Film Review – The Irishman
The Irishman (2019) is three and half hours long. It could have been five hours and I would have been just as riveted. Martin Scorsese has delivered yet another masterwork. He dives back into the world he has visited before, where gangsters operate outside the boundaries of society. But this time, he does so with a far more introspective, melancholic approach. This isn’t another version of Mean Streets (1973) or Goodfellas (1990). In a way, this is a far more personal, even existential story. He puts a bookend to the genre he helped define, giving us a film that is nothing short of epic.
With Steven Zaillian on screenplay, Scorsese adapts Charles Brandt’s book, I Heard You Paint Houses. The lead character is Frank Sheeran, played by Scorsese’s longtime friend and collaborator, Robert De Niro. The real life Sheeran was a labor union member who also worked as a mob hit man. To “paint houses” meant to kill a person, with their blood painting the walls of a room. Sheeran also mentions that he “does carpentry,” which means he handles the killings himself. With Sheeran narrating, we follow his life through the mid 20th century – from his time in WWII, to driving trucks, to making deliveries for low level bosses, slowly making his way up the ladder and gaining friends in high places, eventually becoming the right hand man to famed labor union leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
But the structure of the narrative makes The Irishman a far more compelling watch. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing crafts Sheeran’s story around a road trip, with Sheeran driving his mentor, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives to a wedding in Detroit. Along the way, we’re met with numerous flashbacks to different points of Sheeran’s life, freely going back and forth in time and place. We get a glimpse of how Sheeran worked within the labor unions and in the mob. His willingness to do whatever needed to be done, both legally or illegally, won him the trust and admiration of many people, but it also made him the middleman when tensions started to flare up.
One of the big stories during the making of the film dealt with the CGI “de-aging” of the cast, particularly De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci (who were all in their 70s at the time of filming). Seeing them as 40-50 year old men looked a little strange at first – De Niro with a younger face was convincing but his body movements revealed his physical limitations. However, the effect is quickly forgotten once the strength of the acting came into play. This is probably the best iteration of de-aging, used more like make up instead of a main highlight to focus on. I don’t know if I’m entirely sold on the idea of using computers to change a person’s physical appearance, but if it has to happen, at least it was done by people who understood how to do it.
Fans of Scorsese’s previous gangster films will notice familiar shades running through The Irishman. There are slight odes to things we’ve seen before, like certain musical cues or locations. The Copacabana night club, featured in a famous shot in Goodfellas, makes a return here, although not as prominently. There are recognizable camera movements, with Rodrigo Prieto‘s cinematography placing a number of tracking shots, whip pans, and slow motion sequences. Sheeran spends a large amount of time in the first half detailing the intricacies of organized crime – from making illegal deliveries, carrying out hits, and how corrupt unions would strong arm individuals who stood up against them. This style calls to mind Ray Liotta’s narration in Goodfellas. Bloodshed and violence are active elements here, and Scorsese allows us to see the damage they cause in open view.
But if critics claim that Scorsese’s previous gangster films celebrated this way of life (they didn’t) Scorsese makes absolutely sure there is no question where he stands this time. As Sheeran interacts with criminals, Scorsese adds text on screen providing their name, their role, and where they eventually ended up (usually in prison or killed). The life of a gangster is one of short highs and disastrous lows, with tragedy and death almost always waiting at the finish line.
And that’s where the second half of The Irishman comes into play. All of the familiar elements melt away as the consequences of Sheeran’s life come back to haunt him. This was a man who thought that following orders would be enough to find fulfillment – he was so loyal to his “friends” that even when all is said and done, he was unable to let go of that loyalty. That is his tragedy. He learned that this was a world with people who will smile to your face and then shoot you in the back. It places individuals in situations where they have to commit terrible acts, even toward those they are close with. It’s this second half, where Sheeran has to face the reality of his life – searching for solace for his crimes – where the film truly reaches excellence.
The performances all around are fantastic. This is De Niro’s best performances in ages. He plays Sheeran as a quiet man wanting to please those around him. When the relationship between Hoffa and the mob start to deteriorate, De Niro plays Sheeran caught in the whirlwind, trying to hold everything together. Joe Pesci (who came out of retirement) plays Russell Bufalino without the usual aggressiveness we’ve seen from him, but that makes Bufalino all the more intimidating. We know that the smallest look or line of dialogue from Bufalino is all that’s needed for bad things to happen. And Al Pacino gives a great performance as Jimmy Hoffa, full of the usual Pacino charisma and energy, but focusing on the unwavering hubris that sealed Hoffa’s fate.
But the most important character is Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy (the adult version played by Anna Paquin). Peggy does not get much dialogue, but that does not make her presence any less important. In fact, Peggy is the heart and soul of The Irishman. She represents everything that Sheeran lost: the love and compassion that could have been his was swept away because of his devotion to his job. Every time she appears on screen, it’s like an imaginary arrow being wedged right into Sheeran’s chest. She is the moral conscious, hovering above him watching his every move. It’s no question that Scorsese’s work is highly influenced by his Catholic upbringing, and here Peggy is the guilt that weighs heavy on Sheeran’s shoulders.
The Irishman begins and ends with a long, unbroken tracking shot, taking place inside a nursing home. It reinforces the idea that a person’s life is defined by their actions. In the end, we all wind up in the same place, but when we get there will we be able to look back and say that everything was worth it? The Irishman is not just a mob movie. It’s an examination of aging, regret, and holding value in the things that really matter. Martin Scorsese has yet again proven why he is one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.