The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s latest and possibly last epic gangster
masterpiece. Watching it has the feel of getting together with some old friends
that you have not seen in a long time that you missed dearly. The premise seems
to be what if we have to actually see what happens to Good Fellas-like
characters at the end of their lives if they were not killed.
Some people might find the film a bit long at three and half hours, but I would
have sat even longer, and Scorsese needs all that time to give us a full sense
The film has gotten quite a bit of publicity because it uses costly CGI (which
helped drive the film costs up to over 150 million) to age and de-age the faces
of the actors playing characters throughout the decades. I thought the effects
were fairly effective, but Robert De Niro’s face did not always quite look right
The Irishman is based on a biographical book about Jimmy Hoffa’s driver, Frank
Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro in the film) titled I Heard You Paint Houses,
written by the lawyer Charles Brandt. Sheeran claimed to have firsthand
knowledge about the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Kennedy assassinations. Sheeran
is the fish out of water Irish person who is surrounded by Italians that the
title refers to.
There are reasons to doubt his accounts. An Esquire article claims that many
people that knew him said he did not have the temperament to do the killings in
real life that his character pulls off in the book. But even if his accounts are
inflated, distorted or fictionalized, there is no doubt that this all makes for
riveting, exciting, and great cinematic art.
De Niro has mostly played in cinematic excrement (including several sitcom hell
franchise projects) the last 20 years (dozens of people could have played his
roles in Analyze This or Meet the Fockers just as well), but this film is his
triumphant return to greatness, and Pacino might be even more impressive in as
the blustery, egotistical Jimmy Hoffa (he plays him in a slightly more
restrained fashion then Nicholson in Hoffa.)
The Irishman is thematically reminiscent of Shakespeare’s King Lear and
Kurosawa’s Ikiru because it chronicles the fall of a mighty patriarch who loses
his occupation and dignity in his last days. Like Scorsese’s classic Mean
Streets, this film often depicts the characters’ names on the screen, but it
also briefly tells each one’s eventual terrible fate.
Scorsese assembled some of the best, seasoned acting talent in Hollywood (How
can you beat Pacino, Keitel, Pesci and De Niro?) yet even this was not enough to
help secure funding to make an extended theatrical run of this long but
important film. The film is playing just two theatres in the Chicago area, and
then it will go to Netflix at the end of the month.
I think the reason the material resonated so much with Scorsese is that he is
probably feeling a bit like a fallen monarch. This man revolutionized cinema in
the 70s along with other film school mavericks like Robert Atlman, Brian De
Palma and Steven Speilberg. Many of the best films of the last few decades were
either made by him or influenced by him. Yet even he could not get enough
financing for an extended theatrical run without getting subsidized by a
streaming service. It is like Van Gogh not being able to raise enough to buy brushes.
The film is told in flashbacks as if Frank is being interviewed, and it depicts
the rise, decline and end of his life. Since the film begins with Frank in a
retirement home at a low point recalling the best days of his life, knowing his
eventual fate makes the events in his early life seem even more tragic and
It all starts with Frank making deliveries for a butcher. When he is accused of
theft, a mob lawyer named Bill (played by believe it or not Ray Romamo from
Everyone Loves Raymond who is surprisingly credible) represents him. Shortly
after Frank meets Bill’s cousin, Russell (played by the appropriately weasley
Joe Pesci in a killer comeback role that recalls his earlier work) who becomes
his lifelong friend and blood brother. Through him he meets Jimmy Hoffa who
hires him to be a full time driver and part time petty criminal.
Frank had a military past so and he thinks of Hoffa as a great army leader; he
even refers to him as General Patton. Like Patton, Hoffa comes off as an
egotistical man with great leadership skills who is clearly mentally unbalanced.
He is able to manipulate people well, and use his connections, but he is prone
to temper tantrums that are completely out of proportion with whatever the real
or imagined offence is. You can understand his anger at the Kennedy family for
their betrayal, but he also explodes at small slights like wearing the wrong
clothes to a meeting or showing up late.
Eventually, Frank is forced to choose between his loyalty to Russell and his
love and respect for Hoffa. Although the audience can guess the outcome, they
are likely to be just as conflicted as Frank.
When Frank and the other characters get their comeuppances we can’t help but
feel bad even though they deserve being punished because Scorsese has fleshed
them out so well they seem to be full blooded, quasi sympathetic but deeply
flawed characters. They are only a little worse than the politicians that hide
their crimes behind a cloak of respectability.
Much has been made of the shredding of Ana Paquin’s role (the only significant
female character) playing Frank’s daughter. She only got a few lines in the
script, but even some of those has been cut. It seems like her silence after
seeing her dad commit a heinous crime is the only way she can get back at him or
cope with the proximity of evil. Paquin is a fine actress (I loved her in
Margaret and the True Blood series). She could have and should have received
more space in the film, but maybe this could still happen in an extended DVD
In the current Film Comment, the ultra-talented cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto,
talks about how he used different techniques to evoke the still photography or
cinematography of each era that he was trying to evoke. In the 50s sequences he
evokes Kodachrome photos, in the 60s scenes he evokes Ektachrome, and in the 70s
scenes he tries to capture the look of Technicolor. The last part of the movie
uses less color as if to suggest the fading vitality or life force of the
characters. The creative cinematography alone is definitely Oscar worthy.
The main message of the film is that even though we tend to break things up into
good and evil (or cops and criminals), both organized crime and respected
politicians are codependent parts of the same system. Often the most powerful
men in government are only slightly morally superior to the worst gangster
I guess I could argue that this film does not quite reach the heights of
Scorsese’s Mean Streets, King of Comedy, Raging Bull, The Last Waltz or Taxi
Driver, but that would be like complaining that one Mozart opera or Chagall
painting is not quite as good as another. Almost everything Scorsese does is at
a much higher level than a typical Hollywood film, and even most of his misfires
and failures are compulsively watchable and mandatory viewing (But even I can’t
defend Cape Fear and Shutter Island.)
Although is only early November, I can say with confidence that The Irishman is
one of the finest and most absorbing American films of the year. If you have any
interest in great cinema, acting, and how the criminal/political food web works
you should see it, and preferably on the big screen.