The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, and directed by Martin Scorsese was released in India on the streaming service Netflix on Wednesday (November 27, 2019). The film was earlier shown at the MAMI International Film Festival last month.
The movie is based on the book
I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt and a screenplay by Steven Zaillian (Academy Award-winning screenplay writer of Schindler's List). The film chronicles the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), an American labour union official accused of having links to the Bufalino crime family.
This is a more ruminative piece from Scorsese, probably more than any of his previous films on the mafia. The last half hour portraying the fall of Sheeran is especially depressing and painful to watch. It somehow feels that the murder and mayhem of the middle portion are more ‘real’ than the last scenes, in which Sheeran tells a Father that he doesn’t really feel any remorse for the crimes he committed. Scorsese and De Niro (Tribeca Productions) are both producers of the movie.
At a reported official cost of $159 million, this is also among Scorsese’s more expensive films, and one suspects that the large visual effects crew was a drain on the budget. The make-up related effects by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic are stunning to watch especially on the faces of the big three actors, who have to age as the movie progresses. There is a significant amount of “de-ageing” of the actors in the movie.
An air of sadness
Al Pacino is Jimmy Hoffa, a labour union leader, who served as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Joe Pesci plays Russell Bufalino, the boss of the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family, who sets up Sheeran as Hoffa’s bodyguard.
Ray Romano, well-known for his role as Raymond in the hit series
Everybody Loves Raymond portrays mob lawyer Bill Bufalino. Actress Anna Paquin has a few scenes as Peggy whose relationship with her father Frank gets increasingly estranged in the movie. Harvey Keitel is in a blink-and-miss role of a crime boss, Angelo Bruno. Jack Huston plays former US Attorney General Robert Kennedy who forms a “get-Hoffa” squad to go after the union leader.
The film has had a limited theatrical release in the US and is on Netflix’s slate of films competing for the Oscar. This is also Scorsese’s first film since 2016’s
Silence. The director has already won the Oscar for The Departed (2006), which also won for Best Picture.
The Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Watergate scandal and Nato’s role in the Bosnian War are all referenced in the movie. The role of the mafia in many prominent political events is also hinted at. As the movie would have it, the mafia even had a role to play in the JFK assassination. In the lens of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the 1960s and 70s come alive with fresh vigour.
There is an air of sadness that permeates almost the entire movie as Frank Sheeran as a lonely and dying man recalls his life as a truck driver-turned-hitman. The movie also suggests that taking lives was not a problem for Sheeran (he doesn’t kill with glee either) as a veteran during World War II and after that as a hitman for the Bufalino Family. He is simply not a guy who can see the difference (or is willing to) between an order from your superior in the Army and a mafia head.
Scorsese takes great interest in Sheeran’s life as he goes from an ordinary driver to coldblooded murderer. In the initial scenes of the movie, Sheeran is not a criminal, but it is clear that the lines are blurred in his head as he tries to make a little extra by taking up jobs for Bufalino (Pesci).
This movie marks Scorsese’s return to the crime genre that began in great style with 1973’s
Mean Streets. Over the years, Scorsese has shown his flair for gangster flicks by making the best of them such as Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), both of which he collaborated with De Niro.
This film became De Niro’s pet project after he read ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’, which seems to be a euphemism for killing people. The phrase is uttered most prominently by Hoffa to Sheeran. After spending years developing the picture, Scorsese has now released it on Netflix.
A three-act film The Irishman can be seen as a three-act film: The first portion in which Sheeran begins a life in crime, his rise as a hitman and union leader (peaking with the sequence in which he is honoured with an award), and his debilitating, pitiful fall. The fall, about which Scorsese warns us all along, is heart wrenching to watch. The final scenes, though not ending with the death of Frank Sheeran, shows something much worse -- him in crutches, “loopy” with medication, desperately trying to make amends with his daughter and bargaining for a cheaper price for his own coffin.
The big three in the movie -- De Niro, Al Pacino and Pesci -- turn out at their best. While Pacino blows off as Hoffa, De Niro and Pesci, who has been brought out of semi-retirement, bring a new level of sophistication and subtlety to their performances. In the scenes with the most consequences for his characters and even in the minor ones, Scorsese lets the actors play off each other.
Audiences would certainly remember Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Man’s 1995 crime-caper
Heat. While that film excelled as a generic masterpiece, The Irishman is a much more character-driven movie, with the two of Hollywood’s most exalted actors getting increased space to improvise.
The jazzy tunes of Robbie Robertson, especially the use of the song, “In the Still of the Night”, are quite literally music to the ears. The efficient-as-ever Thelma Schoonmaker shows us yet again why she has the scissors in all Scorsese movies since
Raging Bull (1989).
With the Academy Awards being held on February 9, 2020, much earlier than usual, it would be interesting to see how well
The Irishman fares. Nandhu Sundaram lives near the tiny town of Arumanai in Kanyakumari district. He writes mostly about films.