Martin Scorsese's exciting, epic-length new crime film, The Irishman, isn’t Goodfellas Light or Goodfellas 2, it is more an inverse Goodfellas. The protagonist of that 1990 film revelled in the money and camaraderie of a Mafia life until it caught up with him in the end. But the deep, resonant, and even witty, Irishman depicts the sociopathic underpinnings and damage of that life from the start.
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Robert De Niro is a hitman named Frank Sheeran, an Irishman working for the Italian mob, and Joe Pesci is Russell Bufalino, the boss who brings him in. These characters wrangle with familiar Scorsese themes – crime, guilt, religion, loyalty, families (both personal and the Mafia kind) – and the messy, human way in which they collide. Here, minor characters are identified with legends announcing their fates, as in: “Salvatore 'Sally Bugs' Briguglio – shot 3 times in the face, 1978”. There is no way this story is heading for a happy end.
The film's casting has driven most of the immense anticipation. The De Niro-Scorsese collaboration is legendary, but they haven’t worked together since Casino in 1995. And Pesci co-starred with De Niro on some of Scorsese's greatest films, including Raging Bull and Goodfellas. But The Irishman is more than a trick of nostalgia. Spanning a period from the 1950s through to 2000, it offers a sharp look at how corruption in politics and business makes its way into US life. That theme enters with Al Pacino (who has not worked with Scorsese before) as Jimmy Hoffa, the mob-connected head of the most powerful labour union in the US, who becomes Sheeran’s friend and colleague.
All three characters are based on real people, and the film is inspired by Sheeran's memoir, but it’s a book that is a model of unreliable storytelling. Even now, no one knows for certain who made Hoffa disappear in 1975, leaving not a trace or a body part behind, but Sheeran takes the credit.
Scorsese knows his audience and reputation so well that the film constantly plays with, and defies, expectations. The opening scene is pure Scorsese; a tracking shot moves down a long corridor, sailing past a religious statue, pop music on the soundtrack (In the Still of the Night, by the Five Satins), until we arrive in a room in a nursing home. De Niro, believably aged into his eighties, sits in a wheelchair and starts telling his story. In his scenes as the older Frank, he is eloquently still, his voice and manner infused with sadness.
Frank’s story includes flashbacks within flashbacks, and the bravura style of the opening disappears, replaced by smooth, inconspicuous camera movements. Where the camerawork and editing of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street capture the kinetic energy of its drugged-out, speeded-up characters, The Irishman's cool, straightforward approach suits the matter-of-fact, yet lethal, world of Sheeran and Bufalino.
The first flashback features a road trip that the two men take with their wives, ostensibly to a wedding but really an excuse for business along the way, picking up envelopes of cash. Then the action shifts back more than a decade, when Frank was a twenty-something truck driver. De Niro may well be the greatest actor of his generation, but try to ignore the de-aging process that immobilises his face for much of the film, and is actively annoying in the scenes where he is youngest. It may have been achieved using special effects, but it makes him look like someone who has had way too much Botox.
Pesci never has to look young, just middle-aged, so the effects are less jarring. But it's his performance that gives the film its chilling core. Far from the hotheaded characters Pesci is known for, Russell gives orders to his minions to take care of things, never raising his voice or using the word ‘kill’. Without glamourising anything, every detail and costume precisely defines the film's world. Sheeran and Bufalino often meet in an old-fashioned Italian restaurant decorated with gaudy chandeliers, dunking bread into small juice glasses of red wine.
If Pacino seems to outshine De Niro it is simply because he has the flashier role
If De Niro and Pesci give subdued performances, Pacino arrives almost a third of the way into the film and instantly electrifies it. Strangely, although we never forget that we're watching Pacino, the over-the-top performance works. Hoffa yells and makes demands, and gives the film energy and narrative momentum. We witness his fall from power when he goes to prison for fraud; his attempt to regain control of the union when he is released puts Sheeran between Hoffa and Bufalino, forcing a no-win choice.
The Hoffa story creates the most overtly political themes. The union leader enriches himself while masquerading as the champion of workers, shouting "solidarity" in his speeches to his credulous members. The character, low on self-awareness, is also a source of much of the film's wit. Hoffa complains about a union rival, also entangled with the Mafia, "Guys like that give workers a bad name." On the dais at a dinner in Sheeran's honour, Hoffa aggressively chews his meat while glaring down at Bufalino, by then an enemy. If Pacino seems to outshine De Niro, it is simply because he has the flashier role. It would be interesting to know whether Scorsese tried to tamp down the performance. Or, for all we know, this might be the restrained version.
Sheeran has flashes of violence in his younger days, but for most of the film De Niro's perfect restraint makes him a middle-aged man who has absorbed some of Bufalino's cold-blooded calm. When we return to the aged Frank in the film's final stretch, confiding in a priest about the daughter who hasn't spoken to him in years, De Niro gives the film a moving, elegiac ending.
Anna Paquin, as the grown-up daughter, has little to do except react. Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano, both Scorsese veterans, have small, inessential roles. But the film – at three hours and 19 minutes – never flags. The Irishman may not be as groundbreaking as Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, but then again, what is?
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