A review of “The Irishman” – destined to be a classic movie

Netflix, which funded this movie, has given us a classic. Most viewers will stream it at home and probably watch it over a couple of evenings, but I made a point of catching it at the cinema when of course I saw it one sitting (it runs to an incredible three and a half hours but does not feel like it).

Following “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, this is a return to the gangster genre by veteran film-maker Martin Scorsese who is now in his late 70s. The story is based on the Charles Brandt book “I Heard You Paint Houses”, which is Mafia euphemism for splattering the walls with blood, and the script is by Steven Zaillian, whose credits include writing “American Gangster”. All the main characters really did populate post-war America and a fair amount of factual detail is offered, but the central plot point – the murder of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa – is speculative and controversial.

To tell the tale, Scorsese has brought together a dream cast: Robert De Niro as the eponymous Philadelphia-born truck driver Frank Sheeran who becomes both a Mafia hit man and senior labour union operative; Joe Pesci as Mafia boss Russell Bufalino who is mentor to and protector of Sheeran; and Al Pacino – who has not worked with Scorsese before – as Hoffa, the union baron who thinks that he can defy the Mafia.

What takes the superb performances of these three leads to another level is the use of technology to de-age them so that they can represent their characters over a period of decades. Very quickly, the viewer simply takes this astonishing transformation for granted. But this is a very macho movie with only peripheral roles for women.

De Niro portrays Sheeran as emotionally stunted except when required by one of his bosses to eliminate the other; Pesci gives an understated performance as Bufalino but he makes the seemingly anodyne words “It is what it is” a chilling sentence of death; Pacino, who is known for his emotional tirades in various films, is well-cast as the mercurial Hoffa and it is interesting to compare his rendition with that of Jack Nicholson who was the Teamsters boss in “Hoffa” (a film which does not feature Sheeran at all).

The framing device for “The Irishman” is a revelatory exposition by Frank Sheeran in a Catholic care home in which we do not know to whom he is speaking (the viewer?) and in which he admits far more than he is prepared to tell the priest attending to his final days – a period of gangster’s life that we normally never see in this genre. But then Scorsese’s movie is so different in so many ways. 

You can read my review of the film “Hoffa” here.


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