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Film / Road to Perdition

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"There is only one guarantee — none of us will see heaven."
John Rooney

A 2002 film, directed by Sam Mendes, based on the comic of the same name by Max Allan Collins (itself inspired by the manga Lone Wolf and Cub). Mobster Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks), and his son (Tyler Hoechlin) who followed him to work, witness the mob boss (Paul Newman)'s son Connor (Daniel Craig) shoot a fellow employee (Ciarán Hinds) for embezzling from The Syndicate.

Connor tries to kill the witnesses off, but botches the job and ends up killing Mike's wife and younger son. Expecting revenge, the mob takes out a Contract on the Hitman and Sullivan and Michael go on the run, pursued by a chillingly psychopathic assassin, Maguire (Jude Law). Also starring Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, a real-life major figure in the Al Capone organization.

The film deals largely with father-and-son relationships — both the protagonists and the villain of the movie have deep issues with paternal favoritism and respect. Whereas Connor forces his father to try to protect him at the cost of a man he clearly loves as a son, Michael becomes determined that his only surviving child will not become like him.


Road to Perdition provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The comic's author himself approves of many of the changes, like having the Sullivans contend with a single assassin instead of various random Mooks, with the exception of the slightly more upbeat ending. The book is mostly a grim, pulpy odyssey of stylishly bloody death, the film has a more serene tone with violence kept to a minimum.
  • Adaptation Name Change: A very slight example. In The Movie, "John Looney" becomes "John Rooney" and "Michael O'Sullivan" becomes "Michael Sullivan". Interestingly, though Looney likely had his name changed so that the piece's villain wouldn't have a comical-sounding name, "John Looney" is only a lightly-fictionalized version of the real Irish gangster in 1930s Rock Island.
  • Adaptational Ugliness: The graphic novel's Michael O'Sullivan was a much more classically handsome character, and he was apparently nicknamed "Looney's Angel of Death", in part, for his good looks. Understandably, Tom Hanks - though definitely a handsome man - was chosen more for his acting ability than for his physical resemblance to the character.
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  • All for Nothing: Connor's father already knew his son was ripping him off, making the murder and all subsequent events unnecessary.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Rance is very fussy, flamboyant, and speaks in a somewhat effeminate manner. When he calls up the hotel staff from the bridal suite, he tells them not to wish him congratulations, because "there is no Mrs. Rance and I am all the better for it."
  • Art Imitates Art: Sam Mendes and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall sought to give the film the look of the works of artist Edward Hopper.
  • Badass and Child Duo: A Whole Plot Reference to the Ur-Example Lone Wolf and Cub.
  • Badass Longcoat: Everyone (except Michael Jr.) wears one.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When Michael sees Connor in his house at night through the window, Connor looks straight towards where he's standing and Michael freezes in horror. Then it turns out Connor was just looking at his own reflection in the glass and hadn't noticed Michael.
  • Bank Robbery: The main action of the film and the comic has Michael robbing mob banks of their off-the-books money to get Rooney and Capone to give up Connor to him. He makes a point of not touching the money of ordinary clients, and sometimes he even gives a cut to the bank teller.
  • Battle in the Rain: A classic: (SPOILERS). There's a recurring motif throughout the film that water equals death, too.
  • Beauty Inversion: Harlen Maguire is a balding, hunched, brown-toothed man with an ill-fitting bowler hat and generally creepy mannerisms; not what the audience was expecting from Jude Law.
  • Big "NO!": Michael Sr. does one off-screen when he finds Annie and Peter dead.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Michael Sr. dies, but the kid lives, and in the comic, grows up to become a priest.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The purest motive held by any of the characters is Michael Sr's wish for his son to have a better life.
    Michael Sullivan Sr.: He [Connor] murdered Annie and Peter!
    John Rooney: There are only murderers in this room! Michael! Open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee - none of us will see heaven.
    Michael Sullivan Sr.: Michael could.
    John Rooney: Then do everything that you can to see that that happens.
  • Blood Is Squicker in Water: Connor's execution and the death of Peter in the bath. Water preceding death is a major theme.
  • Bloodless Carnage: There's not much gore after Finn McGovern is given a Boom, Headshot! at point-blank range by Connor. Even that is pretty clean, we see his face bloodied while he's lying dead on the ground, but there's more gunsmoke than blood during the actual shooting. Done rather bizarrely at the end, when Michael Sr. is bleeding heavily from his wounds, but Maguire doesn't appear to bleed at all.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Zigzagged in the hotel shootout between Michael Sr. and Harlen Maguire. Maguire fires six shots from a five-round shotgun, while Michael has four bullets in a seven-round pistol magazine (when Michael fires the shot that disfigures Maguire, the slide on Michael’s pistol locks back, indicating that the magazine is empty).
  • Canon Foreigner: If you've only seen the movie, you might be surprised to learn that Maguire is nowhere to be found in the source material.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The couple on the farm, who Michael goes to live with at the end.
    • The comic subverts this — Michael arrives to find them both dead, and immediately gets shot as well.
  • Chicago: Much of the second act of the film takes place here as Michael seeks help from Capone (via Nitti) to get revenge on Connor.
  • Churchgoing Villain: Mike and Mr. Rooney are both Irish Catholic and Mr. Rooney is seen praying in church, but they both also accept that their choices will keep them from ever entering Heaven.
  • The Collector of the Strange: Maguire has a collection of photographs of corpses, at least some of which are his own handiwork.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: " paved with good intentions".
  • Composite Character: Maguire is a combination of all of the random mooks from the graphic novel.
  • Concealment Equals Cover: Subverted. Rance runs away and disappears behind a wall when the gunfight between Sullivan and Maguire breaks out, but the pellets from Maguire's shotgun easily penetrated the plaster wall and killed him anyway. Sullivan survives because he's hiding behind a large, steel strongbox.
  • Contract on the Hitman: In the second act of the film, John Rooney puts a hit out on Michael because he knows that Michael won’t stop until Connor is dead.
  • Curbstomp Battle: The final shootout between Michael Senior and Rooney's bodyguards. He doesn't even get a scratch on him.
  • Deadly Bath: Connor. Also, Mrs. Sullivan is giving the younger son, Peter, a bath when Connor comes to shoot them.
  • Death by Adaptation: John Rooney dies, while John Looney lives (just like his historical counterpart).
  • Dies Wide Open: When one of Finn McGovern’s men falls dead after Michael Sr. guns him down, he falls so that his eyes are looking right at the (concealed) Michael Jr.
  • Dissonant Serenity: The silent gunfight.
  • The Dragon: Michael was this to John Rooney before the film.
  • Dragon Their Feet: After Michael Sr. kills the entire Rooney crime family, Harlen Maguire still shows up at the end and kills him, despite the fact the people who were paying Maguire were already all dead, because...
    • It's PersonalDuring the exchange of gunfire in Rance's hotel suite, Michael shoots a glass lamp, which shatters and the fragments leave lots of nasty cuts on the left side of Maguire's face.
  • Depth Deception: Michael Jr. approaches the front door of his house, seeing Connor approaching after he has killed his mother and brother, and freezes when Connor appears to stare directly at him through the door's window, but it turns out Connor was actually looking at his own reflection. After Michael realizes this, he has time to hide before Connor leaves the house.
  • Elevator Action Sequence: Subverted twice with the same players each time. When Michael is trying to leave Frank Nitti's hotel in a hurry, one of Nitti's burly goons follows him into an elevator...but Michael immediately slips out again right before the door closes. The second time, when he's hunting Connor, Nitti's goons just step aside and let him through.
  • Epunymous Title: Michael is on the way to irrevocably dooming his soul to hell... but he's also driving to a town called Perdition.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Maguire's plot-irrelevant crime scene photography, showing him as an entirely amoral ice-cold killer when he finishes off the Not Quite Dead victim.
    • There's also Rance whining to the hotel staff about his boiled egg.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Unintentional example. Harlen Maguire is introduced killing an attempted murder victim for still surviving the initial stabbing. But only seconds before, the attempted murderer is taken away repeating “he raped my wife.” Not that Maguire would have cared either way, but the victim’s vigilante justice was not totally unfounded.
  • Evil Parents Want Good Kids: Michael Sullivan Sr. would damn his own soul to Hell if it means saving his son's soul.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Rooney, who as his mooks are gunned down around him simply stands there and awaits his fate, before looking Michael in the eye and saying...
  • "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner: "I'm glad it's you."
  • Film Noir
  • Foreshadowing: Much like oranges in The Godfather, water precedes every major death scene (bath, rain, lake, etc.):
    • Finn McGovern dies on a rainy night, shot in the head by Connor.
    • Connor kills Michael Sr.'s wife, and son Peter, as Annie is getting Peter ready for a bath.
    • Rooney meets his end at the barrel of Michael's Thompson submachine gun in a rainstorm.
    • Connor is executed by Michael Sr. while sitting in a bathtub.
    • Michael Sr. and Maguire shoot each other dead in a house right by a lake. Big windows facing the water make the point very clear.
  • Friendly Enemy: Michael and the elder Rooney. To an extent, this is also true of Michael and the Capone organization, whose money he's stealing in an attempt to force them to end their protection of Connor, but they (or at least, Nitti) completely understand why he's doing what he's doing, and would sort of like to be on his side. Once the elder Rooney is out of the picture, they happily step aside and allow Michael to get his revenge on Connor.
  • Getaway Driver: Michael teaches his son to become one for him when they start Robbing the Mob Bank to force Capone to give up Connor. Reality Ensues because of course Michael Jr drives a very slow getaway car at first.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Subverted. Michael shoots Connor in his bath; we see Michael through the bathroom doorway, but his victim is off-camera. Then the bathroom door swings shut, and we see—reflected in the mirror on the bathroom door—the victim slumped in the bathtub, with his brains blown over the bathroom wall. Played straight with the death of the elder Rooney.
  • The Hero Dies: Michael Sr. himself at the end.
  • Historical Domain Character: Frank Nitti, the entirely unseen Al Capone, and brief references to Elliot Ness.
  • Hitman with a Heart: Michael, especially in the comic.
  • Hope Spot: Jr. and Sr. arrive at their relatives' beach house, with John and Connor both dead. Too bad nobody told the hitman who was chasing them.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: In particular, the scene in the rain where Michael Sullivan Sr. takes out all of Rooney's goons. 5 or 6 of them stand, feet planted still in place, firing one-handed and hitting absolutely nothing. Sullivan, of course, mows them down expertly with his Thompson submachine gun from a ways off. Both the goons' hilariously ineffective counterattack and Sullivan's ridiculous aim with an inaccurate spray-fire weapon are unrealistic, to say the least.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Connor qualifies. He's incompetent and unstable, and because of these traits, Nitti has no problem selling him out to Michael Sr. if he ends the feud.
  • The Irish Mob: John Rooney is the head of an Irish criminal organization, and employs Michael Sullivan as an enforcer.
  • Kick the Dog: During a shootout, Maguire shoots a cop before the latter can finish asking what the former's doing, then shoots him again as he's getting up, finishing him off. All to let you know Maguire is evil as evil gets.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Finn McGovern.
    You think you're so smart? You think we don't know? I mean you’ve been spending all that time in Chicago—[Boom, Headshot!]
  • Kill 'Em All: Every named non-historical character dies except Michael the younger (and John Looney in the comic).
  • Kubrick Stare: Connor gets a very unsettling one after the "apology" scene, complete with a slow zoom-in and a rack focus to bring his face into detail.
  • Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness: It rates a pretty light 7, mainly due to Calvino's (Doug Spinuzza) headshot and maybe a couple of other acts of violence. Most of the violent murders and killings take place either offscreen or in a very subdued manner, so the effect is more artistic than gruesome.
  • Moment of Silence: The climactic Battle in the Rain, with muted sound effects, minimalistic music and no dialogue until the final confrontation. Followed by an understated "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner, and a jarringly loud burst of gunfire.
  • Moral Event Horizon: invokedThis is almost the exact meaning of "perdition" - being doomed to go to hell once and for all, with no chance of salvation (hence Rooney's "none of us will see heaven").
  • Moral Myopia: A rare villain-to-hero example. Connor kills Michael's family, so Michael asks Connor's father to help him get revenge. Michael didn't get the irony of his own petition.
    Michael Sullivan, Sr.: He murdered Annie and Peter!
    John Rooney: There are only murderers in this room! Michael! Open your eyes! This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee - none of us will see heaven.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Connor tries to use a cynical facade to hide his jealousy and childishness. It doesn't work.
  • The Oner: Late in the film, when Michael goes to kill Connor, the camera tracks him from his arrival on the 14th floor, down the hall, through Connor's room and into the bathroom where Michael gives Connor a Boom, Headshot!. As Michael leaves the room, the camera halts but the door moves to show Connor's corpse in the bathtub.
  • Parental Favoritism: Something of a theme.
    • Michael Jr. is originally The Unfavorite, because "you were more like me".
    • In the film, John Rooney clearly favors Michael over his own son, Connor, which gives Connor a serious complex and only makes him even more of a screw-up. When called upon to choose between them, however, John chooses blood, largely out of guilt for not being a better father to Connor.
  • Please Shoot the Messenger: Sullivan first discovers the plot against him when he is given a special note from him (that's actually from Connor) for the first debtor he visits: an offer to forgive the debt if the debtor shoots Sullivan in the head.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Connor’s impulsive murder of Finn McGovern, which is witnessed by Michael Sullivan Jr., starts a chain of events that results in the decimation of the Rooney crime family.
  • Police Are Useless: In at least 2 scenes showing extended, broad daylight shootouts, there is no sign of law enforcement in the area, much less intervention from them of any kind. The one time we see a cop, he gets immediately killed by Maguire after cluelessly bumbling outside to see what all the noise (gunfire, no less) was about.
  • Precision F-Strike: From probably the least foul-mouthed character:
    Rooney: I curse the fucking day you were born.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Subverted with Connor's death - when we see the body, his actual head is pretty clean, but there's a massive splatter of blood across the wall behind him.
  • Psycho for Hire: Maguire.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Connor Rooney.
    Connor Rooney: I can look after myself.
    Frank Nitti: No, you can't! This is the point. You're a big baby who doesn't know his thumb from his dick!
  • Psychotic Smirk: Again, Connor Rooney.
    Because it's all so fuckin' hysterical...
  • Robbing the Mob Bank: Michael's plan to avenge his family involves robbing banks of the off-the-books money they hold for Rooney and Capone in an effort to get Capone to turn over Connor, the murderer in question.
  • Rule of Symbolism: Mendes deliberately wrote every death to be near or surrounded by water to demonstrate the commonness (and uncontrollability) of death in the mobster's lives.
  • Rule of Three: Maguire tries three times to kill the Sullivan father and son; first at the diner, at the hotel, and finally the lake house. He manages to kill the father, but not the son.
  • The Scream: We never see Michael Jr.'s reaction to finding his mother and brother's bodies. When his father finds them, we hear his muffled Big "NO!" from the other room, with the camera on Jr. staring silently at nothing.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: After the death of John Rooney, Nitti no longer has a reason to protect Connor, and actually wants him dead because Connor is an idiot and would be a total liability once he inherited his father's legacy. Nitti decides to kill two birds with one stone and buys peace with Michael by no longer protecting Connor. When Michael enters the hotel to kill Connor, Nitti's goons operate the elevator and open the door of Connor's room for him.
  • Shoot the Messenger: What Michael Sr. does to Mr. Kelly, the henchman that Rooney sent to offer $25,000 recompense for the death of his family.
    Mr. Kelly: Think, Mike. Don't be stupid. I'm just the messenger.
    Michael: Then give Mr. Rooney a message for me.
    Mr. Kelly: What is it?
    Michael: [Shoots Mr. Kelly in the head]
  • Soundtrack Dissonance:
    • The shootout in the rain.
    • Maguire's introduction where he finishes off a dying victim he found at a bloody crime scene is scored with a peppy, old-timey Dixieland jazz number.
  • Spell My Name with an "S"
    • The Looney Family from the comic (and from real life) became the Rooney family for the movie.
    • Likewise the O'Sullivans became the Sullivans.
  • Staggered Zoom: The camera jumps back during Maguire's introductory scene as he uses a cloth to suffocate a not-quite-dead stabbing victim while an 'L' train speeds by outside.
  • Stepford Smiler: Connor, who smiles when he's feeling shamed by his father's preference for Michael. When asked why he does this, his deadpans, "Because it's all so fucking hysterical."
  • Supporting Protagonist: Michael Jr.
  • Sweet Tooth: Maguire pouring about half a cup of sugar into his coffee. And, well, look what it does to his teeth...
  • Tag Line: Four.
    • Pray for Michael Sullivan.
    • Every father is a hero to his son.
    • Every son holds the future for his father.
    • The innocence of a son is surpassed only the father's will to save it.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill
    • In the movie, Sullivan's final act is shooting Maguire so that his son will be able to go through life having never killed anyone. If You Kill Him You Will Be Just Like Me, if you will.
    • In the comic, however, Michael Jr. averts this; killing at least two of the mooks that come after them.
  • Too Much Alike: The reason for Sullivan's distant relationship with Michael, Jr.
  • Ultimate Evil: Capone is deliberately kept off-camera to evoke a greater sense of mystery. A scene with him was filmed, but was left out of the final cut, despite the director admitting he loved the performance.
  • Uriah Gambit: Connor sets up Sullivan to be killed this way: send him out to a speakeasy owner who owes debt to Rooney with a message. The message tells the owner that if he kills Sullivan, his debt will be forgiven.
  • Vertigo Effect: Maguire first appears walking toward the camera underneath an 'L' track. It takes about 11 seconds of screen time, whereas the typical Vertigo shot is much more fast-moving.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There was a Rock Island, Illinois gangster by the name of John Patrick Looney. He betrayed a formerly loyal lieutenant of his, the resulting feud led to the death of his son, and he was eventually arrested for the murder of a lawyer named William Gabel.
  • Villainous BSoD: When the elder Sullivan guns down all his men, John Rooney seemingly just gives up and stands there, tightly clutching the door handle of his car for dear life as if it's the only thing keeping him standing.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Connor Rooney in the movie. In the comic, however, none of his angst (nor his father's favoritism towards Michael Sr.) is even hinted at (his motives for doing what he does are out of bloodlust and paranoia rather than out of envy).
    • Also Sullivan himself towards Michael Jr.; not only does he struggle to connect with his son, but Sullivan later admits he's had mixed feelings as Jr. reminds him of himself. He also has this feeling towards John Rooney; Michael was raised by John Rooney and his career as an enforcer is to pay him back for what Rooney did for him.
  • White Shirt of Death: Michael Sr. himself at the end.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Connor. He tries to kill Michael Jr. and kills Peter instead.
    • Harlen Maguire has no problem with trying to kill Michael Jr. either.
  • You Remind Me of X: An inversion of the regular usage, see Parental Favoritism above.
  • You Should Have Died Instead: Michael Jr. believes this is how his father feels about him. He is wrong.
  • You Have No Idea Who You're Dealing With: Inverted when Sullivan goes on a robbery spree to recruit Capone's support. When he barges into a bank, guns drawn and specifically demanding the off-the-books money they're holding for Capone, the teller's reaction is:
    You obviously know exactly who you're messing with... but... why?

Alternative Title(s): Road To Perdition


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