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Road to Perdition: No Turn Around?

Updated on January 24, 2017
Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) © Dreamworks/20th Century Fox
Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) © Dreamworks/20th Century Fox

"There are only murderers in this room! Michael! 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." --John Rooney

Is a killer beyond redemption? or is his soul condemned to eternal damnation or hell? That's one of the questions inside the heart of enforcer Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), and that's the sentence that his boss, Rooney (Paul Newman) declares. Sullivan knows where his soul is headed (or at least he thinks so), but still he wants to spare this "fate" from his son (Tyler Hoechlin). Either Michael sees himself beyond redemption, or thinks he can achieve it at least by keeping his son away from the life he has led.


Set during the Great Depression, Road to Perdition follows Sullivan, an enforcer for Irish mob boss John Rooney. When Rooney's son and fellow enforcer, Connor (Daniel Craig), loses his cool and murders an associate, Sullivan's older son accidentally witnesses it. This worries Connor, who unknowingly to his father and boss, kills Sullivan's wife and younger son, mistaking him for Michael Jr. This forces Sullivan to flee to Chicago with his son. Michael's desire for vengeance must wait while he tries to keep his son protected. To make matters worse, Connor recruits a ruthless killer (Jude Law) to hunt Sullivan and his son.

Although the titular "road to Perdition" refers to the road that Sullivan and his son take on their way to a town called Perdition, where an aunt can keep young Michael safe, it is obviously a reference to the road that Sullivan has traveled all his life, and the one he fears his son might embark on now that they're on the run. The dictionary defines "perdition" as "loss of the soul; eternal damnation". Sullivan knows the kind of life he has led, and where it has taken him. And despite all his efforts to keep it from spilling on his son, he fears that his desire for vengeance might push his son towards the same road.

Michael Sullivan and son (Tom Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin)
Michael Sullivan and son (Tom Hanks and Tyler Hoechlin) | Source

To contrast, the film presents Rooney's relationship with his own son, Connor, as a very troubled one. Rooney dislikes Connor's reckless behavior, and actually loves Michael, his surrogate son, more. Connor holds a constant jealousy towards Michael and a deep resent towards his father. Rooney has similar traits to Sullivan, albeit a bit late in his life. He regrets the way his son has turned out, but recognizes that it's his fault. His son is already in the "road to perdition", and he can't do anything about it.

Newman really shines as Rooney. In what ended up being one of his last roles, Newman veers from noble mob lord, to violent father, to regretful criminal seamlessly. His performance is calculated and meticulous in how he delivers his lines and emotions. His interactions with the people around him are perfect.

John Rooney (Paul Newman)
John Rooney (Paul Newman) | Source
Road to Perdition
Release date
July 12, 2002
Sam Mendes
David Self
Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Tyler Hoechlin
117 minutes
Box office

And that's one of the film's strengths: its cast. Aside of Newman and Hanks, Craig, Law, Stanley Tucci, and even young Tyler Hoechlin, all are pretty good in their roles. As for Hanks, much was said about the role (a "killer") being a stretch, but it really isn't. His character is indeed a killer, and does so ruthlessly, but is that enough for a "stretch"? One can say he is a "bad guy", but he is juxtaposed with characters that are worse than him, thus making him the "good guy" and the one to root for. But regardless of how diverse the role is (or isn't) for him, Hanks always delivers and he infuses the role with the needed restrained humanity and cold sense of "fatherhood".

Aside of the performances, two of the best assets the film has are Sam Mendes' direction and Conrad Hall's excellent cinematography. Hall, who died shortly after the film was released, received a posthumous Oscar for his work. The work of both make the film look both dark and beautiful at the same time.

This wasn't the first time I saw this film. But I hadn't seen it since its release, and was looking forward to rewatching it. I'm glad I caught it again on TV. Grade: A-

7.7 /10

Road to Perdition Official Trailer

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