Director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, epic, all-star gangster’s paradise
Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci & Al Pacino
Directed by Martin Scorsese
The old man in the nursing home doesn’t look dangerous, but he’s a stone-cold killer.
Or at least he used to be. He’s Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who gave up a job driving a meat truck to work for the mob, and now he’s outlived—literally—everyone he used to know.
That’s the terrific opening—a brilliant, extended tracking shot, scored to The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night”—of director Martin Scorsese’s sprawling new gangster opus The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro as Sheeran and featuring a who’s who of other mobster-movie all-stars.
Scorsese, of course, is the maestro of mob cinema, from Mean Streets to Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. This one marks his ninth collaboration with De Niro, and his third with Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to work again with the Oscar-winning director and with De Niro, his frequent costar.
Pesci plays Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino, who takes a liking to Frank as a younger man and ushers him into his crime family in the 1960s, beginning with smaller jobs that eventually lead to bigger—more dangerous, and more deadly—assignments.
The story is based on Charles Brant’s true-crime book I Heard You Paint Houses, which is actually a biography of Sheeran’s life of crime. The phrase is mob shorthand for inquiring about hiring a hitman, without actually having to come right out and ask him to kill someone. Frank becomes Russell Bufalino’s “house painter,” spattering walls, sidewalks and other surfaces bright red with blood.
The movie itself spans some five decades as it unspools the story of Frank, Russell and their intersection with the events of the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, particularly as it pertains to the powerful Teamsters Union and its bombastic president, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, who’s two-time Godfather royalty, but—amazingly—never until now worked with Scorsese). Things start to get tense when Hoffa and the Teamsters begin to get sideways with the mob, and Frank—himself a Teamster, who’s been anointed Hoffa’s bodyguard and confidante—is caught in the squeeze.
Hoffa’s “disappearance” in 1975 was one of the biggest news events of the decade, especially since his body was never found and it was widely presumed that he was murdered. Brandt’s book—and The Irishman—have a tidy answer for what happened, but I won’t give it away here.
At three and a half hours, The Irishman fills out its epic proportions with epic performances and some of Scorsese’s best, most profound filmmaking—the signature cinematic touches of a master coming home again, working in his gangster-paradise element, and finding new depth, emotional richness and insightful resonance in old, familiar themes. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Pacino—you’ll never see these four lions roar like this again. This is Scorsese’s mobster-movie masterpiece, and a masterpiece in general. There’s no question it’s the year’s big-event movie.
This mob-life master class has it all, from quick, bloody, spasmic bursts of violence to long-game extortion squeezes; we learn the infrastructure of organized crime from the ground up. But the bloodshed is never gratuitous; it’s always “business.” One “hit” we see takes three minutes to explain and set up, in narration, and less than five seconds to execute. Most of the “house painting” is over in one, two or three quick, clean pops.
But make no mistake about it. These wise guys may be “businessmen,” they may be family men with wives and kids, they may cross paths with priests, politicians and even presidents. But they’re doing profane, down-and-dirty work, and they’re living in the shadowy underbelly of society, where it’s only a matter of time before the end comes for them, one way or another.
The movie has no less than three scenes of baptism, one wedding, and one scene that’s a symbolic “communion,” when Frank and Russell break bread, dip it into glasses of wine—and seal what will become their lifelong bond. But make no mistake about it: Theirs is an unholy bond, and nothing good can ever come from it.
You’ve probably heard about the high-tech, computerized and highly complicated “de-aging” technology that allows the actors to play themselves across the years, or the decades. It’s pretty amazing, but after a while you stop thinking about it—it’s just the magic of the movies.
The cast also includes a bunch of other recognizable—non-de-aged—faces, including Jesse Plemons, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Jack Huston. Anna Paquin plays Franks daughter, Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina). Peggy has very few lines, but her disapproving, disappointed eyes broadcast a spectrum of emotion about the chasm that eventually comes between her and her father over his violent lifestyle.
The other females in the movie aren’t given much to do, or say, either—because the film, like the mob it depicts, was a man’s world. And The Irishman shows us that the men who choose to live its life of crime—though it may be “glamorized” in the movies—have a high job-related mortality rate. People who paint houses often end up covered in paint. Those who live by the sword, as the saying goes, often die by it.
Unless, against the odds, they live to face another fate—old age, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, last rites, nursing homes. They may play wheelchair bocce ball in a freezing courtyard, or remember fondly how much they liked someone they had to murder, or dip pieces of cheap prison bread in grape juice—in a melancholy bookend moment to that “communion” scene earlier.
But still, the Grim Reaper will surely come, to paint his own house, and all they can do is wait, and wait, and wait on the creeping darkness of the night, and hold on to whatever sliver of light is left, in a world they’ve help to make all the darker.
In select theaters Nov. 1, 2019 (and on Netflix Nov. 27)