100 Films’ 100 Favourites #74
Pray for Michael Sullivan.
Runtime: 117 minutes
Original Release: 12th July 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 20th September 2002
First Seen: DVD, March 2003
Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump, Bridge of Spies)
Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Daniel Craig (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Casino Royale)
Jude Law (Gattaca, Closer)
Tyler Hoechlin (Everybody Wants Some!!, Fifty Shades Darker)
Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall)
David Self (Thirteen Days, The Wolfman)
Road to Perdition, a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner.
1931: Michael Sullivan is an enforcer for mob boss John Rooney, who thinks of him like a son. When Sullivan escorts Rooney’s unstable real son, Connor, to a meeting, the guy snaps and the other side are murdered — an event witnessed by Sullivan’s own son, Michael Jr. In an attempt to cover it up, Connor kills Sullivan’s wife and other son, while Michaels Sr and Jr escape, and begin a journey to take revenge.
Michael Sullivan Sr is, on paper, not much of a hero: a mob hitman, his trade is death. But when half his family is murdered, he’ll do what’s necessary to protect his surviving son and get justice — his kind of justice, anyway. In the process, he bonds with Michael Jr, finally developing the relationship they never had before. Perpetual nice guy Tom Hanks tones that way down to give what I think must be one of his best performances, which brings out the heart in Sullivan without tipping over into regular Hanks territory, in the process allowing the viewer to empathise with a man who in lesser hands would just be a cold-blooded murderer.
Connor Rooney is a liability, a deranged coward and crook who wishes he was a hard man. But he’s no threat — his father, mob boss John Rooney, is the one with the power and means. At heart he’s no villain to Michael Sullivan — he’s essentially his father — but after Connor murders Sullivan’s family, Rooney feels he must protect his own blood, despite caring for him less than Sullivan. With an actor of Paul Newman’s quality in the role, every nuance of Rooney’s complex emotional position is subtly explored.
Best Supporting Character
To try to stop Sullivan, the mob set hitman Maguire on his trail. He’s a crime scene photographer who uses his job to cover his crimes, and is a nasty, rat-like creep. Jude Law rejects his frequent pretty-boy-ness to really inhabit that part. (Basically, everyone is fantastic in this film.)
John Rooney: “This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see heaven.”
Michael Sullivan: “Michael could.”
Heavy rain falls as Rooney and his men cross an empty street to his car. When they reach it, the driver inside is dead, the door locked. They spread out across the street, guns ready, but there’s no one to be seen… Then a muzzle flashes and the men are slowly cut down — leaving only Rooney standing. As the shooter emerges from the shadows, the camera tracks in on Paul Newman, his posture and expression saying it all: he knows who it is, he knows his time has come, and he’s resigned to it. All of this set to just the sound of Thomas Newman’s mournful piano-and-strings soundtrack. Only when Rooney turns around does the rain begin to bleed onto the soundtrack, and we see the man is (of course) Michael Sullivan. “I’m glad it’s you.” With tears in his eyes, Sullivan finishes his job.
There are several reasons the above scene works so well — the pace of the editing, the sparse sound design, the music, the performances — but one of the biggest is the cinematography. The work of Conrad L. Hall, this is just one of the most obviously beautiful sequences in a film full of gorgeous imagery. He won a well-deserved posthumous Oscar for his work, his third from a career that garnered ten nominations.
One of the locations found was considered physically perfect but the wrong way round, with room only to shoot from right to left and not vice versa. Rather than, say, find somewhere else, production designer Dennis Gassner and his team dressed the location to be flipped, not only reversing street signs and car number plates, but even changing the side of the steering wheels on all the vehicles.
1 Oscar (Cinematography)
5 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (Paul Newman), Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound, Sound Editing)
2 BAFTAs (Cinematography, Production Design)
1 BAFTA nomination (Supporting Actor (Paul Newman))
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Performance by a Younger Actor (Tyler Hoechlin))
Despite some initial build-up, Road to Perdition wound up an awards season also-ran, losing out to that well-remembered classic Chicago and everyone’s desire to try to give Martin Scorsese an Oscar for Gangs of New York.
What the Critics Said
“The greatest gangster film since The Godfather.” — News of the World
“To call this the greatest gangster film since The Godfather would be an overstatement, though not by much. It is, however, the most brilliant work in this genre since the 1984 uncut version of Sergio Leone’s flawed but staggering Once Upon a Time in America. Road to Perdition, a less sprawlingly ambitious movie, is without major flaws.” — Eric Harrison, Las Vegas Sun
What the Public Say
“In a film about the mob and hitmen, the violence is generally kept to a minimum. And when it is done, it’s either very quick, or it’s shown partially offscreen or via a reflection. […] Throughout the film, the violence is never glorified as something heroic. But instead, it’s something that’s done only when it is necessary, and the weight of it is always felt. During the first killing in the film, the first one that Michael sees through a crack in the wall, it’s done unexpectedly and the victim falls to the ground in slow motion. When Mike brings out his Tommy Gun, it’s not something he does with glee, it’s something very deliberate as he solemnly takes the pieces out of the briefcase to assemble it.” — Bubbawheat, Flights, Tights, & Movie Nights
Road to Perdition feels like a film that didn’t get its due at the time, and has become almost something of a cult favourite since. Not “cult” in the traditional “gaudy fun B-movie” sense, but in that it has a dedicated following of people who realise its power. On the surface it’s a revenge thriller, replete with ’30s mob style and Tommy Gun massacres, but under that is a more emotive tale about masculinity as it pertains to the father/son dynamic. It’s all handled with sensitive artistry by director Sam Mendes, supported by first-rate technical merits across the board (the design and music are particularly noteworthy, in addition to the cinematography I already mentioned), and career-best-level performances from a strong cast. It lacks the sheer scale and scope to go toe-to-toe with The Godfathers as the definitive gangster movie, but as a smaller, personal tale, it’s exceptional.
#75 will be… Bayhem.