Written by Gaby Bonina
In The Irishman, Martin Scorcese makes a return to the gangster film genre, and demonstrates the continuity of his expert ability to captivate audiences within the world of crime. Based on the novel I heard you paint houses, The Irishman tells the true story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a World War II veteran and Pennsylvania truck driver who gets involved in the Philadelphia organized crime scene. He becomes the right hand man of various crime bosses, and the audience is able to listen to his story while he is at the end of his life — a feeling akin to Ray Liotta’s narration of his life as Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
The film tracks over several decades, within which we are joined by notorious figures such Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and teamster-leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The star-studded cast lives up to the hype. Pesci, who has barely been on-screen in the past two decades, manifests as a quiet, formal, but also intimidating mob boss. This starkly contrasts with the energetic and combustible personality that defined his role of Tommy DeSimone in Goodfellas. Pacino, whose first film collaboration with Scorsese was long overdue, exhibits the opposite of Pesci’s composed character. Pacino’s Hoffa displays such eccentricity and passion in his demeanor and presents the downward spiral of a man as he begins to lose power.
To top it all off, DeNiro’s portrayal of Sheeran validates the fact that he has mastered the crime genre. Like Pesci, Sheeran is a quiet man, and in fact, Scorsese’s motif of the 50s doo-wop In the Still of the Night by the Five Satins alludes to Sheeran’s role as a man that operates all his mob-doings in exactly that timeframe — silent and efficient. DeNiro encapsulates this energy in his character’s calm and calculated presence in such a manner that you do not feel horror or fright from all these terrible things. Instead, you feel empathy, horror, and some admiration towards Sheeran’s causal approach. DeNiro’s ability to command such a range of emotions within an audience truly shows what a legendary actor he has become.
Those familiar with the history of organized crime will recognize various events that take place in the film: the tensions between the Kennedys and the mob, the assassination of Joe Colombo at an Italian-Civil Rights League rally in New York, the hit on Joe “crazy Joe” Gallo at a restaurant in Little Italy, and the infamous disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa — a question still unsolved to this day. Scorsese does well to incorporate such events that were integral to the narrative in a way that does not drag the movie but rather give it life and energy. In my own person life, this was so exciting to watch as I remember these very events being relayed to me by my Sicilian grandmother when she was tucking me into bed (yes, slightly concerning but exciting nonetheless!).
The 3.5 hour film will be released on Netflix within the coming weeks, where it will probably be slightly more manageable to watch. However, watching it myself, it did not feel as though it was that long, and if it had been shorter, the narrative would not have been as rich. It truly needed the time in order to delve into the reality of life in the mob, from the mundane, business-like and formal conversations to the quick violence that occurred on behalf of these negotiations. I found the most exciting aspects of the film not to be those that involved killing, but the simple exchanges between the main characters that revealed a lot more about them as individuals and their thoughts. I really did find beauty in the quiet aspects of the film. There is a particular scene in which Frank Sheeran is given terrible news. While watching, I saw the changes in DeNiro’s face — from pure joy to total shock — and I was left empathizing with the discomfort and anguish that I had just witnessed. There are many moments like this in the film, all of which truly go to show Scorsese’s value of the negative space that is so textured in implications.
The Irishman is likely to be one of my favorite films of the year. Not only is it an homage to Scorsese’s earlier works, but it is much more scalar in its meaning than his previous pictures. In the end, Sheeran sees how his life has wasted away and how his decisions of the past have dictated his present. It is the story of an individual, yes, but this story applies to the entirety of a clandestine organization that has wasted away and become powerless over the years as well. The film is a work of retrospection, and in taking us along Sheeran’s journey, we get to see how our choices affect our legacies.