Decades lived and lost in Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic The Irishman
Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Harvey Keitel, Kathrine Narducci Running Time: 210 minutes
There is a moment, deep in the runtime of The Irishman where Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, a man decades in service to the mafia, tries to talk Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa out of going past a point of no return, Hoffa invoking the wrath of the mobsters he’s found himself in league with. It’s a key communication, a warning to a close friend to put aside his pride and stubborness in the face of certain death, a plea for cooler hands to prevail in a genre where they never do, as well as an internal clash of Sheeran’s loyalties and his warped sense of duty. The words, to say the least, don’t come easy. Sheeran is unable to conjure more than loaded stock phrases and inneundo, a sad Johnny Tightlips mumbling that “it is what it is”. In the mafia, you never say what it actually is, threats and confessions alike meant always to be dangled just out of reach, and the great Martin Scorsese’s pensive reflection of decades of crime shows how these delusions and denials erode a man from the inside over time. Weaving through the histories of these stubborn criminals, The Irishman lays bare just how hollow their power and legacies ultimately are, gently but firmly.”You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there,” says Frank and the story of how gets there and what is left of him when he does is one of Scorsese’s finest in years. A slow, sad reflection of the past.
The script for The Irishman is based on the narrative nonfiction I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, in which Sheeran outlines his career as a midlevel mook, both as a hitman for crime boss Russell Bufalino (played here by Joe Pesci) and also as bodyguard for Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The wry title isn’t as eclectic as it seems, it’s certainly not Dulex that ol’ Frankie boy is painting with, but the colour is always the same. The real-life Sheeran’s claims about the involvement of him and his associates in Hoffa’s disappearance, the Kennedy assassination and more lies in various states of verification, but Scrosese’s interest is less in the facts and more on the implications of the claims, the impact they would take over time. It’s easy to call this “another” mafia movie from the director, but the guilt here isn’t his frequently seen operatic self-beating, more of a deeper shame. Taking his usual tools and tropes, the images here are slowed down and enhanced, a personal Zapruder film in which a man’s moral core ends up shot, back and to the left.
From the Steadicam one-shot opening harking back to Goodfellas famous nightclub trip, which moves through the grey nursing home Sheeran now finds himself in, we see the more mediative look through gangster lives that Irishman is focused on, every trace of glamour and glory stripped away. The colours on screen are, with some carefully chosen exceptions, all-washed out. Characters are introduced with their ultimate fate – usually an early and horrible death – splashed out on screen, a device that’s pushed to the brink of absurdity, then past that further into something pitiable and inevitable. Sheeran’s story rambles, but what feels frustratingly loose in the early stages of the film gives way to something gloriously realised and sharply focued. Through the editing of Scorsese’s great editor Thelma Schoonmaker, years start to slip by, the much-discussed de-aging techniques on the actors becomes less noticeable, the brutal speed of the violence is contrasted increasingly with the stuttering, rambling discussions that cause it. Repeatedly, the dialogue alludes to the secrecy of men in this line of work, but again repeats it enough to show how stunted and useless it all ends up as more and more people go to “school”, more people have “a bit of a problem”. More houses get painted.
The technique on show fits the storytelling perfectly, functioning as flaws and biases in Frank’s memory. The de-aging on the men and their prominence on screen an emphasis of his insistent self-image. The men are men, the wives all look the same, the children are barely there at all. In De Niro’s best performance by miles in many years, going from threatening and toxic to impotent and passive from scene to scene, showing great understanding but little lionising of his character. There’s grace to it, but no warmth. A phone call in one scene shows some of his greatest work, mumbling and half-twitching as he’s overwhelmed with guilt and shame. In a minute, maybe two, Sheeran and De Niro alike feel their life’s work crumble. From the pricklish pinball of Mean Streets Johnny Boy, to legacy-defining crimebosses, to a shambling mess. A heart that has moved from thumping, to blackened, to shrivelled.
Even the passiveness reflects Frank’s bias of his own narrative, as he tries to have it both ways – the self-aggrandisement of being a ‘somebody’ in these stories mixed with the cop out of his emotional remove, a get out of jail free card as it were. Gazing unblinkedly back at himself, the truth is seen more and more through the eyes of his daughters, who barely speak but see their father and his actions clearly and damningly. The women in the film may not say much in terms of lines on the page, but they speak volumes. What gradually becomes clear is that the work the man might insist is nothing personal absolutely is. His soul is at stake, the lives around him will be impacted in ways he simply can’t or won’t imagine. Coming out of retirement, Joe Pesci is similarly brilliant, not the infamous short-fuse but something more sedate and therefore menacing and inescapable. Pacino is bloviating and bombastic as Hoffa, but it fits the character like a glove (or an oversized wooly hat). They’re supported strongly by a deep bench, character actors like Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons and Stephen Graham working alongside more genre vets like Harvey Keitel and Kathrine Narducci.
It’s wonderful to see a film like this selling out screens across Dublin. Spending a few hours in Scrosese’s meticulously detailed worlds is a pleasure, whether it’s the guilty pleasure of seeing hits play out like clockwork or through luxuriating in the simple pleasure of an ice cream both in hot summers and cold spells in the clink, The Irishman is teeming with life and once it lulls its audience in, surgical with its strikes. Its best seen on the big screen but worthy on Netflix also – do commit to watching in one go for an immersive, enriching experience. Quiet, lonely and introspective, The Irishman paints its house beautifully.(4.5 / 5)
The Irishman is in select cinemas now and will premiere on Netflix on November 27th.