De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, gangsters… The Irishman is definitively Scorsesian, but uncharted melancholic power lies in its twilight maturity.
Through the opening tracking shot in a nursing home under The Five Satins’ In the Still of the Night, there’s a twinge of nostalgia. While Goodfellas’ iconic parade through the Copacabana relished the gangster lifestyle, his latest film is about the moral vacuum it induces.
It’s both everything and nothing we’ve seen before: there’s a harsh coldness to the glitz and glam, a Silence-like solemnity to its mobster dealings, fit with backseat garrotings and Castro cigars.
Check out the trailer for The Irishman below:
With more than 60 years under its narrative belt, The Irishman was a passion project. Years of gestating development saw the project change hands a number of times. Who wants to see a Scorsese all-star epic in this day and age?
Paramount were said to be taking the lead for some time, but as the ‘youthification’ ballooned the budget, they bowed out. Fortunately, the bottomless pockets arrived – Netflix picked it up, giving it a limited theatrical release before letting it loose on the streaming platform.
Back in the 1950s, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) was ‘more famous than Elvis, bigger than The Beatles’. As the former Teamsters leader, he was the face of the working man, and his urgent calls of ‘solidarity’ ring eerily prescient in today’s political climate.
But this isn’t Hoffa’s story: it’s the decade-spanning saga of Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran (Robert De Niro), Hoffa’s body man and mob hitman during the tumultuous period pre and post-Kennedy’s presidency.
It’s through his elderly, chair-ridden musings we’re told the tale, like Casino but with a shivering emotional bankruptcy punctuating its history.
Sheeran was long touted to be behind the disappearance of Hoffa. Although he was declared dead, his vanishing is one of the America’s most infamous unsolved cases. But that’s not the prime focus of the movie. Scorsese is more concerned with the hushed conversations leading to explosions, painting an elaborate, breathing criminal world where codes are as respected as gravity.
Coming out of World War II (where he learned two crucial abilities: fluent Italian and the dispassionate murder of prisoners), Sheeran has a chance encounter with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) that sees him welcomed gently into the mafia as a sort of handyman.
At this point and time, Hoffa and Bufalino’s interests are aligned. But as the former demands more control over his union (it’s his, make sure you don’t forget that), Sheeran’s loyalty to his two masters is tested.
There’s an absolutely stacked cast: Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons and Ray Romano, to name but a few. Scorsese has always been focused on the ethos of his underbellies, not the happenings. Every figure is finely sketched, from the sleazy to the wildcard to the Saul Goodman-esque lawyers.
The film is based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, with the title pervading the opening frames of the film. It’s an old mob euphemism – if someone hears you paint houses, you paint them with the marks insides. But, unlike the gung-ho bloodlust of Goodfellas’ Tommy, here it’s a grimly domestic last resort – introducing a complex relationship with the (ir)reverence for life.
In The Irishman, the only direct answer one gets is a bullet. Everything else is offhand comments layered in sinister subtext, bosses don’t own their desires, it’s always ‘for a friend’. A city can be brought to its knees by mundane adages, like: ‘It’s what it is.’
For the three headliners, it’s a tour-de-force turnout. Unbelievably, it’s the first time Pacino and Scorsese have teamed up, and it’s the perfect tool to hone The Godfather legend’s late-career fire.
Wildly belligerent, uncomfortably arrogant but brimming with charisma, Pacino paints his Hoffa (once played by Jack Nicholson in Hoffa) with an unexpected tenderness. The actor has cut loose in recent performances, but here it’s welcomed. The perfect cocktail of unwise machismo, humanity and fierce respect for punctuality; no more than 10 minutes late, ever.
It’s quite possibly Pesci’s most considered performance. Long gone are the days of his ‘Funny how?’ kettle-boiler rapport – he never, ever loses his cool as Bufalino. Again, it’s his tenderness that’s a rather interesting thread, a recurring issue of Sheeran’s daughter being afraid adds a layer of real sadness to him.
Although, in his businessman, effortless demeanour, he electrifies every scene – completely calculated, welcoming but burrowing fear, whether chatting with De Niro or warring with Pacino.
It’s De Niro’s best work in years, inspiring a different kind of abhorrence compared to his grotesquely-cut rapist in Scorsese’s earlier Cape Fear. In one scene, he takes on that old gangster ferocity in a grocery store assault. But his multiple hits are very procedural – he takes no joy in them, nor any disgust.
He describes it aptly: ‘It’s like the army: you follow orders, you do the right thing, you get rewarded.’ For Sheeran, it really is as simple as that – he’s a cog in a larger machine, with almost no attachment to anything apart from a sense of purpose.
Throughout, all the filmmaking components are pitch-perfect: Rodrigo Prieto’s ornate, low-key cinematography (with the odd Scorsese flourish) plays beautifully against the romantic selection of music. And, of course, Thelma Schoonmaker’s invaluable cutting skills concoct the hulking running time’s free-flowing energy. Never has a three-hour-plus film felt so tragically short.
Scorsese’s screenwriter, Steven Zallian (Gangs of New York) lends the cliché vibe it sometimes needs (count the cocksucka’s and come on’s), but assists the director in crafting a much maturer drama. Less razzmatazz, more self-assured.
As the finely-tuned Sunday drive through a life of crime reaches its final stop, with Sheeran’s daughter (Anna Paquin) cutting deeper through her dad’s steadfast guise, all the themes come full circle in a crash of emotions.
If this was Scorsese’s final film, it would make sense – it feels like the grand summation of his ambitions and plights over the years. The gangster beats are there, but as a loving, desperately moving look at mortality, guilt and how time endlessly, irrepressibly moves on, it’s truly extraordinary.
An impeccable, near-perfect epic: The Irishman is Scorsese’s defining masterpiece of the millennium.
The Irishman is in cinemas and available on Netflix now.
After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.