The phrase, “I heard you paint houses,” is code for knowing someone kills people as a profession. It’s also the title of Charles Brandt’s biography of Frank Sheeran, the man who went from truck driver to hitman to high-ranking official for the Teamsters union. Martin Scorsese has been developing a film adaptation for over ten years. He has finally delivered in the form of The Irishman.
This 3 ½ hour feature stars some of Scorsese’s heaviest hitters. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, along with Al Pacino, among others, are a part of this all-star mobster epic serving as yet another look at how crime doesn’t pay, in addition to being a reflection on Scorsese’s career. The Irishman also happens to be a wildly entertaining crime film, relying on strong performances, spectacular filmmaking, and sharp writing to deliver one of the best cinematic experiences only so many will be able to experience on a big screen.
Having a movie that will mostly be seen by audiences initially through Netflix feels like cruel irony in regards to the film’s subject. For all the efforts to tell the story of Frank (De Niro), having it pushed down to being viewed on the “small screen” is practically just desserts for a man who is responsible for heinous crimes and ultimately finds himself in a state of purgatory, abandoned by many who were still alive, or just ready to move on with their lives.
I don’t say this as a spoiler, as the film features Frank narrating the story at an old age, as a reflection on his life. No, it’s essential to look at this as a way to contend with what Scorsese has gone through as one of the last living auteurs to go big during the New Hollywood era, and continually challenge himself at this point in his career. Additionally, something is fascinating about the idea of a man like Frank having his story not deemed reliable enough by major studios as a potential box office gold mine.
Let’s unpack that. Martin Scorsese has come out with a film starring De Niro, Pacino, and an unretired Pesci, and no studio wanted to touch it, at least not for the $150 million budget. I can get that. At a time where even daring to speak against the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (regardless of whatever greater point one may have been going after) can be a danger, major studios are not as sure about launching a movie of this size into wide release with hopes audiences will show up.
Still, here’s a perspective on the story of Jimmy Hoffa, a man as powerful and popular as many other notable figures during his time. We get a lot of biopics about actors, singers, world leaders, and yet so many having nothing to say beyond listing their achievements in a dramatized form. Here’s one made by one of the directors who has not only helped shape the way films are being made today, but does more for the world of movies than anyone I can think of. What could it be that makes The Irishman stand out?
Well, let’s start with the structure. The movie opens with Frank explaining some details surrounding the world he is from. We jump to the introduction of Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and their wives heading out on a road trip. A wedding is the destination of the trip, but we soon enough learn of other stops that will be made. Some of that is intended as nefarious. However, there’s also the simple comedy revolving around taking cigarette breaks and why. Writer Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) understands why these details are both humorous and necessary. A precedent is set for the attitudes shared among these people. There’s a clear understanding of what kind of history many can assume from these early interactions.
Making these stops allows Frank to see areas reminding him of the earlier days. We learn how Frank and Russell met. Here’s the first instance of the de-aging visual effects that made a massive difference in regards to the film’s budget. Much of the film relies on having the audience accept De Niro, Pesci, and eventually Al Pacino as younger versions of themselves. Outside of adjusting to De Niro’s appearance for a few minutes, the effect is nearly flawless. Pesci, in particular, looks consistently excellent here. But was this necessary?
Would it have been all that different to cast younger actors, possibly paving the way for new talent to become recognized? Francis Ford Coppola cast De Niro as a younger Marlon Brando in one of the greatest films ever made, and the young actor won his first Oscar for his troubles. Still, I believe there is a separation. While Scorsese is a good enough filmmaker who works with great collaborators to know how to find solid young talent, he’s also a filmmaker continually full of ambition.
That ambition doesn’t come without challenge either, let alone a necessary application. Making Hugo in 3D was not just a way to make something more commercially viable, it was a stylistic choice that applied to the film’s narrative (resulting in one of the best movies ever to rely on the 3D format). Pushing for The Irishman’s elaborate visual effects fits for similar reasons.
Allowing these actors to play into multiple times in their lives allows for a clear evolution of who these people are. It’s not just that Frank was once younger and merely getting into mobster business, it’s seeing the experiences he’s had register on him through these different stages. It’s about witnessing the power Pesci’s Russell brings at a young age, only to have it challenged later on, and taken away by the end. Pacino’s Hoffa could have just been a chance to see all the screaming and rage energy we’ve watched Pacino throw into some distinct post-Scent of a Woman performances, but he’s able to open himself up in new ways, which are all the more impressive for a 79-year old actor.
If there’s a need to analyze the plot, understand this film works as a chronicle of Frank’s life. The film spends a reasonable amount of time focusing on what it was for Frank to be a hitman before allowing Hoffa to step in after an hour, adding a new jolt of energy to the proceedings. Much of the story will be straightforward; some of the details will go over the heads of those not steeped in knowledge concerning the Teamsters and the various criminal connections Hoffa had. It matters little, as the film is hugely entertaining, with an editing rhythm that always keeps the viewer in the moment. Anything in real need of clarification can either be revisited (the magic of Netflix) or be shelved, knowing whatever issues some may have will be cleared up a scene or two later.
What matters most is the feeling one gets from all of this. Seeing Scorsese bring back his Goodfellas once more for what could almost be a swansong were it not for the amount of joy the director clearly gets for making movies, is made all the more special by the ease of these character relationships impacting the screen by way of uneventfulness shaken up every so often. Much like another sprawling 2019 feature, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, much of this film is about men talking. They talk in homes, their cars, restaurants, offices, etc. Occasionally there are acts of violence. The use of slow motion sensationalizes some of it. Other moments are presented in the most matter-of-fact of ways. But this film is not about brutality, nor does it glamorize it.
So much of this film puts things into perspective. If Goodfellas and Casino were not clear enough with their undercurrent of menace regarding how terrible the stars of those films were as morally bankrupt individuals, here’s a film that wants to make it absolutely clear. But it’s not about being blunt with a message. Scorsese is smart enough to show and not tell. It’s not just a film about what it is to be an enforcer and possibly be involved with the death of Jimmy Hoffa. The Irishman dares to push the viewer further following its climax with an extended epilogue showing just how much one must put up with while contending with sorrow and regret.
Within all of this is a nuanced feature as far as the performances and the abilities of Scorsese and the crew he’s working with. De Niro is in the zone, even if his purpose is to be mostly passive as the main protagonist. It’s how we see him process his decisions that stand out, let alone the interactions he has with many others. Pesci, meanwhile, plays against type, providing a subdued performance allowing him a hint of menace to come with the looks and soft-spoken conversations he has. Pacino, as mentioned, is terrific as well, adding plenty of shades to a character that could quickly feel one-dimensional in the hands of lesser talent.
There are supporting performances aplenty as well, with Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, and Bobby Cannavale serving as standouts. Having Scorsese’s original muse, Harvey Keitel, in for a small part of the film doesn’t hurt either. Every one of these actors works as a way to fill out the world of the film, providing more to enhance the journeys of the leads.
Each actor also has the benefit of looking great and fitting right in with the times. Production and costume design are as strong as one would expect from a biopic such as this. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is outstanding, allowing for golden hues and bright lights to subvert scenes featuring dire conversations, while a cold palette washes over moments of unflinching violence. When not relying on diegetic music, Robbie Robertson provides what’s needed to aid the film in the good times and the bad.
Additionally, at 209 minutes, one must know what a benefit it is to have Scorsese’s longtime companion, Thelma Schoonmaker, right at his side to properly cut together such a feature. It’s not so much about the pacing but allowing room for what feels necessary. Even if bits feel tacked on to the film here or there, nothing about The Irishman feels incomplete in this final presentation.
In looking at a film as expansive as The Irishman, it only feels right to see Scorsese once again tackle a genre he’s often unjustly pigeonholed by. Fortunately, Scorsese is a strong enough filmmaker to know what he can pull in to make a film like this more than an entertaining look back at criminal life. Having tackled his love of cinema through its invention with Hugo, the role excess and power have had on America in The Wolf of Wall Street, and a further contemplation of his own Catholicism with Silence, it makes sense to see Scorsese take on the challenge of age, reflection, and the consequences of actions through a gangster story. The results are masterful, a testament to the abilities of a filmmaker who hasn’t slowed down, doing all that’s needed to not only stay relevant but make other filmmakers try harder.