The 2002 movie is now streaming on Netflix and unheralded in most circles.
In 2002 Sam Mendes, Thomas Newman, and Conrad Hall teamed up to make a movie starring Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, and Daniel Craig. That's a long list of legends supported by the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, and Ciaran Hinds.
The movie almost grossed $200 million worldwide and has some of the most beautiful cinematography of all time. The script was adapted from a popular graphic novel by David Self and the movie was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, winning only one for cinematography for Conrad Hall.
How often do you hear people talking about Road to Perdition?
I have to admit, it slipped my mind until I saw that it was available to stream on Netflix.
And while we're all locked inside, I thought I'd revisit it. And I was not disappointed.
Road to Perdition is a Forgotten Sam Mendes Masterpiece
Sam Mendes was the hottest director in the world. His first feature, American Beauty, won Oscars in 1999 for best picture, director, actor, screenplay—and cinematography, by Conrad Hall. So when he was gearing up to do his next movie...he decided to get the band back together.
So why don't we talk about what came next as much?
I think the simple reason is that American Beauty was just so humungous on the screen. It took on a subject matter of suburban ennui and sexuality that had not been on screen since The Graduate, and this time it was about middle-aged people.
When Mendes followed this up with an excellent gangster movie, it didn't get as much press or publicity. After all, the gangster genre had been around for years.
But whether or not it's a groundbreaking territory, Road to Perdition deserves more of a voice amongst Mendes' work and in cinema history because it is an excellent gangster film.
It boils the entire genre down to one relationship: Father and Son.
Fathers and Sons
The film's structure is simple. It takes dueling father and son stories and turns them into a triangle. Paul Newman plays Tom Hank's father figure. Newman's actual son, played by Daniel Craig, is a liar and a cheat, stealing money from his own father.
Tom Hanks' son is a curious kid, the only one of them still with his innocence left.
When he witnesses his father killing for the mafia the whole story is set in motion.
Daniel Craig kills Tom Hanks's family, leaving the boy, and they go on the run.
That's your basic plot, but the rotating drama of how to raise a child in America runs deeper than that. There are ties to the old country, the old ways, and ever-changing society. Michael, Hanks's son, represents the future of the country.
The innocence and naivete on which America was built.
There's blood in his past, he gets to live and thrive because his ancestors are willing to go to hell.
Plus you get to see two of the greatest actors of all time face off.
Road to Perdition's Final Shootout
Everything culminates in this final shootout. One where the past has to die. The only way to move forward is if everyone that threatens the future of Michael, and America, is dead.
This shootout is some of Conrad Hall's masterwork. It's poetic, slow, determined, and deliberate.
The rain adds another special element as Paul Newman's thugs are cutdown.
The shots here are beautiful. Really something to be studied and not something to be forgotten.
The Literal Road to Perdition
As the saying goes, the pathway to hell is paved with good intentions. While this movie did make money in 2002 I think it just gets lost among other masterpieces because it feels of a different era. The moral code and story is about a world we knew existed already.
This is a movie about a time gone by. America might have come out of World War II with innocence, but it was a mask. We still didn't have equality, civil rights, and there was a whole lot more bloodshed in the 1960s.
But even if you had those blinders on, any preconceived notions about American and democracy were shattered in 2001 when the Twin Towers fell.
And in 2002, when this movie came out, the country did not reflect a boy's future. It was grizzled and jaded like Hanks' character.
A movie yearning for innocence and the promised land of America was not destined to survive the ongoing war in the Middle East and national tragedies that have happened since, including the one we currently sit in.
But if you need hope for the future. If you're willing to do the work to create a new country on top of the evil we see today...Road to Perdition might be ready for a comeback.
Director Sam Mendes and DP Conrad L. Hall go over the storyboards of their film American Beauty side by side with film stills, offering their ideas behind the film's composition and what the aesthetics mean.