Fri, 6th Nov 2019

'The Irishman': A Review - A Phenomenal new Gangster Movie

Text by: 

Adam Robertson

Photo by: 
Wikimedia Commons

Minor Spoiler Warning

Plot – Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a hardened WW2 veteran and truck driver, comes into contact with powerful crime syndicate boss, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). After a quick rise to prominence in Bufalino’s circle, Sheeran is given the task of helping out other crime boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). When his two paymasters begin to clash, Sheeran’s loyalties are put to the test.

When Jimmy Hoffa asks Frank Sheeran if he wants to be a part of history, he may as well have been talking about the film about him. As an audience, we can’t ever seem to get enough of gangsters. From black comedies like Pulp Fiction to more hard-hitting dramas like Peaky Blinders, there is something about crime families we cannot seem to resist. Perhaps, at the centre of all the murder, the casual chat of extortion and blackmail over steak and whisky, is that they always seem to be human. This underpins The Irishman to phenomenal effect.

Before sitting down to watch, the first thing on anybody’s minds will be the film’s run-time, which sits at 159 minutes. Of course, duration should come as no surprise to Scorsese fans given some of his previous gangster work (see Gangs of New York, The Departed, Goodfellas) all sit between two and a half and three hours.

The director more than justifies it. Beginning in a nursing home, we find an ageing and weak Frank Sheeran recounting the story of his life in the mob. It’s a little complicated at first to work out where and when the story is taking place but once you get it, the film moves along quickly. Unsurprisingly, it never feels rushed, nor does it drag out as there’s so many characters to develop that once you have got to grips with one narrative, Scorsese quickly links it with another whilst always allowing De Niro to shine through as the film’s central character.

Whilst an undoubtedly great actor, De Niro has split opinion in more modern times, moving towards comedies that often don’t showcase his real ability. That being said, every actor makes at least one bad film but, when he does get it right, he gets it very right. This year has brought somewhat of a revival with his performances in Joker and now this. He captures his character perfectly, playing a man at the centre of the mafia and yet somehow still detached from it all, still wishing he could rekindle his broken relationship with his daughters.
Joe Pesci also plays Russell Bufalino to great effect. It’s easy to think of actors who constantly appear in mafia films and group them all together, but the brilliance of the three main actors in this is that they all bring something unique to their respective characters. For Pesci, it’s a sense of control. He never really seems to say much and, as with all three of the characters, they seem particularly unwilling to say the word kill, always just saying “yeah, we’ll do that” or “no, not that.” Despite not saying much though, his presence overhangs the whole film due to the performance.

Surprisingly, given his association with the genre, this is the first time Scorsese and Pacino have worked together and it’s a perfect match. Pacino’s character Jimmy Hoffa, who runs the International Board of Teamsters, spends the majority of the film clashing with Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, played phenomenally by Stephen Graham. The chemistry between the two brings the comedy along to an otherwise fairly dark film. One sequence in particular which sees Hoffa fuming at Provenzano’s punctuality and choice of clothing is particularly memorable. Both play larger than life characters, loudmouths who always want to get the last word in, allowing the film to take a lighter tone in amongst all the killing.

Based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses (which is what the film actually rolls the title as), Steven Zaillian’s script gets everything right, allowing each character to express themselves. It will no doubt be in contention for best adapted screenplay come February.

The film was sensational throughout but what will likely turn it into an awards contender is its final half hour. Rather than ending with a thrilling shoot-up, it becomes a study of the deep regret and remorse of Frank’s character. With all his friends around him dead, a relationship way beyond broken with his daughter Peggy (Anna Pacquin) as well as the memories of all those he has killed, the film largely revolves around Frank trying to come to terms with all this. For all the power they might once possess, it was a poignant reminder that what happens to everybody, also happens to them. They’re not cool. They’re not untouchable. They’re men who only begin to feel the weight and consequences of their actions when it’s far too late, when a bullet to the head won’t solve their problems anymore.

Verdict – 5/5. It might take a bit of time to process, but Scorsese has reminded us he is still working at the top of his game. With stunning central performances, the dry ‘wise-guy’ wit of all his classics as well as something new to say, it seems to get wheeled out every time, but he might just have produced the best gangster film in years.