There is a rare breed of filmmakers whose body of work is so timely and respected they can do no wrong. Martin Scorsese clearly falls into the first part of that statement, maybe not always in the latter category, though you have to appreciate and respect his attempts to go in new directions by working in varying genres. This is not the case with Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman, which is going to immediately be considered a throwback (in a good way) to his earlier work with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, as the three reunite for the first time since 1995’s Casino.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Hear You Paint Houses – and oddly, those words are included in a title sequence, rather than “The Irishman” – the film stars De Niro as Frank Sheeran. Frank is an Irish truck driver who gets in with the Italian mob when he has a random encounter with Pesci’s Russell Buffalino, a made man who realizes how useful a man like Frank can be. Before long, Frank is an enforcer for Russell and word gets around to Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who quickly makes Frank his closest confidante.
From the very opening scene, you know you’re watching a Scorsese movie whether it’s the first-person narration and occasional fourth-wall breaking to the opening needle drop of “Still of the Night.” Despite the framing sequence of the older Frank and Russell on a road trip to Detroit with their wives, seemingly going to a wedding, we’ll learn two hours later that this is not the case. During those two hours, we learn how the mob is involve with all aspects of American history and politics, Sheeran an able Zelig-like eyewitness to the worst of it. As the film opens, Sheeran refers to himself as a “house painter” as in “painting houses with the blood spatter from his hits.”
Brandt’s book is adapted by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), who brings a wry wittiness to the interactions between the various factions in telling the story of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. If you’re a fan of Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci, then The Irishman is about as good a reunion of those three as we could possibly get. The addition of Pacino is what makes The Irishman so special, and it’s hard to fathom how and why it took so long for Pacino and Scorsese to work together.
Pacino’s entrance as Hoffa almost an hour into the film is one of its most important moments even though it’s a movie that’s constantly introducing new characters, often with text about how their deaths, only for them to be quickly offed. The excellent Stephen Graham (Capone in the Scorsese-produced Boardwalk Empire) plays “Tony Pro,” who becomes Hoffa’s arch-rival, which becomes much of the crux of how Hoffa eventually gets himself into trouble with the mob.
Sheeran seems like a role that De Niro was born to play, following his work in The Godfather Part II and Scorsese’s movies, while Pacino gives a performance that can go from 0 to 100 in mere seconds. The scenes between the two actors, which are relatively light compared to their famed face-off in Michael Mann’s Heat, are a joy to behold, as are those between De Niro and Pesci, still great despite not being on screen very much anymore.
The true heart and emotion of The Irishman comes in the form of Frank’s relationship with his daughter Peggy, who adores Hoffa — he’s the only person who gets her out of her shell of shyness. Peggy is played by Anna Paquin as an adult, steely and cold to her father when she realizes he might have something to do with Hoffa’s disappearance. It’s such a minute portion of the movie but so impactful.
The Irishman is a textbook master class on filmmaking, especially when it comes to gangster films and biopics, as Scorsese takes the twenty-five plus years of experience and knowledge he’s gained as a filmmaker to up his game from the Goodfellas days. The work by Scorsese’s frequent editor Thelma Schoonmaker is something that can be studied at length to see how it makes what could have been tedious and lengthy dialogue scenes move at a clip.
That said, The Irishman isn’t a perfect movie. There are two major lulls – one during Hoffman’s trial – and at times, the film does feel slightly long. Even so, there are enough memorable scenes between these actors, many of them doing their best work in years, you are constantly kept entertained. Scorsese makes the film an immersive experience, where you’re either deeply into everything that’s happening or you’ll never get into it.
The biggest shame about the indelible quality of Scorsese and his cast’s work in The Irishman is that it’s a movie that plays so well with audiences, particularly the humor, and it could easily drive people to go see it in theaters. Because it was funded by Netflix, only people in certain sections of the country will have a limited time to see it this way.
Frank’s story, his relation to Hoffa, and the way it’s told via Zaillian’s screenplay and the experienced cast makes Irishman far stronger than 2006’s The Departed, the movie for which Scorsese won his Oscar. Despite the 3-and-a-half hour runtime, it’s hard to imagine not wanting see the movie a second or third time to marvel at the craft on display by Scorsese, his cast and crew.