Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
Though it has seemingly everything going for it, The Irishman oddly hasn’t really been one of the movies I’ve really been anticipating this year. The mere fact that it’s a Martin Scorsese film should have been enough to make me excited for it, the guy is as good as he’s ever been these days and is probably the world’s best living filmmaker. The fact that this film has him re-uniting with Robert De Niro for the first time since 1995 alone should have made it the film event of the year. Add to that the fact that Scorsese is also working with Al Pacino for the first time ever and that Joe Pesci basically came out of retirement for the movie should have moved it into the stratosphere of excitement. So why haven’t I been outlandishly excited for this thing? Well, part of it is that on paper it just seemed too good to be true. All too often when the pedigree of something sounds that great on paper the final film doesn’t quite pan out and it’s best to keep your expectations in check. Also something about Scorsese going back to the gangster movie well had me worried this could be a very commercial play intended to make up for the failure of Silence at the box office. Then of course there’s the Netflix of it all. But the film is finally here now and it’s a pretty heavy piece of work to wade into.
The film is an adaptation of a confessional memoir called “I Heard You Paint Houses” that was published shortly after the death of Frank Sheeran, a former Teamster official with likely ties to organized crime. In the book Sheeran takes credit for having perpetrated a number of high profile murders for the mafia including having played a role in the death of Jimmy Hoffa. The veracity of this book has been widely questioned and it’s likely because of this that the film doesn’t have much in the way of “based on a true story” title cards and much of the film is framed by shots of Sheeran (Robert De Niro) late in life recounting his story to some unnamed person off screen. From there there’s a sort of “frame story within a frame story” of he and his associate Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) are going on a road trip in 1975 with their wives to Detroit ostensibly to attend a wedding but actually to use that wedding as cover to take care of some illegal business. We come back to that road trip from time to time in the film and it seems oddly somber and ominous. From there we flash back even further to the 50s and follow the chronology of what brought Sheeran to that point, namely his exploits as a hitman for the mob and the Teamster ties that would make him a close confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
As I mentioned before, it’s not overly clear whether there’s any truth to Sheeran’s account of things. From what I’ve read he was indeed a teamster official and friend of Jimmy Hoffa with mob ties, but there almost no evidence outside of his own accounts that he was ever the triggerman for any murders and his accounts contradict the conventional wisdom about a number of the murders he was involved with. There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory aspect to his recollection of 20th century history which puts the mafia at the center of certain events including the Bay of Pigs Invasion and possibly even the Kennedy assassination and that makes me increasingly suspicious that all of this is just the rambling of an old man, but parsing the reality of it all is probably besides the point. Martin Scorsese isn’t Oliver Stone and I’m pretty sure that he was primarily attracted to this material for its dramatic potential rather than as a history text and it’s probably best just to look at it as a work of fiction.
If you’ve heard anything about this film in the press you’ve probably heard that it has become a rather expensive production because it employs some high tech de-aging technology to allow the film’s senior citizen cast to portray their characters at various different ages in this film that’s set over the course of this decades spanning tale. I was skeptical about this but I think the technology works pretty damn well. Granted the film never really needs to make them look much younger than middle age, which really would have been a challenge given that De Niro kind of gained some weight in the 80s and it probably wouldn’t have worked to try to make him look like he did when he was really young, but for what’s needed here the technology mostly delivers to the point where you don’t really think about it much. Of course this would seem to be a rather extravagant expense but I mostly think it’s necessary. This movie is all about following characters over the course of years and years and seeing their decisions build on them over the course of time. To simply cast various actors of various ages would have made for a painful disconnect between the various time periods being covered.
Additionally, I think the film gains a lot by having this dream team of mob actors in its cast even if they aren’t 100% age appropriate for their roles for much of the film’s running time. Much the way Unforgiven stands as a sort of requiem for the film western this seems to be a sort of definitive end to the gangster picture, or at least the generation of gangster picture that Scorsese and Coppola ushered in back in the 70s. Comparisons will of course be made to Goodfellas and Casino and not without reason. This is obvious yet another movie where a 20th Century mobster recounts his life of crime through voiceover, but there are some pretty key differences as well. For one thing, those movies are a lot more interested in what their characters find seductive about “the life” before their eventual downfall. There isn’t a lot of that here; Sheeran is obviously being paid for his work but he isn’t living a life of immense wealth like Ace Rothstein and he isn’t getting into the Copacabana through the back like Henry Hill. Sheeran also doesn’t seem terribly interested in his family as a reason to be living like this. There’s maybe a little bit of that early on but mostly he just ends up pushing them away though his general cold bloodedness.
Instead Sheeran seems to be doing what he’s doing out of sheer blind loyalty for the most part. There’s a flashback early on (technically a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback) to Sheeran executing German soldiers during the war when given vague orders to do so and that kind of mirrors what he ends up doing in organized crime as well: blindly following orders without second-guessing whether what he’s doing is a war crime/mortal sin. When he does get hired to “paint houses” he carries out his assignments with a sort of military efficiency and lacks any sort of remorse or hesitation. The dude is a psycho. I suppose the characters in Scorsese’s other mob movies are also psychos in their own ways but they at least weren’t hitmen so much as people who occasionally needed to have people wacked in order to keep their own hustles going and you get the impression that they’d generally rather not have to do that. But this guy? You get the impression that if Russell Bufalino told him to kill his own mother he’d do it. In this sense the movie is almost less like Goodfellas or Casino and more like Raging Bull in that it’s a portrait of a really complicated and hard to relate to character who ends up really losing everything that ostensibly mattered to him out of his life but for opposite reasons: La Motta was too impulsive and wild while Sheeran was too cold and methodical.
There are other key differences between this and Scorsese’s earlier work. For one thing, Joe Pesci is a lot different here than he has been in the past. In Goodfellas and Casino he was practically playing the same character: a violent wildcard who kind of screws everything up. Here he’s playing a much more rational and in control figure and he isn’t leaning on his usual persona in the film. Al Pacino on the other hand kind of is leaning on the kind of acting we’re pretty used to from him, and that does fit the character to some extent but I would say that if there’s a weakness to be found in the film it might be Hoffa. The infamous Teamster leader is a guy who they easily could been the center of his own film, and has, and the challenges of doing his story justice after he enters the film an hour in are probably a big part of why the film has such a long running time. Hoffa’s eventual death is clearly viewed by the film as a sort of Greek tragedy in which a hero is brought down by his own hubris but if we’re supposed to have any particular sympathy for Hoffa I wasn’t really feeling it. If anything the film lays out a pretty good case that Hoffa kind of had it coming both within the morality of the underworld (dude was not respectful) and within the morality of society (he was legitimately corrupt and needed a “house painter” on the payroll) and the guy seemed to have been given every warning and chance to make things right which he flushed out of sheer pigheadedness.
The larger role of Hoffa’s demise within the film is to act as a sort of wakeup call for Sheeran, the moment that finally breaks through this hitman’s sociopathic resolve and leaves him riddled with regrets later in life, and it’s effective at doing that but there is something rather odd about a movie whose protagonist’s great revelation is simply the achievement of having gained some fraction of the empathy that normal people have without trying. But then maybe that’s the point, that these gangsters that we’ve been glamourizing for decades are pathetic and cold hearted people who are doomed to either early deaths, long prison sentences, or to die alone and friendless. It’s almost like a return to the message from the message from the 1930s gangster movies that started the whole genre, but obviously a bit more artfully conveyed than it was in those movies (which were code-mandated to end with the gangster protagonists being gunned down or executed at the end), and it was obviously on some level the message of The Godfather films on some level. I do wonder if Scorsese feels that this movie contradicts the tone of his own earlier gangster movies, which also certainly didn’t support the gangster lifestyle but were a bit more subtle in their messaging and were more interested in showing the push and pull of this lifestyle being intoxicating and being horrifying. I think I might prefer that approach more overall, but I can also understand the instinct of an artist late in life to stop and make one hundred percent sure people knows what he really thinks.
****1/2 out of Five