The title “The Irishman” doesn’t appear onscreen to announce Martin Scorsese’s latest film. In its place, “I Heard You Paint Houses”, a more evocative, less marketing-friendly, title. This three-hour-plus epic of twentieth century American history, mobsters and the trucking union has had a storied production history. For years traditional movie studios passed as interest waxed and waned. Eventually, streaming giant Netflix stepped in to fund the expensive production, which by now included a bill to digitally de-age the principle cast. Scorsese had the funding to reunite with actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and finally work with Al Pacino. The trade-off being that The Irishman reaches a limited number of cinemas (HOME included) – though it is available a week later on Netflix’s streaming platform.
De Niro’s Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran is a man who finds it easy to translate the horrors of World War II into a lucrative career as a mob hitman and enforcer. A chance meeting with Pesci’s Pennsylvanian crime boss Russel Bufalino takes Sheeran from crooked delivery driver to rising hired gun. Along the way he’s introduced to Pacino’s superstar head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa – a bonafide celebrity, mafia tool and force for political corruption. Working from Sheeran’s point of view, Scorsese flashes back and forth across decades to fill in the closely weaving intersections of the three men’s lives across the decades, from the 40s to the early 00s.
if The Irishman is to be the director’s last visit to this milieu, then this is a fitting, icy capstone.
The film has a strikingly flat trajectory; gone is the exuberance, the chaotic rise and crashing fall that characterised Goodfellas ̧ Casino and even The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese is reunited with the stars (and his friends) of those two earlier movies, and in spite of, or perhaps in part because of, the de-aging technology he employs, The Irishman gathers the feeling of a slow march, an acknowledgment of mortality. Death is ever-present – throughout, the film overlays captions which outline the shootings, bombings and cancers that befall even minor players – but as the years, the prison terms and medical ailments mount up, Scorsese’s tone grows ever more maudlin.
From the Kennedy assasination to Cuban relations, there are hints at the ways in which the mobs and unions impacted upon political events of the highest order. While the audience is left to make up their own minds about how far the slimy tentacles of corruption actually spread, The Irishman posits that much of the motivation lies not even in greed, or power, but in vanity and ego. It slowly tears at the notion that there is any real pleasure to be found in mob life. Pacino’s Hoffa lives the high life for a while, but he is a comic figure, too caught up in matters of respect and reputation – the film’s best gags stem from disagreements about punctuality and appropriate trouser length – to take heed of the blaring warnings of his impending downfall.
De Niro’s Sheeran and Pesci’s Bufalino are more pragmatic, steelier individuals. Hoffa can charm Sheeran’s daughter, where Bufalino only scares her. Regardless of how they choose to tread through their chosen world, it’s made clear that these are not ways to live a life. There’s no respect, no glory at the end of the road — only a fate of anonymous rot and decrepitude. The Irishman is the work of a master filmmaker, working at the end of his career, with all of the knowledge, tools and hindsight that entails. Scorsese’s association with the gangster picture is overstated, he’s produced magnificent musicals, exquisite period pieces and transcendent religious works. But if The Irishman is to be the director’s last visit to this milieu, then this is a fitting, icy capstone.