The Irishman (2019)

From his popular reputation you’d have thought that Martin Scorsese spent his entire life making gangster flicks, but in truth The Irishman, his 26th film, is only his fourth mobster movie after Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Nevertheless, he is so inextricably linked to the genre that his latest inevitably comes with a flurry of excitement, except perhaps from Marvel fans.

It doesn’t hurt that The Irishman is a reunion of sorts with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, both of whom last worked with Scorsese on Casino. Even Harvey Keitel, whose association with Scorsese pre-dates even De Niro’s, gets a small but memorable part – they last worked together when he played Judas from the Bronx in the wonderful The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). There’s even a role for Barry Primus who first worked with Scorsese on 1972’s Boxcar Bertha. The other big name of course is Al Pacino whose acting career so epitomises the intense New York masculinity that Scorsese is so associated with that it’s easy to forget that this is Pacino’s first film with the director.

Over the course of these four exceptional films, Scorsese’s gaze moves steadily upwards. Mean Streets stayed with the guys on the street, at the bottom of the pile. Goodfellas started that way but then depicted its protagonist’s rise to become a significant player. The Irishman however goes all the way to the top and its ambition and temporal scope is broader still.

Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa) and Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran) in The Irishman

De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, an Irish American truck driver who becomes the bodyguard, friend and confidante of union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the founder of the Teamsters and one of the most powerful men in America in the fifties and sixties. Sheeran, a World War 2 veteran living in Philadelphia, has a young family to feed and makes a little extra on the side by stealing and selling some of the produce he transports. When he gets into trouble he is represented by lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), whose cousin Russell Bufalino (Pesci) is the head of a significant Mafia family. Bufalino is impressed by Sheeran, and before too long the Irishman becomes a hitman for the mob. Russell in turn introduces Sheeran to Hoffa. The two form a close friendship and Hoffa relies increasingly on Sheeran as crime family powerplays, politics and rivalries become increasingly dangerous for the corrupt Teamster president.

Like all the main characters, Frank Sheeran really existed and the film is based on a non-fiction book of his recollections (or unreliable confessions) called ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’, a euphemism for being a hitman. Although some of Sheeran’s claims have been disputed, there’s enough corroborated detail to make it a compelling and truthful entry point into this particular American underworld.

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Ray Romano in The Irishman

The film raises an early question – is it really true that most younger people (and by implication most viewers) have never heard of Jimmy Hoffa? Although certainly not a household name in the UK, Hoffa’s power and political influence were significant, not least because virtually all truck drivers who transported goods around the US were card-carrying Teamsters and so held a stranglehold on American commerce. He was a figurehead for workers’ rights in face of the rise of big business. He also was indelibly corrupt, borrowed from the vast Teamster pension fund to bribe judges and had close links to the mob. A man who bankrolled Nixon twice – and both hated and feared John F. Kennedy.

The Irishman moves in these upper circles of power. As well as Hoffa, the film depicts some seriously influential and dangerous individuals including the Bufalino family, Angelo Bruno (Keitel) and Anthony Provenzano aka ‘Tony Pro’, played with relish by Stephen Graham. Graham is best known as skinhead Combo in This Is England and Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire, which Scorsese produced.

Sheeran almost becomes a Zelig-like character; he was a truck driver when a comically big-eared E Howard Hunt is shipping arms to Cuba to fuel an anti-Castro rebellion; Hunt was later one of the ‘Plumbers’ convicted for breaking into the Watergate complex. Sam Giancana, the Chicago mob boss with CIA links, makes an appearance; this was the man who – if you believe Oliver Stone’s JFK – was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate the President. Hoffa was being pursued by Robert Kennedy at the time and we see the Union boss’s wry satisfaction at the news of the assassination. This is a shady world, the world of Normal Mailer’s ‘Harlot’s Ghost’, where mobsters and politicians are so entwined it’s impossible to tell the difference, and it’s a world that I found both thrilling and intriguing. It’s a huge canvas, but by focusing on a single character – Sheeran – we don’t get overwhelmed.

This is a complex film, and long at 3 hours 30 minutes. It’s mostly set in the 50s, 60s and 70s but it’s reach extends to the early 2000s. It has many interweaving characters, conceits and manipulations spanning over decades, but despite its intricate double-flashback structure including a Wild Strawberries style road trip to a wedding that is a metaphor for Frank’s life journey, it never once feels confusing. This is testament to a remarkable script and Scorsese’s exceptional directing. The lengthy run-time races by – I left wanting more.

Robert De Niro’s Frank and Joe Pesci’s Russell talking to Frank’s reluctant daughter Peggy

The main cast is excellent. De Niro was once renowned for an intense devotion to his craft but sadly all too many roles in the latter half of his career have felt dialled-in and lazy. Thankfully Scorsese manages to elicit a compelling and tragic performance, unshowy and understated, with De Niro’s physical movements saying as much as the script does. He plays Sheeran as a complex man, usually taciturn and with a mild stutter when under pressure. Emotionally restrained but with strong ties to his friends, particularly to Hoffa. This is a much more nuanced character than the stereotypical mobster who murders in cold blood but loves his family, although Sheeran’s character could superficially be characterised this way.

Joe Pesci’s plays his mafia boss as the opposite of his famously volatile Goodfellas character of Tommy Divito. This is a man who holds real power but prefers to exert quiet control, a man you instinctively know not to argue with. It’s a commanding, compassionate performance and well worth Pesci coming out of retirement for. Al Pacino avoids his usual hammy histrionics and gives us a multi-facetted Hoffa: the rousing speaker in Teamster rallies, the political plotter, and the man, vulnerable yet stubbornly, tragically proud.

Al Pacino ‘youthified’ into a younger Jimmy Hoffa

The Irishman made headlines because of its use of computer technology to de-age its stars, a technique nicknamed ‘youthification’. De Niro and Pesci are both aged 76, Pacino is 79 and Keitel is 80, yet for much of the film the magic of technology makes them much younger. This could easily have been merely an expensive gimmick and risked backfiring, just as early 1990s CGI nowadays appears clumsy and jolts you out of the movie. Time will tell if the same fate will affect The Irishman but I didn’t find it a distraction and quickly forgot about the technique. Perhaps this is because the actors are only de-aged to their forties or fifties, with only a brief clip of a DeNiro more extremely de-aged to his twenties. It certainly didn’t impede their acting and the only thing that slightly jarred was that these time-warped characters appear with stouter and stiffer physiques than the actors we remember from thirty years ago.

The Irishman has a foreboding sense of loss, regret and death throughout, more than just menace. Although violent, this is more a slow-burn thriller rather than being viscerally intense. Infused with a sense of inevitability, this is the tale of old men looking back, with little to look forward to. We are conscious of their approaching deaths, foreshadowed by a regular comic conceit of introducing minor characters with on-screen text descriptions of how they will ultimately meet their individual, often violent demises. Death inevitably comes us all, it is what it is, and this theme lingers nomatter the complex machinations of the plot.

Death comes to us all in The Irishman

This is never more apparent than in the final third of the film, which lifts The Irishman from good to great. In the first two hours depicting DeNiro’s ascendance we are in familiar territory. Exceptionally crafted, of course, with Scorsese’s trademark tracking shots, use of music, familiar characters, themes and situations. It would by itself be a fitting summation of the director’s themes and craft. But that’s not enough and this all leads to an exquisite final act.

The last segment of Goodfellas famously accelerated to a cocaine-fuelled paranoid delirium, but The Irishman takes the opposite approach. Now the film’s pace slows. Gone are labyrinthine plots and intrigues and the mobster flourishes, and in their place is a meditation on regrets, betrayed friendships, sorrow and isolation. Even after what seems to be the devastating conclusion – a self-destructive betrayal that echoes an earlier self-defining act – Scorsese’s camera stays with the remaining characters for much longer than we would have expected and is all the more powerful for it. The Irishman is a revisionist gangster movie, much in the same way as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was a revisionist western, whose characters must come to terms with the betrayals and damage they have wrought by the moral choices they’ve made.

I haven’t mentioned any female characters yet and it’s certainly true that The Irishman would fail any Bechdel test. The wives and girlfriends are mostly merely supportive; this is a film about men. One notable exception is the character of Peggy, Sheeran’s eldest daughter played as an adult by Anna Paquin (Paquin is of course best known from the X-Men movies but also had the lead in one of my favourite films of the noughties, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret). Here Paquin’s character is virtually speechless, a silent witness on the periphery, but whose mere seven words of dialogue near the end are devastating and absolutely central to the film’s central themes of loss and betrayal.

Anna Paquin’s devastating one-liner

Of course, the film is exceptionally crafted. The original score by Robbie Robertson (Scorsese filmed The Band’s The Last Waltz) is atmospheric without being ostentatious. Robertson also selected the era-evoking forties and fifties pop music that makes up much of the soundtrack including Brian Seltzer’s steel guitar ‘Sleep Walk’ and The Five Satin’s ‘In The Still of the Night’. And in an Italian language scene, Robertson chose music from Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas Au Grisbi that seems slyly reminiscent of Nino Rota’s The Godfather theme. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is exquisite and thoughtful as always, emphasising tension, mood and emotion without sacrificing storytelling clarity. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto previously filmed The Wolf of Wall Street and 2016’s exceptional and underrated The Silence. In The Irishman he captures in 35mm the glossy glamour of fifties and sixties mafia bars and darkened streets, and contrasts this with the diffused light of a wearied 1975, illuminated by a bleached pale grey sky.

The production values are exceptional

The Irishman is yet another masterly film from Martin Scorsese. The film cost an eyewatering $159 million – the largest of Scorsese’s career – and it probably wouldn’t have been made without Netflix. This is Scorsese’s second film for Netflix, following the enjoyably slippery Bob Dylan documentary Rolling Thunder Revue depicting his carnivalesque 1975 tour blending fact and fiction. Like Roma before it, the film has reignited debate over streaming versus cinema although thankfully The Irishman is getting a wider cinema release than Cuaron’s movie. I was very pleased to have seen it on the big screen, it deserves that immersive experience, but however you see it The Irishman is an exceptional work of art.

The Irishman was released in UK cinemas on 8th November and will be on Netflix from 27th November.

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