As far back as I can remember, Martin Scorsese had always wanted to direct a film adaptation of 'I Heard You Paint Houses', a novel by Charles Brandt based on the confessions of a dying mobster. When the project that had seemingly been in production limbo for years was finally given the green light thanks for Netflix backing, cinema lovers around the world rejoiced knowing they would finally get to see legendary actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci together on screen once again.
The prospect of Scorsese and this band of actors reuniting for another crime epic had been talked about for years, with the director’s pedigree in the genre creating such classics including Goodfellas and Casino making him the perfect man to match of style and content.
That the film has been released at the end of this decade, almost thirty years after Goodfellas release, over twenty years since Joe Pesci’s semi-retirement from acting, seems entirely appropriate for the story at hand with the film acting as a self-reflective commentary on the life, films and faith of Scorsese.
Instead of telling the story with the non-stop exuberance and dynamism of some of his earlier films, or even the deliberately indulgence of works like The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman takes a more sombre tone, instead focussing on the real finality of decisions and the destructive consequences of the choices we make.
From the opening the film decides to take a pessimistic, regretful tone, telling the tale through a series of flashbacks across a number of different time periods through the memories of Frank Sheeran (De Niro) who is now old and disabled, sitting lonely in a nursing home. As we are introduced to the various characters throughout Frank’s live, we are immediately told the dates and cause of their deaths. They may be enjoying lives of glamour and power now, but there are no happy endings.
Frank Sheeran first encounters crime boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) as a food delivery driver who sells off goods to local crime families. He becomes well acquainted with local criminal bosses such as Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and slowly works his way up to becoming a trusted hitman, before being assigned to work as the bodyguard of ‘Teamsters’ Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The two immediately strike up a friendship and connection that extends to Sheeran’s family, especially his daughter Peggy who is particularly fond of Hoffa.
The eccentric Hoffa begins to present a whole array of problems for the crime families who are deeply intertwined with the unions, with various significant historical events such as the election of John F. Kennedy providing a historical backdrop, with the changing landscape of America bringing huge ramifications for the criminal underworld.
The story is told with Scorsese’s usual aplomb, combining strong production values and technical effects with fine performances to tell the story in compelling fashion. The much talked about de-ageing effects are combined with slick editing and music to cut across different time periods, tiring together a rich detailed tapestry of generations of American crime.
Of the key performers, Joe Pesci stands out as the star. It is remarkable to believe that the actor has only starred in two feature films (not including one voice role) since 1998. In every scene he feels cool and commanding, bringing an imposing feeling of expertise and gravitas befitting the grand scope of the film.
The film’s overtly self-reflective, pessimistic nature works both as a positive and a negative. Scorsese, a man who has a made a career out of entertaining people through films takes a step back and considers the actions of himself and his characters. The film feels like a considered rebuttal of those who criticise his work for glorifying criminals. Here every action is not taken to for the excitement of the viewer but to show the alternative, what is lost through the choices we make. The film mourns the lives the character’s haven’t lived, examining the mistakes they’ve made.
Yet the finite nature of the film and the bleak pessimistic feeling that looms throughout prevents the three and a half hours from carrying the same emotional impact as some of its predecessors. Unlike Goodfellas or even The Godfather where characters undergo transformational journeys, especially in the latter where Al Pacino’s character slowly gets drawn into the dark world of crime, in The Irishman, the fate of our title character seems determined in the start. From the very first scene where he encounters Russell Bufalino, his path has been chosen and thus his fate sealed.
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