Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, Martin Scorsese’s latest film dramatises the story of Frank Sheeran, a real-life war veteran turned mobster hitman. Played by Robert De Niro, we first meet Frank in a nursing home. Now in his 80s, he guides us into the depths of his memory, sharing flashbacks of his time working for an American mafia family, the Bufalinos. Having learnt to ruthlessly obey orders during World War Two, Frank makes the perfect mob killer, and quickly becomes right-hand man to family boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).
At the same time, Frank begins climbing the ranks of a labour union, eventually becoming a trusted friend and minder of the Teamsters’ leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa is in charge of the largest union in the US and, as the pair grow closer, we watch Frank’s life snake between organised crime and union leadership – culminating in a brutal crime which remains officially ‘unsolved’ to this day.
The triple bill of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci – under Scorsese – sets The Irishman up to be a gangster classic. They may be greying, but these are legends of Hollywood, and it shows: Pesci is quietly terrifying as the softly spoken mob boss, while De Niro’s impassive Frank makes for an unsettling watch. Even as he recounts the tale of his greatest crime, Frank gives nothing away.
De Niro’s narration as an elderly Frank is ruminative and almost wistful – even as he disposes of murder weapons and describes contract killings. The movie has embraced uncanny de-aging technology to allow De Niro to play Frank from his 30s into his 80s. It is something the actor takes in his stride: he is as convincing a violent young solider as he is a decrepit nursing-home resident. While the digital de-ageing does occasionally jar, it is testimony to Scorsese’s cinematic excellence that he still serves up a leisurely, old-school movie that refuses to compromise itself with Marvel-esque action or cheap lines.
Indeed, The Irishman’s deliberate pace sets the film apart even from Scorsese’s previous work. If you liked the frenetic energy of Goodfellas or the riotous excess of Wolf of Wall Street, expect to be surprised. This film is remarkably poignant, devoting time to scenes of Frank’s family life and the darkly funny exchanges between mafiosi who dance around their violence with wordplay. When Russell Bufalino gives Frank orders to murder, he merely tells him: “They told the old man to tell me to tell you, that’s what it is.”
The Irishman is about as sedate as Scorsese gets. It is not shy of typical mafia bloodiness, but the violence is delivered in such sudden shocks that its ruthlessness catches you off guard. It would be fair to say that moments of baited breath are few and far between. Instead, Scorsese gives us something more disquieting: a greying killer who has outlived both his victims and his compatriots, and yet expresses no remorse as he edges towards his own day of reckoning.
A youthful face among Scorsese’s glittering cast is Oscar-winning Anna Paquin. She plays Frank’s silently disapproving daughter, Peggy, who is barely afforded more than a few lines – a decision that has spurred critics to accuse Scorsese of sidelining women in his films. However, what is left unsaid between father and daughter is perhaps more telling than any words that could be shared. Peggy acts as a moral barometer of Frank’s misdeeds, and her wall of silence eventually becomes a deafening reminder of the conscience her father has lost.
Coming in at three and a half hours, The Irishman certainly isn’t short – but Scorsese makes it worth the extended run time, and Frank’s story kept us enrapt throughout. The film was made by Netflix but enjoyed a limited run in the UK’s cinemas ahead of its streaming release. In many ways, it suited this brief run on the silver screen just as well as it lends itself to small-screen viewing. It is cinematic in its impressive cast and its vision but, with that lingering pace and a lengthy run time, it’s also a perfect settle-in movie for a night in front of the television.
The Irishman is available on Netflix from 27th November.
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