Movie review: Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ is another mobster masterpiece
Martin Scorsese is back and, with “The Irishman,” he’s not only directed his best, most accomplished film since “Goodfellas,” he’s also brought along a few friends for the ride. Among the cast members in this good old-fashioned, big epic of a mobster movie are Scorsese stalwarts Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. It doesn’t seem right not to list Al Pacino here, as he’s an integral part of the film, but despite what tricks your memory might be playing on you, this is the first time he’s worked with Scorsese.
Other previous cohorts of the director, non-actor types, include writer Steven Zaillian (“Gangs of New York”), cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Silence”), composer Robbie Robertson (“The Color of Money”) and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (just about every film Scorsese has made).
Based on the 2004 book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by crime writer Charles Brandt, the film, as reports have suggested, really does run three-and-a-half hours. So, go to the bathroom first, and don’t buy a large Coke with your popcorn. But due to Scorsese’s skill in whipping together a complicated story, it flies by. It’s the true tale of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), the Irish meat man who started doing “favors” for New York’s Italian Mob, became close friends with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), worked his way up in the unsavory Mob ranks - even though the bosses considered him only as the guy who was there to be told what to do - and later was a person of interest when Hoffa suddenly vanished.
Like Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” De Niro’s Frank is at the center of this film. He’s a family man, but he’s not very good at it. He drives a meat truck, but there are some shady goings-on around it. He calms down his mobster pals when feathers get ruffled. He shoots people in the head - or in mobster talk, paints houses - when that’s requested.
But it’s not just De Niro and Scorsese that make the film tick. Every member of the cast rises to the occasion. Frank strikes up a friendship with the mysterious Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a man who wields a lot of power in New York’s underworld. But even with so many people answering to Russell, there are others above him, the most notable one in this case being the quiet but fearsome Angelo Bruno (Keitel). Keitel seethes, Pesci remains relatively serene, Pacino becomes unhinged, De Niro is impossible to peg. The characters they’re playing are not nice people.
In exploring this seedy world, Scorsese fills it with many of the things his fans have come to expect from him: comments on Catholicism, long tracking shots, the importance of loyalty, instances of retribution. There’s also a great deal of flashing back, flashing forward and flashing further back within flashbacks. Those sequences are magnificently pulled off via various forms of aging and de-aging the actors, via makeup, body movement, and digital magic. Of course, given the subject matter, there’s sudden and extreme violence, and plenty of it. But Scorsese has also often infused his films with unexpected humor. It exists here in the form of Jimmy Hoffa’s uncontrollable love of ice cream.
The film is structured around scenes of one character who, as established in the opening scene, has managed to make it to old age. It then begins its panoply of flashbacks that shows who fell by the wayside over the years, and how that happened, but keeps returning to the elderly narrator who may be telling his story to someone sitting off camera, but may just be speaking directly to the audience.
In the end, despite the raw-edged excitement and the drama that makes up most of the film, it turns into a series of musings about aging. It becomes a poignant, sad, and haunting story of a lonely old man.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Steven Zaillian; directed by Martin Scorsese
With Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel