Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Premise: Based on the nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) rises from a delivery truck driver to a mob hitman and finds himself the middle man between the mafia and the Teamsters.
What Works: The Irishman reunites Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci in another story about gangsters following their previous collaborations in Goodfellas and Casino. While The Irishman tells a similar kind of story, the narrative, themes, and characters of this latest film are more complex and ambitious. The Irishman takes place over several decades and it tracks not only the lives of these characters but also the rise and fall of organized labor and the shifts in American culture from the post-war period to the Reagan era. Events play out from the point of view of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish American who got into business with organized crime and eventually became the mediator between the mob and the Teamsters. The movie depicts the complex relationship between the gangsters and the union leaders, namely Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The Irishman offers an explanation for Hoffa’s infamous disappearance but more interesting than the what is the why; as depicted here, organized crime and organized labor were mirrors of each other, both focused on brotherhood and sustained by fees that were intended to care for their members. That money is at the root of the conflict and the decline of the mafia and labor are intertwined. The Irishman tells that larger narrative through the intimate personal stories of its characters. It’s also a story about legacy and among the most affecting parts of the movie are those dealing with Sheeran’s relationship with his daughter (Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin). She barely speaks throughout the film and she doesn’t have to. The daughter is terrified of her father and that’s evident in the way this woman looks at Sheeran. This is the respect in which The Irishman departs from and surpasses its competition. The first two-thirds of The Irishman cover much of what we’ve seen before in movies like Goodfellas and Casino in which characters get into organized crime, live high and fast, and are eventually destroyed. The Irishman doesn’t let Sheeran off that easily. He spends the last portion of the story getting old and watching his companions get murdered or die of old age and Sheeran has to cope with the legacy of his life’s work while the world forgets who Hoffa and these criminal bosses ever were. It’s this final act that makes The Irishman a deeper and more thoughtful movie than similar stories and distinguishes it among gangster pictures.
What Doesn’t: The Irishman dramatizes criminal history including the relationship between Jimmy Hoffa and major figures in the criminal underworld. Some of what is presented here is thinly sourced or just speculation. That’s normal for any drama based on real life but in this case the facts are especially contentious. The Irishman is better appreciated as a speculative fiction and a meditation on aging rather than as a historical document. The film uses digital de-aging to create younger versions of its senior cast. As is often the case with this technique, the de-aging process sometimes makes the actors’ faces look plastic.
DVD extras: Available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: The Irishman is an extraordinary entry in the gangster genre, one that stands up with the best of Scorsese’s crime pictures. It hits the familiar beats of its genre but The Irishman offers something more, both as a historical piece examining a bygone era and as a personal tale of one man’s dark night of the soul.
Episode: #782 (December 29, 2019)