Synopsis – A mob hitman recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa.
My Take – As a cinephile it has been my constant regret for not having lived in the era when films like Taxi Driver or The Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon or Goodfellas appeared in cinemas, where I could witness actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in their prime, taking full command on the screen.
While watching them in a high caliber tale on the big screen still remains an unrealized dream, as streaming wars continue to heat up, Netflix at least succeeded in providing the means to one of the greatest living filmmakers in the world, Martin Scorsese, to make his definitive, perhaps even final entry into a genre which defined cinema for an entire generation.
Director Scorsese‘s film based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses, has been stuck in production hell since 2007, which ended up finding finance in 2016, and then losing it 2017, only to be picked up by Netflix, which reportedly provided the required budget of $159 million.
An understandable amount to throw around considering the film marked director Scorsese‘s ninth collaboration with De Niro, fourth with both De Niro and Joe Pesci, his first with Al Pacino and his fifth film to plunge directly into the mob world. While the film may turn off a set of viewers for being 209 minutes long, I assure you, it is absolutely worth it!
Of course, we all knew that if you give Martin Scorsese a mobster story, you know you’re going to get something compelling, textured and extremely watchable. The familiar tropes and themes of gangster films are all here, and one can’t help but remember other films in the genre, as the film without a doubt with go down as “The Godfather” of this generation.
Weaved around an engrossing and meticulously crafted story, and anchored by its performances from veterans like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, who haven’t done anything remotely as brilliant as this in decades, and the greatest revelation of the film, Joe Pesci, who hasn’t done anything substantial since his retirement in 1999. The film has taken director Scorsese‘s alchemy, back at its peak, to bring the three of them together in ways that surpass the sum of their considerable parts.
The story follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a WWII vet, who now 80-year-old and wheelchair bound, remembers his past life as a hitman for the mob. As we go back in time, the narrative uses the flashback in flashback technique and branches into several parallel tracks. Starting with when Frank and his wife, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) took a road trip in 1975 with Russel Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and his wife to attend a wedding, while remembering how they met for the first time in the 1950s when Frank was just as a truck driver for a meatpacking delivery company, and got caught for selling some cuts to a local gangster Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale).
While Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) takes up his case and gets him off, he also ends up introducing him to his cousin Russell, the head of the northeast Pennsylvania crime family, who in turn, introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) who headed the labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters and had ties to the Bufalino crime family. As time passes, Frank becomes Jimmy’s trusted aide and bodyguard whenever he travels, however, certain events lead to the eventual to disappearance of Hoffa in July 1975 which till date remains officially unsolved.
There is a lot of ground to cover, but the beauty of writer Steven Zaillian’s screenplay, and of director Scorsese’s careful placement of emphasis, is that we don’t experience the film as a comprehensive history, but as the story of one guy, Sheeran, who witnessed these years from the inside. Coming in as his new longest film, the story within is presented more as an epic than your typical Gangster film, spanning decades and showing the effects of time on Frank as he grows older and older, while also serving as a retrospective on his life as the framing device of the film is him reflecting on the past as he is knocking on death’s foreboding door.
Intricacies of the plot aside, the film is about mortality. Not only of its characters, but also the performers and, most importantly, director Scorsese himself. This one is, unmistakably, a Martin Scorsese picture, the long, deep shadows of Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino stretching through much of its 209-minute running time. But it’s also colder and more distant than its predecessors, with the mob lifestyle rendered less glamorous, more utilitarian. Here he seems to be meditating on his legacy, and it’s an absolute joy to watch him take the genre he’s already mastered to its new heights.
While it is a gangster-crime drama, what director Scorsese structures it like a Greek tragedy, where flawed men either self-destruct or are destroyed in their never-ending quest for money and power. We follow one man’s life and all the decisions he makes, conscious and unconscious, that lead to him to the only possible final destination. That can be said of a number of other Scorsese pictures, too, but none are as profoundly sad as this. The film is two-thirds Goodfellas and one-third Silence.
The third act’s whole “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” energy is not cynical, but thoughtful, and it works so beautifully that it choked me up by the end. The terrible sadness of the film and the violence that is dished out so casually as to be almost accidental, the routine betrayals, the inevitable futility of it all – is underscored by Frank’s dogged refusal to reflect on his passive choices.
The recurring motif of an open door is the film’s key image, particularly in relation to Frank’s emotionally distant daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), who in a near-silent role forms the film’s emotional core. Much has been made of her lack of dialogue, and more time spent with her and her father as they fail to connect may well have enriched the picture.
One of the biggest gripes it seemed most people had headed into the film’s release, was the de-aging effects done on the characters throughout, and having seen the finished product I can finally say that it really is not all that distracting. The one scene from the war where they chose to de-age De Niro looks, questionable at best, but the scene is short and doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. The film itself is so engaging and engrossing, and the performances so rich, that the CGI magic works exactly as intended, seamlessly transporting the viewer to a different era without swapping out the actors for their younger stand-ins.
Special credit has to go to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, production designer Bob Shaw, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker who play a huge role in transforming Scorsese’s vision into art and ensuring complete authenticity to the time period.
My only complaint isn’t a knock on the film itself, would be that I didn’t get a chance to see it in the theater. If you did, consider yourself lucky, as I’m sure that’s how director Scorsese would have wanted you to experience it.
Performances wise, Robert De Niro is in top form here. He hasn’t been this good in years, and his rather understated performance really carries the film. Al Pacino is great as Hoffa, and has plenty of Pacino moments you would come to expect. It’s a shame it took Scorsese and Pacino this long to work together, but if this is their lone film together, it was truly worth the wait.
Joe Pesci, returns to the screen in a supporting role that sure to net him another Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. This man proves just how great he is in every scene of this film, coming off with the most laid back, terrifying performance potentially of his career. No jokes, no outbursts, just playing every scene totally straight and presenting himself as meaning business, he immediately makes this role his own and differentiates it from his previous Scorsese roles in Casino and Goodfellas.
Stephen Graham also puts in a scene stealing performance, especially in the scene where he is meeting Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa. In other roles, Anna Paquin, Domenick Lombardozzi, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Jack Huston, Jesse Plemons, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Katherine Narducci and Harvey Keitel also play their parts well. On the whole, ‘The Irishman’ is an entertaining, surprising and audacious mob drama that marks as one of Martin Scorsese‘s best works to date.
Directed – Martin Scorsese
Rated – R
Run Time – 209 minutes