Movie Review: The Irishman
By Matthew Huntley
December 20, 2019
It’s a good thing “The Irishman” is three and a half hours long, because it takes a while for the film to gain traction. Don’t get me wrong—the plot is always interesting and the production as a whole is a treat for any film buff who’s been yearning to see Martin Scorsese direct his good friends Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, and, for the first time, Al Pacino, in yet another epic crime drama. But it’s not until the film’s halfway mark or so that we really start to appreciate “The Irishman” on its own terms rather than as a callback to the director and actors’ previous collaborations. It’s as if Scorsese and company felt they first had to make the audience comfortable by giving us what we’ve come to expect from both them and the genre before telling a deeper, more unique story.
Those previous collaborations, of course, include “Mean Streets,” “Raging Bull,” “Casino,” and the oft-considered crowning achievement of their careers, “Goodfellas.” And for much of “The Irishman,” I got the impression it was merely trying to live up to these other works and was overly self-conscious about reminding viewers of their quality and influence by trying to copy them. Because Scorsese and his team essentially wrote the book on the quintessential mob movie (with the exception of “Raging Bull”), perhaps they thought adhering to their own template was all “The Irishman” had to do in order to win the audience over.
And for some viewers, that may be enough, but I wanted “The Irishman” to be the filmmakers and actors’ opportunity to evolve the template, even though some of its qualities still function as a way to introduce and place viewers inside the film’s dark and unsettling world. These include the underlying story—just as it was in “Mean Streets,” “Casino” and “Goodfellas”—serving as a cautionary tale about complicated, amoral men aspiring to rise through the ranks of organized crime. Over the course of several decades, they’ll work to increase their power and maintain their status in order to leave what they believe will be an indelible mark on society. It’s cautionary because the question eventually becomes, to what meaningful end does a life of crime ultimately lead? As the other films and now this one show, obtaining power for power’s sake can leave one feeling empty, scared and alone.
Scorsese once again employs his trademark voice-over to navigate us through this fable. The voice belongs to Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who, in late 2003, is an octogenarian now confined to a wheelchair in a lowly nursing home outside Philadelphia. He takes us back 50 years and tells us about his “career” in the mafia. Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is mostly linear in the way it adapts Charles Brandt’s supposedly non-fiction novel, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the title of which is a euphemism spoken between Sheeran and his crime bosses that basically translates to, “I heard you’re willing to kill people [and therefore paint the walls with blood].” Sheeran, as we’ll see throughout the film, painted many houses indeed.
But Sheeran wasn’t just a hitman for his boss and mentor, Russell Bufalino (a quiet and tame Joe Pesci), whose physical stature may have been short but his influence as a don operating out of Northern Pennsylvania stretched quite far. On any given day, Sheeran could be Bufalino’s driver, messenger, drinking partner, or close confidante. They first meet when Russell helps Frank fix his meat delivery truck, which he uses to steal meat and give to Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), the head of a small-time crime circuit. Sheeran and Russell meet again more formally after Russell’s lawyer cousin, Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), gets Frank off on theft charges. Convinced this “Irishman” is reliable, loyal and docile after he refuses to name names in his meat-stealing operation, Russell enlists Frank for various jobs and soon becomes an important figure in the Bufalino’s illegitimate doings.
Eventually, one of Frank’s duties is to act as conduit and unofficial keeper of the peace between the Bufalinos and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the outspoken president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who had longtime ties with the mob. Like Russell, Hoffa admires Frank for his fidelity and they too become close friends, with Hoffa going so far as to win the affection of Frank’s daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin), who’s always suspicious of her father’s shady affairs.
With its tried-and-true formula and archetypal characters in place, “The Irishman,” for much of its run, essentially goes through the motions of a typical Hollywood mob movie, showing us various mob family matters (weddings, holidays, baptisms) and the roles the family played in certain historical even. We see, for instance, how Hoffa reacted to the Kennedy assassination and that his being the target of Robert Kennedy eventually led to his conviction of jury tampering and a four-year stint in prison, where his rocky relationship with fellow Teamster Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) became even rockier. Several notorious men from Bufalino and Hoffa’s inner circles also appear on-screen and we read subtitles detailing their history and cause of death, among other things, so the film does a commendable job of trying to be both entertaining and educational.
But even though everything the film tells us is interesting and easy to grasp, I was hoping that by this point in his career, Scorsese would try a different strategy to expose us to this history and world. For its first two acts, there’s something about “The Irishman” that feels too clear-cut and straightforward. It doesn’t take many risks from neither a filmmaking nor narrative standpoint. It surprised me to think Scorsese would be okay with sticking to such a somewhat standard format because it’s one we’ve seen many times from movies of this type. Would Scorsese really just present things his usual way and that would be it?
Luckily, that’s not it, because right around the halfway mark, my faith in the picture started to rise as it shifted from a mostly routine genre picture to a slow and quietly observant human drama that seeks to demystify and de-romanticize a life in the mob. If the first half makes Frank’s “adventures” seem like those found in a conventional Hollywood mob movie, the second is a solemn look at the way a life in organized crime can become a thankless and vicious cycle, one in which a “many-hats-wearing” guy like Frank is always beholden to someone in a higher position of authority and never able to fully relax.
We begin to empathize with Frank as we get a better feel for just how downright frustrating his job can be, what with his having to drive a truck cross-country, hop on a plane, deliver a package, kill a man, etc., all at a moment’s notice and all without asking questions. When Zaillian’s screenplay becomes more screen direction than dialogue and we simply watch Frank carry out the orders of his boss in long, uninterrupted stretches, we really absorb the film and its themes more. Even though Scorsese’s precise eye, combined with director of photography Rodrigo Prieto’s vibrant imagery and Bob Shaw’s production design are felt throughout, it’s when the film slows down that we notice all of them on a deeper level and they become more penetrating.
It’s also at this point we’re reminded of Robert De Niro’s raw talent as an actor because for much of the latter half of the film he has to perform without the aid of dialogue and rely on his own body gestures, facial features and internal thoughts to convey Frank’s dilemma and irritation. It also dawns on us that, in many ways, De Niro has been playing against type this whole time. We’re so used to seeing him as the man in charge and a hard-knuckled tough guy, and even though he portrays Sheeran as merciless at times, here we see him credibly nervous, hesitant and beating around the bush with Russell and Hoffa in order to appease them, and the anxiety Frank feels allows us to view him as human and vulnerable. We listen to his narration more intently as the film goes on and we come to care about this remorseful and lonely individual, even though is behavior is reprehensible.
“The Irishman,” whether true or not (there have been various articles discrediting Sheeran’s accounts of the facts), is always well made, and on the whole, it ranges from good to very good, but I hesitate to call it great because it takes too long to break away from its initially traditional formula and establish its own identity, eventually showing us an aspect of organized crime we might not have considered or experienced before. Even if isn’t up to masterpiece level, the directing, acting and production values are strong and watchable enough that there’s never anything outright bad to say about the movie, which is remarkable given its runtime. But should Scorsese and company ever unite again in their lifetimes, I hope they consider progressing their own standards and pushing viewers outside their comfort zones earlier on.