Martín Scorsese’s latest offering to cinema is the three and a half hour epic gangster’s story, The Irishman. Few can tell a gangster, or more specifically, Mafiosa story, better than or even as well as Scorsese.
Known for Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Casino, Raging Bull, Hugo, The Age Of Innocence, Shutter Island and so many other films, Scorsese has, generally, been at the peak of his directorial powers when recounting stories that involve the Italian-American experience. The Irishman is one such story.
Taken from the book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ written by Charles Brandt and adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian, The Irishman recounts the words of Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), a hitman for the Bufalino crime family and right-hand man to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), as well as a union leader himself. The Irishman chronicles his rise through the ranks, the killings he did, his estrangement from his daughter Peggy, portrayed with steely resolve by Anna Paquin, and the disappearance of Hoffa as recounted by Sheeran himself.
Scorsese unites all of the big guns for this one. DeNiro and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino are, unsurprisingly, in attendance but he also recruits his original muse, Harvey Keitel, who plays Angelo Bruno and Pacino, turning in a stellar performance as Hoffa. This film gives film lovers the DeNiro/Pacino match up they have yearned for all of these years.
DeNiro, as one would expect, puts in a wonderful everyman performance in the film as the working-class Sheeran whose chance meeting with Russell Bufalino takes his life in a totally different direction. After being persuaded to do a few jobs by Russell, he is taken under the wing of the Bufalino family.
Russell, whose connections and tentacles were in every business, introduced Sheeran to the leader of the powerful trucking and distribution union, the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran not only became Hoffa’s muscle but also became a close friend. This close friendship would prove ultimately costly for the increasingly nervous and mistrustful Hoffa.
Sheeran claims to have shot him twice in the back of the head. The body was then removed and incinerated. As the body was never found and nobody was ever indicted of his murder, it remained a mystery until Brandt’s book hit the shelves. There are those who dispute Sheehan’s claims but as this review is about The Irishman, which is, like many of Scorsese’s stellar works, biographical. I will take the story as close enough to the truth.
After five decades of filmmaking, Scorsese could be forgiven if he decided to go the route of other well-regarded directors and make pastiches of his own works. Though this charge has been levelled at him before, most notably for 1995’s Casino – a film I personally loved – following the tour-de-force that was Goodfellas, Scorsese has always been a director who has sought out varying film projects.
It is, however, in the realm of Italian-Americana where he has always excelled. If the story also happens to be biographical in nature all the better. From the staggeringly brilliant Raging Bull up to this year’s The Irishman, along with his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese continues to produce captivating work. Make no mistake, even at a bum-numbingly 209 minute runtime, The Irishman is a riveting piece of cinema.
From the rich opening signature camera sweeps, through the casual, matter-of-fact violence, up to its no-man-can-beat-time conclusion, The Irishman is a film that pulls you into the world of mobsters, unions and persons who lived unapologetically outside of the considered norm.
Much is made of the modern techniques and computer wizardry used to de-age the near octogenarian stars in the early scenes, especially on DeNiro, who is in almost every scene. It is initially a little disconcerting. Not because it is not good more because one knows they are not young men and, most notably with DeNiro, in their physicality and gait.
The strength of the story and performances does quickly make this minor gripe an irrelevance. For us outside of the world of organised crime, the fascination, whether it is portrayed romantically like in The Godfather, or as a daily grind such as in The Sopranos or humorously as in Bullets Over Broadway, there is always a compulsion to watch. If it also pulls back the curtain on people in history whose names are fading like the few photographic images of them that exist, that is even better.
The Irishman takes the story of the little known Frank Sheeran and brings to life one of twentieth centuries greatest crime riddles, what happened to Hoffa? Offering a credible answer. If in the unlikely event that Scorsese was to retire after this film, it would be a fitting film to bow out on. Masterful.