Tom Hanks and Paul Newman play sad mobsters in Sam Mendes' stately gangster epic.
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Every week, Entertainment Weekly is looking back at the biggest movies of the summer of 2002. As audiences struggled to understand the new post-9/11 world order, Hollywood found itself in a moment of transition, with upcoming stars and soon-to-be-forever franchises playing alongside startling new visions and fading remnants of the old normal. Join us for a rewatch of the first true summer of Hollywood's strange new millennium. Last week: Alien horndogs. This week: Critics Leah Greenblatt and Darren Franich set out on the Road to Perdition. Next week: Future Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow goes underwater with K-19: The Widowmaker.

Credit: Everett Collection

DARREN: What would an event picture look like in a world without fantasy movies or blockbuster franchises? I know it's an impossible counterfactual, Leah: a universe without Marvel, Harry Potter, or Jurassic Whatever, where nobody ever planned to make four Avatar sequels. But anyone Tom Hanks' age remembers when the industry's biggest budgets poured into movies minus magic or mythology, before digital effects simply became the Hollywood effect. In this alternate summer of 2002, without Spider-Man or Star Wars, I wonder if a lot more movies would have looked like Road to Perdition.

I should note, this would not necessarily be a better world. If anything, it might just mean Oscar bait comes out 12 months a year. Set in 1930s Chicago and its outskirts, Perdition stars Hanks as Michael Sullivan, who carries a gun for Irish crime boss John Rooney (Paul Newman). Mike's a family man with a 12-year-old son, Michael (Tyler Hoechlin), who is beginning to wonder what his dad really does for a living. Rooney has his own son, Connor (Daniel Craig), who's jealous of the father-son relationship he doesn't have with his own parent. A routine intimidation visit goes awry when hotheaded Connor starts a fatal gunfight. Stowaway Michael sees the killings, which makes him an unfortunate witness. Connor strikes against the Sullivan family, killing Mike's wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and younger boy (Liam Aken). The grieving Sullivans set off on a father-son road odyssey, seeking vengeance and safety in a world of danger.

Perdition might look like grown-up piece of counter-programming released between Men in Black and Austin Powers sequels, but it was definitely an A-picture: Director Sam Mendes was coming off his Oscar wins for American Beauty. Tom Hanks had just completed one of the best decades ever enjoyed by a movie star, capping a victorious '90s with the one-man-and-a-volleyball saga of Cast Away, which grossed [mouth falls to floor, eyeballs shoot to ceiling] over $400 million globally. Perdition would be the last live-action feature film for genuine legend Paul Newman, and a showcase for up-and-comers Craig and Hoechlin. Another genuine legend, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, filled the movie with poetic imagery, and won a posthumous Oscar after his 2003 death. And I haven't even mentioned Jude Law as Harlen Maguire, a slithery killer with a photography fetish.

The film has some quietly astonishing visuals and a couple of brutally effective action set pieces, not to mention the femme fatale-worthy introduction of Craig with smoke curling out of his lips. But it all feels a bit like a museum piece to me, Leah, without the zesty pop of an actual '30s gangster movie or the voracious atmosphere of something like The Godfather. Where do you slot this one in the Hanks canon? Is it weird to complain about a sincere adult thriller one week after the Ballchinians?

LEAH: I mean, Wet Hot American Summer it is not: Perdition's vibe is distinctly prestige-November in both premise and atmosphere, and the title literally tells you up front, "This way to eternal damnation." So let me strap on my mittens and let's talk about a wintry gangster epic where literally no one but (spoiler) the kid and the dog make it out alive. I agree with you that this movie is not remotely zesty in the sense of say, The Godfather or The Sopranos or Goodfellas; I'm struggling to remember a single laugh line beyond maybe Dylan Baker's persnickety accountant, peevishly reiterating his room-service egg order while fate quietly creeps up the stairs. (Soft-boiled, hard-boiled, goodbye! You're still dying in that fancy bathrobe.)

But we should probably also note that the script is adapted from Max Allan Collins' graphic novel, and it feels graphic, in more ways than one. Which is not to say that the film comes off broad or cartoony; the production and acting across the board is way too elevated for that. (Though I will take issue with Craig's "Chicago" accent; there's no deep-dish in those consonants, Mr. Bond.) But there is a sparseness to the script, by David Self (Thirteen Days), that seems very classic noir: You don't really need to know too much about where anyone's coming from or where they're going, because we're all worm food in the end. It's also hard to revisit this 20 years on without the frame of knowing it was Newman's last appearance on screen; there's already so much pathos in the performance and in all the things — rage, regret, absolution — those blue eyes convey, even without dialogue.  

I think Hanks is great in this, but also that this kind of role is almost a cake walk for an actor like him. The main challenge was probably just scraping away some of the innate decency so intrinsic to him that even when he plays a mob enforcer who's killed as many men as we have mosquitos, he's still unquestionably the hero, with God and righteous justice on his side. The movie cops out, sort of, by letting us have it both ways: Paul and Tom, no matter the body count, are good men squinting hard into dark times; the rest are murderers and scoundrels (or lunch meat, depending). Craig is an excellent archetype to hate, the prodigal son so weasely and impulsive and weak that he'd actually kill a man's wife and child just to cover his own misdeeds — though why exactly he thinks that's a good plan is never quite clear, since wiping out the entire Sullivan family to silence one scared kid seems like a scorched-earth policy even Keyser Söze might find a little extreme.

In a 2022 where Colin Farrell shows up in The Batman looking like Jeffrey Tambor fell in a fire and Hanks himself is busy being a villainous Dutchman in a fat suit, Jude Law's make-under in Perdition is probably no big deal, even for an actor so famously, obscenely pretty. Still, I'd like to call out the utter incremental creepiness of his glow-down here: the wispy comb-over, the old-corn teeth, the warlock fingernails. Like Jake Gyllenhaal's character in 2014's The Nightcrawler, he's a man with no moral center — a guy who loves to watch, and also to make his own crime scene if need be. Did any other supporting players stand out to you? (I could write odes on a Grecian urn to Stanley Tucci, but isn't he always a stealth MVP?)

Credit: Everett Collection

DARREN: Tucci's great as Frank Nitti, an actual real-life gangster modeling executive criminality in a Lexington Hotel suite. A few scenes with his all-business demeanor ground the movie, reminding you that the mob doesn't just exist as a space for emotionally distant fathers to grapple with their troublesome sons. And let's call out Ciarán Hinds as a stealth MVP for the whole Summer of 2002: A month and a half after his Russian President stole The Sum of All Fears, Hinds pops up here as a Rooney subordinate whose grief turns to rage at his brother's wake.

He's only around for a little while, but the episodic screenplay doesn't stick with anything for long. There's a cat-and-mouse hunt between the fleeing Sullivans and Law's predatory Maguire. There's the mid-movie shift into Paper Moon-ish caper, when Michael Sr. enlists Michael Jr. as a getaway driver for some rather subdued bank robberies. Craig dominates the first act, and then pretty much disappears. I think you're right to call out the heroic gloss on Mike and John, who are "bad" men in a sanitized way. It's worth recalling that this came out a couple months after The Sopranos aired "Pine Barrens," a riotously funny horror odyssey about two endearing mob killers trapping themselves in a frozen hell.

I actually think Hanks is a problem. He has a playful chemistry with Hoechlin (who's thoughtful and sharp-edged in a discovery role). But he's also a little too smooth to capture his hard man's rough edges. Viewed in 2022, I experience Perdition mainly as a signpost for changing times. Newman and Hanks are two generations of old guard, larger-than-life figures whose names seem to echo all around the movie's underworld. They're under assault from a younger generation — played, of course, by the up-and-coming stars of tomorrow. With the youthful presence of Craig, Hoechlin, and Law, Perdition retroactively stars James Bond, Superman, and Young Dumbledore/Sexy Watson/Star Wars Guy #754. These are all gradations of masculine manhood, and surely one massive failure of the movie is casting supernova Jennifer Jason Leigh in the dutifully-murdered wife role. Still, I sense added poignance in the passing of the Newman and Hanks characters. "I'm glad it's you," John says when Mike points a fateful gun at him. Textually, it's a father saying goodbye to the son he always wanted. Metatextually, it's game recognizing game. There are other ways for superstars to go. If you're not careful, your closing moments in cinema might be arguing with Thor about a glowing rock.

There are moments of real awe in the cinematography, though. The shot of an emotionally ruined Mike staring at votive candles is sheer perfection, suggesting the burning guilt searing beneath his usually icy demeanor. The beach-house climax is memorable, too: a lovely moment of reverie wrecked by shocking violence. Do you have any favorite shots or sequences, Leah? I'll say this for Mendes: The guy sure picks the best cinematographers.

LEAH: I do love the dreamy coastal-grandmother-slash-Nights in Rodanthe aesthetic of that last scene; I kept waiting for Diane Lane to wander up the shore in a shawl-collar cardigan with a tray of bourbon Sidecars and the promise of some sweeter, sandier future for the traumatized Michaels. The fact that, in the end, the now-orphaned Junior is able to return to that childless farm couple who helped out when Michael was shot in the shoulder — and that they surely still have the valise packed with purloined Chicago mob money that he left them as a parting gift — is an act of symmetry you can't help wondering whether Hanks' character could have possibly planned, or just extremely tidy screenwriting.

I'm not a big fan of retroactively punishing films for their lack of wokeness or inclusion. What's the point, honestly? But Perdition is so low on estrogen, it almost grows its own beard in real time. It certainly doesn't pass the Bechdel test — or even the test of a woman having two lines of dialogue in a row, really. But I'm not sure there would be any organic way to insert female energy into this story without it feeling exactly that: wedged in. So Leigh must say her few murmur-y mom things about homework and breakfast, and then die 20 minutes in trying to protect her youngest child in a sad bathroom. But it's cool: She also got to be brutally murdered for plot exposition a year later, in Jane Campion's 2003 thriller In the Cut. Equality!

I do get what you're saying about Hanks. We're so accustomed to watching America's Dad crinkle that avuncular brow and set due course for the moral high ground that it's still hard to picture him pointing a gun that doesn't just shoot out, like, pea-sized volleyballs or Mr. Rogers knee socks. That said, I'm also struggling to recast the role with anyone who might have been up for it at the time. If he'd been a couple decades younger back then, maybe Harrison Ford? Who does All-American equally well but also has that sense of inner conflict, and maybe even some untapped homicidal instincts. (He's killer with a bullwhip, even better with a bullet.)

I love that you call out the "I'm glad it's you" line Newman gives Hanks before his death, which is a neat sort of flip on "I know it was you, Fredo": in place of fury and betrayal, surrender and forgiveness (but no last kiss). In some ways, Perdition was a sort of sendoff, a farewell salute to an era of slow-bake big-budget filmmaking and also of movie stars like this, larger than life or any Marvel franchise. The multiverse we're now living in is its own kind of perdition, but that's a story for another time.

Read past 2002 rewatches:

Road to Perdition
  • Movie
  • 116 minutes