No filmmaker has explored the complex worlds of mob bosses, wise guys, and the streetwise better than Martin Scorsese. Over his 50-plus year career he has frequently returned to these crime stories many of which have a strong moral point to make about the consequences that come with such a life. It’s too early to say whether his latest gangland epic “The Irishman” is his best, but the fact that it must be considered speaks volumes.
Taking from the vein of “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, Scorsese unwraps “The Irishman” through the narration of its central character. Our first glimpse of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sees him alone in a Pennsylvania nursing home. He begins telling his story which screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts from the biography “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. It spans three decades of mob jobs, labor corruption, and of course underworld violence.
Frank begins his story in the 1950’s as a World War II vet driving a truck for a meat distributor. He crosses paths with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the boss of a Pennsylvania crime family. Russell takes a liking to Frank and their chance meeting leads to a handful of odd jobs around town. Soon Frank is entrusted with bigger responsibilities which earns him even more respect among the local wise guys.
Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) who runs the Teamsters labor union out of Detroit. Turns out Jimmy is feeling heat from the federal government because of his ties with organized crime (among other things). Jimmy’s also dealing with an ambitious Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) who is working his way up the Teamsters rank. Jimmy becomes a mentor to Frank and makes him his #1 guy.
But as Hoffa’s relationship with the mob sours, Frank, who has close bonds with both, finds himself caught in the middle. While all of this is building up and playing out, a literal Who’s Who from the era’s real-life Mafia scene are represented in some fashion: Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, “Crazy” Joe Gallo, and even Albert Anastasia among others. As someone who has done a fair amount of reading on the history of La Cosa Nostra it’s impressive to see how Scorsese and Zaillian weave so many in and out of their story.
Equally impressive is watching big moments in American history unfold in the background – Bay of Pigs, JFK’s assassination and so on. It’s one of several things that gives this film its sense of time and place. And it’s one of many ways the film feels yanked right out of a time capsule. With a striking authenticity Scorsese paints a vivid portrait of America while highlighting the mob’s extensive influence.
There’s been a lot of talk about Scorsese bypassing the hiring of younger actors to help cover his sprawling timeline. Instead he uses some age-altering digital trickery that allows De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino to play their characters from their thirties to the seventies. Sometimes you can’t help but notice it, but not because it looks bad. It’s more of a subconscious thing. We know these actors are in their seventies so when we see them suddenly thirty years younger we can’t help but notice. Still it’s pretty incredible to see.
“The Irishman” features so many classic Scorsese trademarks. It features abrasive, complex, and well-developed characters. There is its heavy focus on crime, violence and corruption. We get Scorsese’s pitch-perfect use of period music. And there is always someone wrestling with guilt, penance, and consequences. In fact, we are steadily reminded of the consequences. Countless times Scorsese freezes the frame on a character with text stating the date and details of their murder. It’s as if Scorsese is drilling home the point that the lifestyle may appear glamorous, but it all too often ends in brutal, violent death.
So you could say “The Irishman” is above all things a tragedy. Underneath its veneer of wise guy tradition and violence lies the story of a man facing the music for his embrace of mob life and neglect of his family. It’s a masterwork of storytelling and moves at such a crisp pace despite being three and a half hours long. Moreover it truly feels like a movie only Martin Scorsese could have made.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS