Bonds of loyalty are put to the test when a hitman's son witnesses what his father does for a living.

From The Irish Times, September 26, 2002, by Michael Dwyer


Violent and provocative, the gangster drama Road to Perdition brilliantly follows an innocent child - and guilty adult - on their journey to hell and back.

The axiom that blood is thicker than water flows like a torrent through the amoral landscape of Road to Perdition, an enthralling and superbly crafted drama set in early 1930s Chicago among an Irish-American community steeped in corruption.

Like the Corleone dynasty and their entourage, the great majority of the people who populate this picture take murder and extortion for granted, as a deeply ingrained way of life, even as they are conflicted by their own twisted moral codes and family ties.

An early scene sets the tone. Refreshingly discreet Irish musical motifs cue the holding of a wake at the mansion owned by the crime boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman), an ageing patriarch who appears sincere as he eulogises the dead man - even though Rooney himself ordered his execution.

When the victim's brother (Ciarán Hinds), emboldened by alcohol, dares to blurt out what everyone else in the room knows but dares not acknowledge, he is led from the house, and his fate is sealed.

Rooney's right-hand man is a dour hitman, Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), an orphan and protégé whom Rooney treats as a surrogate son, and whom he regards with much higher esteem than he does his biological son, the volatile, trigger-happy Connor (Daniel Craig).

Perdition is structured as a rites-of-passage story viewed through the innocent eyes of the 12-year-old Michael Sullivan Jr (Tyler Hoechlin), who himself is deeply troubled when he finally learns the exact nature of his father's occupation. The consequences follow the boy and his father on an eventful journey to the small Midwest town of Perdition. The title is, inevitably, ambiguous, as the film takes its characters on the road to eternal hell and damnation.

On just his second film as a director after his highly auspicious debut with American Beauty, Sam Mendes fashions a muscular and thoughtful moral drama from its roots in a relatively obscure 1998 graphic novel.

Collaborating once again with the gifted cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, Mendes frames this stylish and authentically designed drama in a series of precise and painterly compositions. The visual power of the film takes on a jaw-dropping poetry in its depictions of violence, even though these are mostly understated, taking place off-camera or abruptly revealed in the tilting of a mirrored door - or, in the film's virtuoso sequence, a rain swept blood-bath played silently apart from the music on the soundtrack.

The rich, brooding score by Thomas Newman contains several signature flourishes from this themes for American Beauty and Six Feet Under.

Mendes ought to have dispensed with the rather obvious framing sequence with which he bookends the movie, and with the generally superfluous intermittent voiceover by its young narrator.

These, however, are minor quibbles regarding a mature and measured reflection on the imperatives of the criminal life and the innate human thirst for vengeance. Of the many crime movies it recalls, its strongest resonances are from Arthur Penn's masterpiece, Bonnie an Clyde (1967).

Women are virtually peripheral to this saga, and Jennifer Jason Leight has little to do. There are, however, a quartet of vividly etched portrayals of male baseness. Hanks, his face lined with inner pain, takes his first role as a man capable of terrible crimes. Craig acutely catches the desperation and ruthlessness of Connor Rooney.

Jude Law plays a volatile mercenary shooter who takes professional pride in photographing his victims after he kills them.

And, in the film's towering performance, 77-year-old Newman is on sublime form as the gravel voiced, charming old rogue with the sinister ear and a fortune built on destroying the lives of others.

Character: Finn McGovern
Co-stars: Tom Hanks, Paul Newman
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: David Self
Run-time: 117 mn
Release date: 12 July 2002 (USA)

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