THE IRISHMAN. Country: USA. Director: Martin Scorsese. Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian, based on the book “I Hear You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Kathryne Narducci, Stephanie Kurtzuba. Release Date: November 1, 2019 (limited), and November 27, 2019 (Netflix). Language: English, Italian. Runtime: 209 minutes. Venue: Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.
Mostly Indies Rating: Instant Classic. A+
I’m going to say it. The Irishman is, bar none, quintessential Martin Scorsese, a director intimately acquainted with the dark, tortured heart of the underbelly, and who continues to find new ways to tell compelling stories that will make you laugh out loud and cringe in horror at the same time. If he chose to stop making movies and go out into the sunset, this would be the perfect vehicle to end a career that has now spawned six decades and a body of work that many would kill to possess. This is, no doubt, a director’s masterpiece, an artist at the very peak, expressing a familiar story that feels vivid and crisp, full of energy, life, and ultimately, sadness.
Reader, this is why we go to movies. We want visceral stories of people caught in circumstances mainly of their own doing, maybe or maybe not learning their lessons. Stories don’t need to be only about heroes and The Irishman does not contain a single one, Back in the days of Unions and when the mob ruled the world, men “did things”, took late night trips to work, and neglected family in the name of prosperity, power, politics, and the American Dream.
Sheeran “The Irishman” ‘painted houses’, which came to be known in mob terminology as something quite different involving a visit, an armed gun, and blood splatter on a wall. Sheeran, per his confession to Charles Brandt who wrote the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” (which gets displayed in titles over a black screen, a wink to Jean Luc Godard’s experimental style) started small, as most future gangsters did, acting as a truck driver and early on in one of the film’s flashbacks makes the fated if you will acquaintance of Russell Bufalino (Pesci, who coming out of retirement, this time only employs his watchful eyes as a means of using violence as a necessary thing, and does so to incredible effect). Sheeran soon found himself ascending the ladder of prominence in the underworld by being a ruthless killer-for-hire, one you just did not cross with if you knew what was good for you.
Today, however, instead of being a lethal weapon, Sheeran gets introduced not by an act of violence but by soft doo-wop music as the camera snakes into an old person’s home where he now resides, alone, waiting for us to tell his story. Scorsese moves Sheeran’s account in furious back and forth manner, often punctuating a flashback scene with another shocking image from another event, as the movie then segues into a lengthy trip to Detroit to cover for the murder of a rather notorious teamster.
That notorious teamster is none other than Jimmy Hoffa, and played by the lion that is Al Pacino. Larger than life, Hoffa comes into the narrative about 45 minutes in to quite easily take over the story from Sheeran, who stands by quietly, acting as friend and advisor, merely serving as the power behind the throne. Pacino plays his Hoffa as a man who, despite the changes in power, will not relent, and doesn’t even comprehend that perhaps his time has passed, a thing that seals his fate. It is an electric performance that could easily go over the top (and in one scene when Hoffa loses it as his well-known battle with then Sen. Robert Kennedy (Jack Huston), he almost resuscitates his caricature of power in Dick Tracy), and it is one that I think is guaranteed to garner Pacino a Best Actor Oscar.
There is so much energy in Pacino’s portrayal that when he makes his untimely exit an hour before closing credits, the movie threatens to lose some steam. [After all, this is not only a movie about the murder of Hoffa but the aftermath of a life of crime. Sheeran has confessed in his account to Brandt that he was the one who killed Hoffa, which is still up to much debate. It doesn’t really matter; Sheeran isn’t exactly telling us the pure truth from the word go: he just serves as the mouthpiece to tell a long-winded, serpentine story to match the fashion that he gets introduced in the lengthy first shot of the picture.] If The Irishman does lose some of its energy it is mainly due because many of its characters are now aging and dying in jail and the ones we met at the beginning entered the stage with a hilarious time stamp of how they died, which was usually, in a rather bloody manner. Maybe crime does not pay after all.
Now, for the technical: much has been said about Scorsese’s use of VFX to bring the actors either to look younger (as he does with De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel) or older (Cannavale). I can’t say that the technique threw me out of the story one second, even when some scenes in which Pacino or De Niro get into physical altercations might betray the actors’ age. It just feels organic to the entire product,
Another thing I want to point out is the way Scorsese has embraced the mundane into his epic story. Early on, the drive to Detroit features Kathryne Narducci (who plays Pesci’s wife) vocally expressing her need to have rest stops to catch a smoke. Later on, another car drive yields a conversation about fish that ventures into the style of Tarantino.
However, most notably is a running narrative featuring Sheeran’s interaction with his daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a young girl and Anna Paquin as an adult). All throughout, the mainly non verbal role watches Sheeran, wide eyed and communicating so much, as she comes to realize her father may be involved in much more than “just work.” It’s a sequence that ends in pain for Sheeran once the inevitable happens and he is left alone to walk on crutches and need the aid of a home attendant.
This is probably when the last and most painful of the many layers of skin gets peeled back in The Irishman. Once we reach this level of the nadir of a gangster, who even now refuses to disclose where the bodies are buried, we realize how nihilistic Scorsese’s film was all the time. All that buoyant music that plays in the background, those flashy Cadillacs and lavish parties, all the appearance of power for power’s sake has been reduced to one last moment in which a broken shell of a man now sits alone, facing the camera, with no one to tell his story, and much less, no one to care for him.