PLOT: An Irish truck driver, Frank Sheehan (Robert De Niro), is taken under the wing of mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Through this connection, he’s put to work as Jimmy Hoffa’s (Al Pacino) right-hand man, eventually rising to power in the teamster’s union while still “painting houses” for the mob whenever the need arises.
REVIEW: Martin Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN is meant to be the director’s last word on the gangster film, being a genre he’s the undisputed master of. While MEAN STREETS, GOODFELLAS and CASINO emphasized the excitement and rock n’ roll aspect of the lifestyle, before the inevitable fall from grace, THE IRISHMAN tackles the real, human cost of such a lifestyle. Your only outs are: wind up dead or rot into old age with no one around to care about you, and that’s provided you somehow avoid prison. It’s a melancholy fate, and appropriately, so is the film, being perhaps more in the vein of RAGING BULL than GOODFELLAS or CASINO. It’s a contemplative epic, but also among the most vital films in recent memory. If anyone deserves to have the last word on gangsterdom, it’s Scorsese.
It probably could have only ever been made by Netflix, with them giving him a budget somewhere in the neighborhood of $160 million. No traditional studio would ever finance a character-driven drama in such a way, much less allow him to put out a version that runs 3.5 hours. While lengthy, every frame of THE IRISHMAN is packed to the gills with substance. There’s not a moment when it drags, and it’s probably the fastest 3.5 hours you’re likely to ever spend on a film.
The price tag, of course, can be attributed up to the CGI de-aging effects. For the film to work, De Niro has to be able to convincingly play a man from his late thirties to middle age. While yes, he never really looks anything less than middle-aged, you honestly forget all about the CGI after fifteen minutes. Rather, you get sucked into the story regardless of the effects. For those wondering why they took so long to make it, I can only point towards the last half hour of the film, which delivers a gut punch meditation on aging, would have been impossible to convey had De Niro himself not been approaching Sheehan’s on-screen age.
While De Niro is in virtually every frame of the film, the supporting cast is exceptional, even by Scorsese’s standards. In some ways, it’s old home week, with Joe Pesci re-emerging from retirement to play Bufalino, while Harvey Keitel appears, as do newer Scorsese regulars (via his HBO shows) Stephen Graham, Domenick Lombardozzi, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano and Jack Huston (playing Robert Kennedy) put in memorable turns. Pesci hasn’t lost a beat despite largely being absent from the screen, with Bufalino a change of pace from his iconically live wire parts in GOODFELLAS and CASINO. Bufalino is a quieter sort of person, one who’s not quick to anger and even something of a peacemaker, even if he’s inevitably the deadliest of enemies.
Of everyone though, the best role is no doubt, Jimmy Hoffa, with Al Pacino adding another one to his pantheon of great portrayals, sinking his teeth into the part like he hasn’t in years. Much of it relies on his banter with De Niro, and truly they are a great pair. Pacino gives the film it’s warmth, especially through his unexpectedly touching friendship with Sheehan’s daughter, Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin), who’s terrified of her father and his cronies, but falls for this charismatic gent in a big way.
Despite the more melancholy tone, THE IRISHMAN, like all of Scorsese’s films, is also often hilarious, from the way it depicts the minutia of mob life (everyone dumps their guns in the same place), to the absurdity of names and more. One of the better recurring motifs is how every time a gangster is introduced, they reveal the man’s ultimate fate, which involve a gruesome death or prison. In another departure, Scorsese emphasizes Robbie Robertson’s score over period tunes, with a few notable exceptions, including repeated, haunting use of The Five Satin’s “In the Still of the Night.”
Truly, THE IRISHMAN feels like it could be the perfect capper to Scorsese/De Niro/Pacino and Pesci’s careers, although everyone is so perfect here I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re not lured into one last project together. If not though, no one could have gone out on a better film. THE IRISHMAN, or as it’s called on-screen, I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES, is a legitimate masterpiece.