Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman examines mafia hitman Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) career, focusing particularly on his relationship to the Buffalino crime family in Pennsylvania and racketeering union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who famously vanished in 1975.
De Niro, Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel form a pantheon of actors known for their iconic gangster roles. With all four of them under Martin Scorsese’s directorial umbrella, The Irishman feels absolutely loaded before the credits even come up, like some kind of epic, grand gesture, the director’s ultimate mic drop. This entry in a recurrence of gangster films does, indeed, feel like the closing argument in an ongoing court case wherein Scorsese puts his ambivalence toward religion, family, morality, and the Italian-American cultural history of organized crime on trial. Like its stars, the story has aged a great deal since its last incarnation, and with age comes a somber and meditative perspective that highly contrasts the youthful energy of Mean Streets and Goodfellas.
While watching The Irishman, I couldn’t help but think back to Scorsese’s recent, controversial remarks regarding the Marvel franchise. His assertion that superhero movies are not cinema, but more akin to theme park rides— bombastic entertainment containing no real artistic value— hit a raw nerve for the Marvel fanbase. These devoted followers, who hold strong beliefs about the artistry of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, absolutely derided the director for suggesting that superhero films could somehow be hollow and repetitive for simply adhering to one genre when, according to them, he makes the same gangster movie every year.
I am by no means a fan of superhero movies, so I cannot speak to their merits (although I’m sure they exist, and Scorsese does come across as biased in his view), but I do take umbrage with the claim that Scorsese’s gangster films have no differences. Rather, they feel like periodic reassessments, evolutions of the preoccupations he’s held steadfast to throughout his entire career. The Irishman, despite being “another gangster movie”, feels far more mature and contemplative than any of its predecessors. That isn’t to say there are no drawbacks to this approach, however.
Scorsese should be commended for his complete and utter control over pacing, an achievement he likely shares with longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. For stories of excess and expedience, such as Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, they can make time fly, make the action escalate at breakneck speed until the most critical moment. Deliberately so, Scorsese slows things way, way down for The Irishman, building a tempo that much more closely matches his previous film, Silence, often times to a fault. This is a creepingly slow movie. Its languorous rhythm makes perfect sense, given the melancholy and ruminative tone, but while serving the film very well towards the end as Frank’s story comes to a bitterly undignified and tragic conclusion, the less compelling scenes suffer under its oppressive weight.
Not once does Scorsese rush through anything, and although he never has shied away from heavy dialogue, this may be his talkiest movie yet. This is most apparent in Pacino’s scenes, wherein circular arguments between Hoffa and other union “higher-ups” play out for what seems like forever. The meticulous depiction of Hoffa’s saga of fraudulence, imprisonment, and power plays may be a source of frustration for some, paying too much attention to endless squabbles, negotiations, and political dealings to the point of dragging on and overshadowing more poignant matters, such as Frank’s futile attempts to share loyalty with Hoffa and crime boss Russell Buffalino (Pesci), his crumbling family life, and his ultimately ironic impotence and fear of death in old age.
Despite these flaws, The Irishman has many strong qualities, not the least of which are the performances. Pacino and De Niro are a wonderful pair, both rebounding each other’s insecurities with Hoffa demanding loyalty while alienating everyone around him and Frank fruitlessly attempting to play referee. Joe Pesci, in a marvelous and rare reemergence, steals the entire show. Every single scene he’s in feels like its own film, and he singularly revives the story from its catatonia whenever he appears. Scorsese’s depiction of violence also seems to have been redefined, to great effect. Often accused of glorifying murder, the deaths, here, feel rather frank and unglamourized, often shot from a distance and stripped of all stylization, resulting in a realism that never rewards the audience’s appetite for bloodshed.
A mafia movie featuring an Irish protagonist and very little violence, The Irishman defies expectations by its very nature. In fact, the film’s title sequence doesn’t even include the words “The Irishman”, but uses the original book title, I Heard You Paint Houses, signaling its subversiveness early on. While this can be and sometimes is a detriment, it yields, perhaps, Scorsese’s most clear-eyed and empathic statement on the subject for which he’s most known. | Nic Champion