Synopsis: In the 1950s, truck driver Frank Sheeran gets involved with Russell Bufalino and his Pennsylvania crime family. As Sheeran climbs the ranks to become a top hit man, he also goes to work for Jimmy Hoffa — a powerful Teamster tied to organized crime.
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman starts with a tracking shot of an assisted-living home, with The Five Satins’ In The Still Of The Night (we’ll return to it) playing in the background. The camera looks this way and that, going inside the halls and the room. We know it’s going to end at one of the characters. And if you have any idea what the actual story behind the film is, you know it’s going to end at Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro. And thus begins a mob hitman’s reminiscence.
Scorsese’s new film is a meditation on crime and redemption, with the central idea being, can a person change? And throughout the movie, we see Sheeran thinking back to his past, from the War to being the Man Friday for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa is the charismatic boss of the Teamsters Union, played with aplomb by Al Pacino. There’s not much by way of remorse in Sheeran. And even if there is, we don’t see a lot of that on his face or in his words. As Hoffa remarks, Frank doesn’t show his emotions, and in good times or bad, we are left to make our own understanding of what he’s going through. In the third act, there’s a whole passage where one senses that he is being riven by his sense of duty and his sense of loyalty pulling in different directions. But through all that, his face is almost as stoic as it can be. It’s through his stutter that we can see the amount of strife he’s in. It’s a tribute to the quality of work De Niro has put in. From playing the up-and-coming tough guy to the man hobnobbing with the high-and-the-mighty to the one left standing (or sitting) at the end, De Niro masters all the phases of the life of the character. He’s playing his first meaningful role in years and it’s a shame he’s not been nominated for an Oscar this year. It’s also proof that there’s a tremendous actor still inside that body. And it’s our loss as viewers that he’s lost under a deluge of De Niro’s longtime third-rate crap.
Sheeran’s lack of remorse or warmth towards his family make him a difficult character to root for. The one admirable quality he has is his sense of loyalty towards people who have helped him come up in the world. He thinks of himself as a soldier doing his duty. It’s an idea he brings up time and again but really, it’s him deluding himself into believing that he’s doing no wrong. He forgets his family, and that makes it incredibly tough to root for him to get some warmth from even one of his four daughters. Speaking of which, there are some other women too in the cast, notably the wives of the three lead men. But they’re peripheral to the story, not impacting it even one bit. The one female character that’s closest to being vital to the plot is Frank’s daughter, Peggy, played by Anna Paquin (adult) and Lucy Gallina (young). Tensions and distance between Peggy and Frank are there right from the beginning, as young Peggy is scared of the horrors her father inflicts on people. But there are no standoffs between them, no resolution or showdown to make her relevant. True, her and her sisters’ treatment at his hands is part of his arc, but take them away, and you still won’t miss much.
Joe Pesci (left) and Robert De Niro in a still from The Irishman. Image credit.
The performances are top-notch throughout, and I guess Joe Pesci is a strong contender for the Best Supporting Actor gong this year. His cold-blooded mob boss is an exercise in menace. The cinematography is excellent as well, and despite trying, I couldn’t find any specific section that could’ve been cut out to reduce the runtime, without diluting the essence. Credit to Steve Zaillian for the screenplay there. The production design is also excellent. Top marks there too.
For a large part of the film, I kept trying to understand what the director was trying to say. Of course, this is a crime film made by Scorsese, so there will be ideas of family, guilt, redemption, friendship and betrayal, among others. Also, this is three big actors getting together with the director who made crime films his canvas. But still, why? What’s special about The Irishman that we should watch a 209 minute-long saga? It took me a long time to invest myself emotionally in the film. Part of the problem is that it doesn’t welcome you into the minds or hearts of any of the main characters till deep into its runtime. It is only when things go to hell, and one of the characters to jail, that we are shown what these relationships mean to Frank, Jimmy and Russ (Russell Buffalino, played by Joe Pesci), and it’s much later that the cracks in Frank and his daughters’ relationships are given prime focus, even though we know well in advance that the signs are not good.
Ultimately, this is also a story about a man’s quest to not be forgotten, as if he never existed. It is his story about accepting what’s gone in his life, and wanting to make peace with it, if belatedly. And therein lies the crux of the film. The Irishman, through the canvas of Frank Sheeran’s life, poses the same questions that have bothered Man since time immemorial – the idea of legacy and the costs it demands. It is in this that the film both rehashes a worn trope while also transcending the run-of-the-mill stuff. It is also why you should watch it.
P. S. –
- Scorsese has adapted Charles Brandt’s 2004 nonfiction book, I Heard You Paint Houses (nice title). This is similar to his adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book Wiseguys into Goodfellas (1990). Pileggi has an executive producer credit on this one.
- The Irishness of the The Irishman isn’t a huge factor but for the fact that it was Frank Sheeran’s nickname. The title of the book might’ve been a better pick for the film too, immediately generating curiosity along with the interest that the big names brought. The final title might be a lucky fit for the Oscars though, given how many of the Best Picture winners largely have short names.
- The de-aging effect is good, and nothing more. Plenty of times it feels odd to see De Niro as a young guy when his face clearly isn’t as crease-free as one would expect from a 25-30-35 year old guy. What’s worse, this iFake video (apparently made from free software) made the movie viewing experience sorrier.
- Martin Scorsese has said that his time spent in hospitals, watching people die, led him to choose the song “In The Still Of The Night” for the opening scene.
Rating : ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Genre: Crime, Drama
The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix.
Have you watched the film? If not, are you excited for it? What are your thoughts on this review? Do let me know in the comments section. I’m on Twitter @bloggeray23.
Thanks for reading.