I cannot believe it took me so long to watch Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” Then again, when a movie is three and a half hours long, it feels like you have to set aside a whole day in order to watch it. Like many, I am working from paycheck to paycheck, so taking time off from work is tricky to say the least. But hey, this is Scorsese and, as I write this, we are still in a pandemic quarantine because of Coronavirus (COVD-19). With this in mind, there is no better time to watch a movie which is almost four hours long. Besides, it’s not like we can go anywhere.
Well, to be honest, at 209 minutes there is not a single wasted shot to be found in “The Irishman.” Like Scorsese’s best films, it takes you back to a place and time so vividly to where you feel like you are there. It also features a main character who gets sucked deep into the criminal underworld where one’s morality takes a backseat, and we come to see the high price many pay for living such a life. But with this film, Scorsese takes things a bit further as we see this main character whittling away his last days in a nursing home, and we are made to wonder if one person who has killed so many can ever find redemption.
We are introduced to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a World War II veteran who is working as a delivery truck driver in 1950’s Philadelphia. On one of his routes, he runs into Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), head of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family, and eventually comes to do jobs for him as well as for members of the South Philadelphia underworld. Many of these jobs have him, as he puts it, “painting houses.”
Now while this film is called “The Irishman,” but you do not see this title at the beginning. Instead, we are the following: “I Heard You Paint Houses.” This is the name of the nonfiction book by Charles Brandt upon which “The Irishman” is based, but this title is not meant to be taken literally as it proves to be a euphemism for murder or contract killing. When Frank paints houses, he is essentially painting the walls with the blood of his targets. Later on, Frank also says he does his own carpentry work, meaning he cleans up after himself as well.
Just as in “Goodfellas” and “Casino,” the violence comes fast and bloody, and no one knows they are about to get hit. But unlike those films, Scorsese largely portrays the violence in “The Irishman” as largely banal or being just an average day at work. There was one sequence where we see Frank dumping a variety of firearms into the river, and this leads to a scene I have been waiting to see in a film for ages; We see a gun, after it has been dropped, sinking into the water and landing at the bottom where dozens of other firearms have been dumped as well. Considering the endless number of TV shows and movies which have shown characters doing this, this scene had to happen eventually.
Working with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese takes a non-linear approach with “The Irishman,” and it proves to be a brilliant study in film editing. Just as Ethan Hawke did with “Blaze,” Scorsese and Schoonmaker takes us from one period of time in Frank’s life to the next with what seems like relative ease. No sudden change in the storyline ever seems jarring or misplaced, and it made this great film even more compelling than it already is.
As Frank continues to keep painting houses, Russell eventually comes to introduce him to the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As pro-union as Hoffa appears to be, he still has one foot in the criminal underwood which has provided him with much funding. He struggles to balance out his duties with the teamsters and with members of the federal government, several of which look to take him down and send him to prison. During this era, Frank and Jimmy become great friends to where Jimmy hires him as his personal bodyguard. However, knowing what eventually happened to Hoffa, we know this story will not have a happy ending.
Seriously, how great is it to see all these actors working with Scorsese again? This is De Niro’s first film with him since 1995’s “Casino,” and I wondered if Scorsese could ever pull himself away from Leonardo DiCaprio long enough to do one more project with the “Raging Bull” actor. As Frank Sheeran, De Niro gives us one of his more subtle performances in recent years as he presents this character as someone who could easily disappear into the shadows. Had he never run into Russell Bufalino, Frank would have been another guy just doing a day job and supporting his wife and kids as best he can. De Niro makes us see this clearly as Frank does what he can to protect his family even as he delves deeper and deeper into a sinful life.
I am glad to see Pesci come out of retirement to appear here as he makes Russell into a study in quiet power. Russell never has to speak up too loudly to let you know who makes the rules in the mob, and Pesci almost succeeds in making Russell into the nicest character he has ever played in a Scorsese film. This is especially the case when you compare him to the characters he portrayed in “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”
There are some other performances I want to single out here as well. Harvey Keitel, working with Scorsese for the first time since “The Last Temptation of Christ,” is a very welcome presence here as mob boss Angelo Bruno. I also got a real kick out of Ray Romano who plays IBT attorney, Bill Bufalino, and he continues to prove to the world he is a better actor than we typically give him credit for.
And then there’s Al Pacino who, to everyone’s utter astonishment, is making his first ever appearance in a Scorsese film. Looking at their careers, you figured these two were made for each other, but it took the role of Jimmy Hoffa for these two to finally collaborate. While he does have some of those “whoo-ah” moments which have infected his acting ever since “Scent of a Woman,” Pacino ends up giving one of his very best performances in quite some time here. As Hoffa, he makes the long-lost teamster boss a study in pride as it comes to be one of his biggest sins. Even when the cards are stacked against him, Hoffa believes he is untouchable, and Pacino makes his boundless pride all the more reckless and palpable.
Now there has been some controversy regarding Anna Paquin who plays Frank’s daughter, Peggy Sheeran. Many have said she does not have enough dialogue, and this is especially pertinent as “The Irishman” relegates the majority of its female characters to the back burner. However, I think people miss the point. After Frank beats up a storekeeper for berating Peggy, we see her living in constant fear of her father to where she is terrified to speak up. When Peggy does, Paquin turns it into a truly a shattering moment as any trust between Peggy and Frank is forever shattered to where no one needs to spell out why. Seriously, the look on Paquin’s face speaks volumes, and she needs no extra dialogue to tell us what we need to know.
As we watch Frank recede in his golden years, we see him desperately trying to reconnect with his family his efforts are rebuffed constantly as they see right through him. Peggy, in particular, shuts him down at every opportunity even as he begs for her to listen to him. When I think of the relationship between Frank and Peggy, I am reminded of a scene between Michael and Kay in “The Godfather Part III:”
“I did what I could, Kay, to protect all of you from the horrors of this world.”
“But you became my horror.”
When we reach “The Irishman’s” last act, Frank is a shell of his former self as he wastes away in a wheelchair and reflects on a past which everyone has forgotten or never bothered to learn about. This proved to be one of the most interesting aspects of this film to me. When “Goodfellas” and “Casino” reached their conclusions, their main characters barely managed to escape certain death, and the stories stopped there. But here, we see what happens to Frank long after he has left his criminal life behind, and there isn’t much left for him except to pray for some form of redemption. Looking at Frank’s life, it is tempting to think he is hardly worthy of any kind of redemption. But then again, who are we to deny anyone in their attempts to make peace with their sins?
When it comes to “The Irishman,” I have to say thank god for Netflix as this film would not exist otherwise. Granted, the short span of time between it shown in theaters and then being available for streaming is unfortunate as this film, like many of Scorsese’s works, deserves to be seen on the silver screen. But considering the state of entertainment today which values franchises and superhero movies above thoughtful character studies, it is sadly easy to see why no Hollywood studio would touch it. It’s a real shame as it is films like these which demonstrate the wonderful and amazing power cinema can have over us.
In many ways, this is the perfect career capper for Scorsese. While he is revisiting many themes such as organized crime, greed, destruction and redemption, he is also seeing it in a different perspective. “The Irishman” belongs on the same shelf alongside his best works, and it is one worth revisiting over and over again. I just hope the next time I see it will be in a movie theater.
* * * * out * * * *