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Road to Perdition at 20: Tom Hanks’ Only Good Antihero

5 min read
Tom Hanks Road to Perdition(3)

In his feature film debut in He Knows You're Not Alone in 1980, Hanks plays Elliot, a likeable, funny, and charming love interest. Elliot would be emblematic of many roles that Hanks would take on in the decades that followed, most of which would employ the actor's inherent charm and charisma to create an empathetic and immensely watchable leading man. 

On July 12th, 2002, however, with the release of , Hanks takes what was at the time his boldest swing, playing the quiet, stoic, and exceedingly lethal Michael Sullivan, a feared enforcer for the Chicago mafia with a quick trigger finger. It wasn't the first time Hanks had played a “bad” guy, nor would it be the last, but it's the only time it's actually worked. 

There is only one guarantee. None of us will see heaven.” 

Directed by Sam Mendes, who was hot off the success of 1999's American Beauty, Road to Perdition adapts Max Allan Collins' graphic novel of the same name, telling the story of Sullivan's attempts to protect his son, Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin), and get even after a mobster murders his family. The film is dark, both in terms of its subject matter and its photography, with Sullivan often cast in moody shadows. The shadows, of course, a staple of any neo-noir , are in many ways representative of Sullivan himself, a character not living in a world of black and white, but of shades of grey. 

By many metrics, however, Sullivan is clearly closer to the “bad” end of the spectrum than the good. It's suggested that he's killed a good many people by the time the events of the film unfold and he is, by definition, a criminal.

Road to Perdition Tom Hanks gun

Hanks' antihero barely looks at Michael Jr. when speaking to him and answers in a gruff monosyllabic fashion. The first time we see Sullivan in action, he guns down two unsuspecting witnesses to a murder without a moment's hesitation. The next, he coldly kills a speakeasy owner and his bouncer, a man who, moments earlier, the film establishes as a chatty and mostly innocent guy just trying to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Sullivan, then, is nothing like Elliot; this was Hanks as audiences had never seen him before. 

Swings and misses 

Prior to Road to Perdition, Hanks' resume wasn't totally devoid of unsavoury characters. In 's infamous Bonfire of the Vanities, for instance, Hanks plays an unfaithful Wall Street bond trader involved in a hit and run. The 1990 film was a disaster both critically and commercially, with writing of Hanks' Sherman McCoy, “He is never really developed as a character we feel we know, and he seems to inhabit his lifestyle rather than possess it.” While Hanks does what he can with the role, the script lets him down. 

After Road to Perdition, Hanks would attempt several other non-good-guy roles, including that of Professor G. H. Dorr in 2004's The Ladykillers, one of the ' lesser offerings. Hanks isn't half bad as a scheming Southern professor but the film ultimately is easily forgotten in the grand scheme of Hanks' filmography. Similarly, Hanks would portray unhinged author Dermot Hoggins (among others) in Cloud Atlas, ' 2012 sci-fi epic, but Dermot feels more like a caricature than an actual character. And the less said about The Circle the better.

Road to Perdition: A film about fathers and sons 

Road to Perdition, then, is really the only case of Hanks playing someone other than a “good guy” in which both his character and the film as a whole actually work. Crucially, David Self's script features several elements that allow Hanks to truly shine in the role, separating it from his other attempts at playing unsavoury characters. 

The film takes its time setting up its characters and exploring its theme, establishing not only Sullivan's violent professional life but also his complex relationship with his son and his desire to see Michael Jr. not go down the same path. Similarly, Sullivan's relationship with his boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman), is also clearly that of a father and son, even if not by blood. It's this theme of fatherhood that elevates Hanks' character and lets him truly shine. 

Tom Hanks Tyler Hoechlin Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition essentially becomes a road trip movie in its second half as Sullivan sets out to steal money from the Chicago mafia in an attempt to get them to give up the location of his family's killer. The weeks on the road serve not only to advance the plot, but it's where we also finally see Sullivan and Michael Jr. bond, with the true extent of Sullivan's love for the child becoming apparent. As Sullivan recovers from a bullet wound sustained during one of their daring heists, the walls finally come down and we see Sullivan being more than just a father figure – we see him being a dad. 

America's Dad 

Although Esquire officially dubbed Hanks “America's Dad” in 2016, the idea had been brewing for decades. Hanks had been playing dad roles as far back as 1989's The ‘Burbs and the voice he gave to Woody in 1995's made him a beloved staple in child-filled households across the country. 

Road to Perdition, then, wasn't the first film to see Hanks take on a fatherly role, but the script and Hanks' casting was ultimately a match made in heaven – a match that came at the perfect time in Hanks' career. By tapping into Hanks' blossoming dadness in such a dark, brooding, and unexpected way, Sullivan, like Road to Perdition itself, has only gotten better and more interesting with age. 

Hanks playing a literal or metaphorical father figure would, in many ways, come to define the next two decades of his career following Road to Perdition. Three of the actor's four most recent films, for example, including , , and Pinocchio all feature the actor in a dad-like role. While he would occasionally play actual dads in movies, even if he didn't, the movies themselves were often geared towards an older male demographic. Movies like , Charlie Wilson's War, Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies, Sully, and, yes, Road to Perdition are basically the cream of the crop when it comes to “dad movies.” 

Tom Hanks Road to Perdition ending

Some say he was a decent man.” 

Although often overlooked in the grand scheme of Hanks' impressive, varied, and prolific filmography, Road to Perdition represents one of the actor's boldest and most important roles. The film uses Hanks' inherent likability to craft a layered and compelling antihero and, crucially, it puts Hanks into a father figure role, long before he would grow into his role as “America's Dad”. 

Now, 20 years removed from the release of Road to Perdition, it's clear that not only does Michael Sullivan represent Hanks' only effective turn as an antihero, but Hanks, and his reputation both before and after the film, makes Sullivan one of the most memorable, likeable and easy-to-root for antiheroes of the last twenty years.