Martin Scorsese’s mythical, mournful and powerful depiction of the mafia, America and the mid-twentieth century is culmination of the themes he has dealt with, and helped define, throughout his illustrious career. With complex and layered performances from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, Scorsese uncovers the innate corruption and violence that the US and its government are built upon in such a way that it is impossible to dismiss as a relic of the past.
Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a respected hitman for the Bufalino crime family, has his glory days behind him and the hinterland of old and age and illness stretching out into the far distance. Contemplating his life and work with the mafia, he recounts a career of blood and violence, his relationship with his mentor Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his roles in events that shaped the late twentieth century for the US and beyond. The most central of these is his friendship with the notorious union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who disappeared without a trace in 1975.
Scorsese is in his element in the genre that arguably defines him. The contemplative, yet quick-fire script by Steven Zaillian takes inspiration from the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt (Scorsese’s choice for the film’s title, clearly, given its appearances in title cards) which chronicles the life of Sheeran without ever feeling like a history lesson. There are backroom dealings, assassinations and leisurely roads trips all mixed in together, with the addition of freeze frames and captions appearing at will to inform you of the infamous and violent deaths of some of the side characters, with some excellent comic timing.
The angry young men of Goodfellas and Mean Streets are furious no longer. They are still violent, impulsive, quick-tempered, but there is a self-reflection that the younger Scorsese would not have been able to capture in the way he has in The Irishman. Here lies the aftermath of a life in the mafia, in families separated and distanced through years of trauma that lurks in the shadows when retaliation is always close at hand. Anna Paquin, as one of Frank’s daughters Peggy, displays a quiet vulnerability and anger at her father that is never quite brought to fruition, indicating that she knows more than he thinks she does about his life as a hitman.
It is a pleasure to watch these masters of film at work. Pacino weaves between anger and banality at a moment’s notice, as the confident, apparently untouchable Hoffa whose power extends beyond his own capabilities. De Niro brings the weight of a lifetime on his shoulders, especially as the narrative moves towards Frank’s old age, while Pesci as Russell Bufalino is one of the standout performances in the film, with that hint of violence he had in Goodfellas always brimming just below the surface.
Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor since 1980’s Raging Bull and collaborator since his first student film in 1967, once again allows the raw material of the film to shine through, with stunning sections in slo-motion that feel wonderfully at odds with the narrative surrounding them, yet allow for the more contemplative moments to sink deep into your bones. The much-talked about 209 minute run time is able to fly by, without ever a dull moment to marr the experience.
The overarching narrative, spoken by Frank as he sits alone in a nursing home, desperately trying to atone for his sins, is one of regret. It eats away at the edges of his words, at the decisions he has made, but is does not negate or excuse the pride he still maintains, a company man who never broke rank, who did his job and did it well. Who “painted houses” without a second thought, as easily as taking a breath.
It is Scorsese’s contemplation on life, aging and death, with a cast of stars who bring everything but the kitchen sink to an incredible film. The Irishman is a masterpiece.