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Road to Perdition is a period drama directed by Sam Mendes. The screenplay was adapted by David Self, from the graphic novel of the same name by Max Allan Collins. The film stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Tyler Hoechlin and Daniel Craig.

Filming took place in the Chicagomarker area. Mendes, having recently finished 1999's acclaimed American Beauty, pursued a story that had minimal dialogue and conveyed emotion in the imagery. A "cold look" was created for the locations to emphasize the characters' emotional states. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall took advantage of the environment to create symbolism for the film, for which he won several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

The film was released on July 12, 2002. The cinematography, setting, and the lead performances by Newman (in his final theatrical screen appearance) and Hanks were well-received, though the film was criticized for not creating a strong emotional attachment for its audience.


Michael Sullivan, Sr. (Tom Hanks) is a mob enforcer for John Rooney (Paul Newman), an Irish American organized crime boss in Illinois during the Great Depression and the Al Capone mob-rule era. Sullivan is an orphan raised by Rooney who has worked most of his life for the crime boss, who looks at Sullivan as a second son.

Rooney's actual son Connor (Daniel Craig), joined by Sullivan, goes to a warehouse for a meeting with Finn McGovern (Ciarán Hinds), a disgruntled employee. Twelve-year-old Michael Sullivan, Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) hides in his father's car and witnesses Connor's impulsive killing of McGovern.

Sullivan swears his son to secrecy, but Connor decides to hush these witnesses forever. He ruthlessly murders Sullivan's wife Annie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the couple's younger son Peter (Liam Aiken), mistakenly thinking he has murdered young Michael. Sullivan and his remaining son flee to Chicagomarker.

Sullivan requests a job with Capone's mob. He asks permission of crime kingpin Frank Nitti (Stanley Tucci) to seek revenge on Connor, who has been sent into hiding. The offer is rejected. Rooney is aware of the meeting and allows Nitti to dispatch psychopathic assassin Harlen Maguire (Jude Law) to kill Sullivan.

Maguire, who likes to photograph his victims, tracks Sullivan and son to a roadside diner but misses a chance to make the hit. Knowing now that Nitti has sided against him, Sullivan begins robbing the banks that hold the Capone and Rooney syndicate's laundered money, hoping to trade it for Connor. His son Michael drives the getaway car at the holdups.

Maguire sets a trap with the aid of Rooney's accountant, Alexander Rance (Dylan Baker). On the day Sullivan comes to Rance's hotel room, Rance stalls him until Maguire can arrive. Rance is killed in the crossfire of the ensuing gunfight. Maguire also falls, his face peppered with fragments of glass, though he manages to shoot the escaping Sullivan in the arm before collapsing.

Michael drives his father to a farm where a childless elderly couple helps Sullivan to recover. During his recuperation, Sullivan discovers (in ledgers taken from Rance) that Connor has been embezzling from his father for years, using the names of dead gang members to hide his activities. As the Sullivans depart, they give the couple much of the remaining money from the bank robberies.

Rooney is surprised by Sullivan while attending Mass. He acknowledges that he already knows about the embezzlement and that this must end with Connor's death, but still refuses to be the one to give up his son.

That night, cloaked by darkness and a driving rain, Sullivan dispatches Rooney's entire entourage with his Thompson submachine gun, ultimately gunning down Rooney himself. Seeing no further reason to protect Connor now that Rooney is dead, Nitti reveals his location to Sullivan, making him promise that this will be the end. Sullivan goes to the hotel where Connor is hiding and kills him to complete his full circle of revenge.

Sullivan decides to drive Michael to a relative's beach house in Perdition, a town on the shore of Lake Michiganmarker. Here he is ambushed and shot by a disfigured Maguire, who has survived the hotel shootout. Young Michael shows up and points a gun at Maguire, but cannot bring himself to fire. The standoff ends when Sullivan draws a hidden gun and kills Maguire before dying in his son's arms.

Mourning his father's death, Michael finds his way back to the elderly farm couple that looked after them. He realizes that his father's greatest fear was that Michael would grow up to be just like him.

Cast and characters

  • Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan, Sr.: A hitman who works for John Rooney. Hanks was sent a copy of the graphic novel Road to Perdition by Steven Spielberg while he was filming Cast Away (2000). Initially too busy to make sense of the story, he later received David Self's adapted screenplay, to which he became attached. Hanks, a father to four children, described Michael Sullivan's role, "I just got this guy. If you're a man, and you've got offspring ... emotionally, it's devastating."
  • Tyler Hoechlin as Michael Sullivan, Jr.: Hoechlin was chosen from over 2,000 candidates to portray Michael Sullivan's son. The actor was 14 years old at the time of filming. For scenes in which Hoechlin's character assisted his father as a getaway driver, Hoechlin was trained by a driving instructor.
  • Paul Newman as John Rooney: A crime boss who treats Sullivan as a surrogate son. Newman was unanimously the first choice for the role. The actor prepared by requesting Frank McCourt, the Irish-American author of Angela's Ashes, to record a tape of his voice.
  • Daniel Craig as Connor Rooney: The unstable, violent son of John Rooney. He is jealous of the surrogate relationship between his father and Sullivan.
  • Jude Law as Harlen Maguire: A crime scene photographer who moonlights as an assassin. Self, who created this character (who did not exist in the graphic novel), explained, "He gets so jaded from exposure to this world, he steps over the line from being the storyteller to being the story maker." To capture the "seedy countenance" of the character, Law was given a sallow skin tone that reflected the wear from working in a darkroom. Law's teeth also received a lower gumline and had a rotted look. Law's character carried a camera that served as dual symbolism to his acts of murder. The character's apartment also displayed a collection of favorite photographs, some of which were actual police stills from the 1930s.
  • Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti: A lieutenant under Al Capone. Tucci had previously avoided roles in gangster films, believing that Hollywoodmarker stereotyped all Italian-Americans as gangsters. The actor, attracted to the prospect of working with Mendes and his crew, accepted the role of Nitti, a real-life Mob boss from Chicagomarker.
  • Jennifer Jason Leigh as Annie Sullivan: The wife of Michael Sullivan, Sr., the actress was a friend of Sam Mendes and portrayed the role as a favor to him. Leigh had more scenes as Annie than the film showed, but due to time constraints, some were cut. Scenes were subsequently included on the film's DVD.
  • Liam Aiken as Peter Sullivan: The doomed youngest son of Michael Sullivan, Sr.
  • Dylan Baker as Alexander Rance: An accountant who holds the ledgers for the Rooney crime syndicate.
  • Ciarán Hinds as Finn McGovern: The man whose murder by Connor Rooney is witnessed by Sullivan's son.
  • Anthony LaPaglia as Al Capone: The notorious crime boss. This character was filmed for a single scene, which was omitted from the final cut, and can be found in the DVD's deleted scenes. Actor Alfred Molina was approached to portray Capone, but Molina was forced to turn the role down due to scheduling conflicts with Frida (2002). Instead, LaPaglia was cast as Capone.


When the graphic novel Road to Perdition was written by Max Allan Collins, his agent saw potential in the story as a film adaptation and showed it to a film agent. By 1999, the novel reached Dean Zanuck, who was the vice president of development at the company of his father, producer Richard D. Zanuck. The novel was sent to the elder Zanuck in Morocco, who was there producing Rules of Engagement (2000). The Zanucks agreed on the story's prospect and sent it to director-producer Steven Spielberg. Shortly afterward, Spielberg set up the project at his studio DreamWorksmarker, though he did not pursue direction of the film due to his full slate.

Mendes sought a new project after completing American Beauty (1999) and explored prospects including A Beautiful Mind, K-PAX, The Shipping News, and The Lookout. DreamWorks sent Mendes Road to Perdition as a prospect. Mendes was attracted to the story, considering it "narratively very simple, but thematically very complex". One theme that he saw in the story was of the parents' world that is inaccessible to their children. Mendes considered the story's theme to be about how children deal with violence, and whether exposure to violence would render children violent themselves. Mendes described the script as having "no moral absolutes", a factor that appealed to the director.


When Spielberg set up Road to Perdition at DreamWorksmarker, he contacted screenwriter David Self to adapt the graphic novel Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins into a feature film. Self wrote an initial draft that remained close to the source material and retained most of its dialogue. The screenplay was then rewritten by uncredited writers, distancing the script from the graphic novel and leaving the core elements of the story. Some of the harsher aspects of the story were toned down as the script became more streamlined; for example, in some early drafts of the screenplay, Sullivan became an alcoholic, but this element was ultimately absent from the final version. The story itself is deeply informed by the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series. Novelist Max Allan Collins acknowledged the influence of Lone Wolf and Cub on his graphic novel Road to Perdition in an interview to the BBC, declaring that "Road To Perdition is 'an unabashed homage' to Lone Wolf And Cub"".

Some of the characters' names were slightly changed from their original versions from the graphic novel: the surname of the real-life gangsters John Looney and his son Connor were changed to Rooney, and the surname of Tom Hanks' character and his family was streamlined from the original O'sullivan to simply Sullivan. One significant addition to the script was the creation of one of the film's antagonists, portrayed by Jude Law, to provide a persistent element of pursuit to the Sullivans' departure from the old world.

Hanks and cinematographer Conrad Hall requested Mendes to limit violence in the film to meaningful acts, rather than gratuitous carnage. Hanks's character, Michael Sullivan, is known as "The Angel of Death" in the graphic novel and invokes fear in those around him, but his infamy is downplayed in the film.

Mendes, who described the graphic novel as "much more pulpy", sought to reduce the graphic novel's background to its essence, seeking the "nonverbal simplicity" of films like Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and films by Akira Kurosawa that lacked dialogue. Duplicate language in characters' confrontations in Road to Perdition was trimmed to the absolute minimum. Mendes described Road to Perdition as a "poetic, elegiac story, in which the pictures tell the story". An unspoken scene in the film was the piano duet with Hanks and Newman's characters, intended to convey their relationship without words. In the final 20 minutes of Road to Perdition, the script was written to have only six lines of dialogue.

The author of the Perdition graphic novel, Max Allan Collins, originally wanted to write the adapted screenplay for the feature film, but was not given the opportunity. He chose to stay out of the scripting process in respect to the different style of writing for a different medium, though he served a consultant in the process. Collins praised the addition of Law's character and considered the minimalist use of dialogue to be appropriate. The author also applauded the film's version of Rooney as "more overtly a father figure" to Sullivan.

However, Collins opposed the profanity in the script, as the vulgar language did not fit his vision of the 1930s. He also contested the path of Sullivan's son in the film. In the graphic novel, the son kills once, and in the film, he does not kill anyone. Collins also disagreed with the narration technique of the film. In the novel, the son narrates the story as an adult, becoming a priest, while in the film, he narrates while still a young boy.


Prior to filming, Mendes sought to produce a period film that would avoid clichés in the gangster genre. He chose to film Road to Perdition on location in downtown Chicagomarker, the neighborhood of Pullmanmarker as well as the Chicago suburb of Dundee IL. The Armory, the state's largest location mainstay which houses the Illinois State National Guard, was provided to the studio by the Illinois State Film Commission. Sets were built inside the Armory, including interiors of the Sullivan family's home and the Rooney mansion. The availability of an inside location provided the crew complete control over the lighting environment, which was established with the rigging of scaffoldings.
"Atmospherically, the landscape is a violent and magnificent canvas on which is told a mythic story of a father and son in the last period of lawlessness in American history."
— Sam Mendes
Mendes collaborated with costume designer Albert Wolsky, production designer Dennis Gassner, and cinematographer Conrad Hall to design the film's style. Wolsky designed costumes that were "very controlled, with soft outlines and very soft silhouettes". Gassner built sets that could capture the cold look of the era. Mendes sought a muted palette for the film, having dark backgrounds and sets with dark, muted greens and grays. Mendes filmed Road to Perdition using the Super 35 format.

The director filmed exterior scenes in Illinois in the winter and the spring of 2001, using real weather conditions such as snow, rain, and mud for the scenes. Mendes considered the usage of bleak weather conditions and the intended coldness of Gassner's exterior locations to define the characters' emotional states. Pullman became a key location to reflect this theme, having several settings, including the town's historic Florence Hotel, easily redressed by the crew for the film. Filming concluded in June 2001.


To establish the lighting of scenes in Road to Perdition, Mendes drew from the paintings of Edward Hopper as a source of inspiration, particularly Hopper's New York Movie (1939). Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall sought to convey similar atmospheric lighting for the film's scenes, applying a "less is more" mantra. Hall also shot wide open scenes that retained one point in the depth of field sharply focused. Hall considered the technique to provide an emotional dimension to the scenes. The cinematographer also used unconventional techniques and materials to create unique lighting effects. One of Hall's methods was to use black silk in daylight exterior scenes to filter the light enough to create an in-shade look.

Hall purposely distanced the camera from Hanks' character, Michael Sullivan, at the beginning of the film to establish the perspective of Sullivan's son, who is unaware of his father's true nature. Hanks's character was filmed as partially obscured and seen through doorways, and his entrances and exits took place in shadows. A wide lens was used to maintain a distance from the character.

Shots in the film were drawn directly from panels in the graphic novel, illustrated by Richard Piers Rayner. An instance of the direct influence was the scene in which Michael Jr. looks up at the Chicago skyline from the vehicle, with the skyline reflected in the vehicle's glass.

A seamless 40-second driving scene in which Michael Sullivan and his son travel into Chicago from the countryside was aided by visual effects. The live-action part of the scene was filmed at LaSalle Street, and due to the lack of scenery for part of the drive down LaSalle Street, the background of Balbo Drive was included with the use of visual effects.


Consequence of violence

"[What's] important, in this story, is what the violence does to the person who pulls the trigger, and what it has done to them over the years, how it has gradually corroded them. It has rotted their insides."
— Sam Mendes
The film's title, Road to Perdition, is both the destination town of Michael Sullivan and his son and also a euphemism for Hell, a road that Sullivan desires to keep his son from traveling. Sullivan, who chooses his violent path early on in life, considers himself irredeemable and seeks to save his son from a similar fate. Said Mendes, "[Sullivan] is in a battle for the soul of his son. Can a man who has led a bad life achieve redemption through his child?" Hanks described his character as a man who achieved a comfortable status through violent means, of which he had ignored the likely repercussions. When Sullivan is faced with the consequences, Hanks says, "At the moment we're dropped into the story, it is literally the last day of that false perspective." To keep Hanks' character from justifying his violent actions in the film, Mendes left out scenes in the final cut that had Sullivan explaining to his son about his background.

In the film, most of the numerous acts of violence are committed off-screen. The acts of violence were also designed to be quick, reflecting the actual speed of violence in the real world. The focus was not on the direct victims of the perpetuated violence, but the impact of violence on the responsible person or witnesses to the act.

Fathers and sons

Road to Perdition also explores father-son relationships, not only between Michael Sullivan and his son, but between Sullivan and his boss, John Rooney. Sullivan simultaneously idolizes and fears Rooney, and Sullivan's son feels the same for his own father. Rooney's son, Connor, has none of Sullivan's redeeming qualities, and Rooney is conflicted on whom to protect: his real son or his surrogate son. Connor is jealous of his father's relationship with Sullivan, which fuels his actions, ultimately causing a domino effect that drives the film.

Because Sullivan shields his background from his son, his attempt to preserve the father-son relationship is actually harmful. Tragedy takes place to bring Sullivan and his son together. Sullivan escapes from the old world with his son, and the boy finds opportunity to establish a stronger relationship with his father than before. Tyler Hoechlin, who portrayed Michael Jr., explained, "His dad starts to realize that Michael is all he has now and how much he's been missing. I think the journey is of a father and son getting to know each other, and also finding out who they themselves are."


"The linking of water with death... speaks of the mutability of water and links it to the uncontrollability of fate. These are things that humans can't control."
— Sam Mendes
Water served as a major thematic element in the film. The element was pursued after research for the wake at the beginning of the film informed the director that corpses were kept on ice in the 1920s to keep the body from decomposing. The notion was interwoven into the film, with the presence of water being linked to death.


Road to Perdition concluded filming in June 2001, and the studio intended a United States release for the following Christmas. But by September 2001, Mendes requested more time. It was rescheduled for released on July 12, 2002, an unconventional move that placed the drama among the action-oriented summer films.

The film earned $22,079,481 in 1,797 theaters over its opening weekend. It eventually grossed $104,454,762 in the United States and $76,546,716 in other territories for a worldwide total of $181,001,478.

The film received 82 percent approval out of 198 reviews at the movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. At a similar site, Metacritic, Road to Perdition received an average score of 72 out of 100, based on 36 reviews.

Reviewer James Berardinelli, on his own ReelViews web site, praised Road to Perdition for its atmosphere and visuals, but he considered an emotional attachment to be lacking except for Sullivan's son.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times praised Hall's cinematography and the thematic use of water. He, too, felt an emotional detachment from the characters, saying, "I knew I admired it, but I didn't know if I liked it... It is cold and holds us outside."

Eleanor Ringel Gillespie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution enjoyed the film's cinematography and Depression-era setting, as well as the performances of Hanks and Newman. Gillespie expressed the wish that the film lasted a little longer to explore its emotional core further.

Eric Harrison of the Houston Chronicle considered Road to Perdition "the most brilliant work in this [gangster] genre" since the uncut Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Harrison considered Self's script "so finely honed that the story can change directions in a heartbeat."

Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter praised Hanks, Newman and Craig but called Law's performance "almost cartoonish". Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also complimented Hanks and Newman: "[They] act together with the confidence of titans, their talents in the service of character, never star ego." Travers cited Hall's "breathtaking" cinematography and composer Thomas Newman's "evocative" score.

Paul Clinton of CNN said: "While these deeply human issues are touched upon, they're never fully explored, and that undermines the sense of greatness to which this movie obviously aspires. Clinton considered Craig's character "one-dimensional to the extreme". He found the cinematography too overpowering for the film's storyline, which he considered "weak".

J. Hoberman of The Village Voice described the film as "grim yet soppy." He added: "The action is stilted and the tabloid energy embalmed."

Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post thought that the script lost its path when Sullivan and his son fled their old life.

Road to Perdition was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Paul Newman), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), Best Original Score (Thomas Newman), Best Sound, and Best Sound Editing. The sole award went to Hall for Cinematography.

The film was also nominated for BAFTA Awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Newman), Best Cinematography and Best Production Design, winning awards for the latter two. Hall also won an award from the American Society of Cinematographers for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases.

In April 2006, Empire recognized Road to Perdition as #6 in its list of the top 20 comic book movies.

Other media

Road to Perdition was released on DVD in February 25, 2003 in both full screen and anamorphic widescreen versions. The DVD's features included an audio commentary, deleted scenes, a HBO "Making of" documentary and a photo gallery. Work on the DVD began on the same day that the film's production began, and a collaborative effort among the director, the studio, and the DVD production crew shaped the DVD's content. Due to a limit of space on the DVD, the film's deleted scenes were chosen over a DTS soundtrack. Instead, the DVD included a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. A special edition DVD containing both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks was also released, excluding the "Making of" documentary to fit both soundtracks.

The author of the graphic novel, Max Allan Collins, was hired to write the novelization for the film adaptation. Collins initially turned in a draft that contained 90,000 words, but the licensing at DreamWorksmarker required the author to use only the dialogue from the film and no additional dialogue. Collins reluctantly edited the novelization down to 50,000 words and later said he regretted taking on the task.


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