’t care where Michael Jr is, even though he witnessed one of the film’s earlier killings. It’s these moments of implausibility that hurt this film’s otherwise excellent portrait of 1930s mob life.
When viewing Road to Perdition, it becomes immediately clear that Mendes was able to muster top-tier talent. Tom Hanks sheds off his “good guy” persona, pulling off a commanding performance of a grizzled and trusted member of the Irish mob. When his world comes crashing around him, Tom Hanks perfectly taps into the inherent worries and fears a father would have in such a situation. Hoechlin gives one of the better child performances, while both Craig and Jude Law work well as the chief antagonists.
Paul Newman’s final film role netted him an Oscar nomination, and rightfully so. In the vein of his greatest performances, he provides a blend of vulnerability and swagger, as his criminal persona is wholly nuanced and sympathetic. Once he stares down his inevitable death, Newman possesses a gravitas that completely accentuates the film’s solemn aesthetic. Few actors have the privilege to end their careers on a great, understated performance, and this remains one of Newman’s most underappreciated.
Even so, the undisputed star of this film is Conrad Hall’s hauntingly beautiful cinematography. It serves as the perfect capstone to his career as it garnered him one final Oscar. Hall’s use of shadows and low-key lighting tinges the film with a profound melancholy, lending it a textural quality that emboldens the rain-soaked production design. His repeated use of long shots not only enlivens the period setting but single-handily reinforces the film’s elegiac ambitions, as his subjects are perpetually shrouded in dark hues that perfectly tap into the innate dreariness of inner-city mob life.
It all coalesces and culminates in the film’s most memorable sequence, the plaintively gorgeous “night rain shootout” scene. With only Thomas Newman’s dreamy and wistful score audible, Hall’s stunning photography poetically glides across a volley of gunfire that emerges out of the shadows. What Mendes and Hall create in this scene, is not so much a climactic gunfight, but a poignant moment where two men come to terms with the sins of their fathers. This would be Newman’s final scene ever, and it’s a hell of a way to go out. Hall’s work here is very much the pinnacle of his long and storied career.
Mendes would go on to make one of the greatest Bond entries in Skyfall, and one of the blandest in Spectre. He would also helm the lauded war film 1917, which wowed in terms of its technical prowess, as it was made to look like one continuous take. Yet, Road to Perdition still stands as his greatest technical achievement, as it’s one of the most serene and ambient realizations of the crime genre.
- Prabhjot Bains