Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Stephanie Kurtzuba
Running time: 209 minutes
Martin Scorsese knows a thing or two about gangster movies. Chances are, if you’ve seen any mafia flick produced this side of 1973, where the streets are mean and the felonious fellas funny (how?), it will likely owe a whacking great debt to the Godfather of the contemporary crime epic. In a career spanning 60-years (and counting), few filmmakers have had the resounding influence Scorsese has.
With such an impact behind the camera then, it seems beautifully apt that Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, should assemble a trio of the genre’s most commanding presences in front of it. De Niro; Pesci; Pacino — just the thought of all three sharing the screen is enough to get you instantly brushing up on your mob idioms and working on those F-bombs. Thankfully, the mouth-watering package The Irishman promises is matched sensationally by its delivery: a sumptuously shot, sublimely acted crime odyssey layered with a powerful, deep-running rumination on life, death, and family. This is unequivocally Scorsese’s best film since Goodfellas.
But, if his 1990 smash was a stylishly uncaged monster of a mafia movie, The Irishman is a different beast altogether: a slow, sorrowful, yet sharply funny epic that, beyond the reunion of De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese’s trademark use of voiceover, whacks any comparison to Goodfellas within seconds of its monumental 209-minute run-time.
Based on the Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, the film’s opening shot is a patient, meandering one — far from the violent inauguration into the world of Henry Hill — as the camera moves down the drab corridor of a retirement home until it reaches the grey-haired, wheelchair-bound figure of former hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro). Upon Sheeran the camera holds its gaze, positioning the viewer directly opposite him the same way Brandt would have been while listening intently to the real-life Sheeran’s testimony. It’s here that the eponymous Irishman begins his story.
It starts in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, where WWII veteran Frank works as a truck driver delivering steaks while dabbling in some on-the-side petit crime to help pay the bills. Eventually, he’s acquainted with the elegant Russell Bufalino (Pesci), the boss of a notorious Philadelphia-based crime family. The pair quickly hit things off and, with his years of front-line combat and ruthless killing translating rather seamlessly to the streets, Sheeran is soon enlisted to carry out tasks far meatier than pinching sirloins from the back of a van.
A fully-fledged painter of houses (mob lingo for whacking wise guys), Frank’s criminal endeavours are given the sweeping Scorsese treatment; a slick yet subdued foray into a world built on respect and packed full of felons branded with all manner of nifty nicknames (Sally Buggs; Skinny Razor; Crazy Joe).
But if the film’s middle section threatens to tail off toward a territory of unrefined narrative focus and mafia modus operandi, it is saved by the introduction of Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa — the foul-mouthed, hot-headed president of the Teamsters Union. A fiery, outspoken political figure, Hoffa’s ties to the bigwigs of organised crime soon have the authorities sniffing around, hell-bent on incarcerating him.
Aware of the potential problems Hoffa poses to the entire criminal enterprise, Bufalino entrusts Sheeran with keeping tabs on him. But, while the two quickly become close associates — and maybe even friends — controlling a man like Hoffa, one who detonates into a fit of rage at the slightest whiff of poor punctuality, while keeping the mob moguls content soon proves a very difficult task indeed.
In lesser hands, the explosive, unpredictable Hoffa could quite easily descend waywardly into the realms of noisy, one-note caricature. As it is, Hoffa is the exact opposite, a character pumped so full of wild charisma and energetic charm that the film loses something of its bite whenever he’s off screen. It’s an unhinged yet assuredly measured turn from Pacino, playing a character of great contradicting complexity in what is, remarkably, the actor’s first collaboration with Scorsese. He’s volatile but not reckless (he doesn’t, for instance, touch a drop of alcohol). He’s clamorous but calculated; loathsome but oddly likeable — a Miami meeting between Hoffa and crime boss Tony Pro (British actor Stephen Graham more than holding his own opposite genre giants) is the movie’s raucously entertaining standout scene.
With Sheeran posited both as narrator and something of a murderous, but largely mild-mannered mediator between the mob and the second most powerful man in America, De Niro’s anchoring performance — a homecoming for the genre’s prodigal son after years in the obscure realms of horny grandparents and bagel adverts — marks a triumphant return to form. Beneath the digital layers of the film’s de-ageing technology, behind the waxy, forlorn expressions and glassy-eyed gazes, Sheeran is a man of repressed emotional layering. In his intriguing relationship with daughter Peggy (a thankless turn from Anna Paquin in a film disappointingly defunct of any prominent female presence), he is at once intimidating and pitiful. Later in the film, he paints a poignant picture of sorrow and regret — a withered killer finally paying the price for his actions. In its restraint, it is perhaps De Niro’s most compelling performance to date.
Pesci, meanwhile (teased out of unofficial retirement for the film), is quietly brilliant as Russell Bufalino. A far cry from the wise-cracking, maniacal sociopaths of Pesci’s past, his take on the quintessential crime boss this time round is one of subdued menace: infused simultaneously with an ice-cold, emotionless demeanour and a sympathetic, paternal warmth.
The true wise guy of The Irishman, however, is Scorsese. Along with screenwriter Steven Zaillian, the director, using the same deft, nuanced strokes of master painter, washes his crime odyssey in the bleak colours of a captivating, meditative tale of mortality and melancholy. While flecks of yesteryear Scorsese splatter The Irishman‘s vast canvas, this is not the same slick, trigger-happy, duke-box savvy film Scorsese would have made twenty years ago. This is a filmmaker in much more mature, reflective mood; an auteur permeating his work with a sombre sense of finality. In that sense, we might just read De Niro’s Sheeran as a stand-in for Scorsese himself, with Frank’s introspective insight mirroring that of a filmmaker shooting a pensive gaze back over his own legacy.
For Scorsese, and indeed his ageing cast, The Irishman might just represent the closing of a chapter in their careers. If that proves to be true, it’s difficult to think of a more perfect curtain call than this.