The Irishman is not your typical Mob film; but when you have Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and director Martin Scorsese, then you have a must-see film. The film has it all, crime, the Mafia, politics, and history as it touches on Washington with the Kennedy election and assassination, the Bay of Pigs and Watergate.
The story unfolds as it is narrated by De Niro in his older years, sitting alone, in a wheelchair in an assisted living home. His eyes are cloudy, but his memory sharp as he relates his story to the audience in his quiet, deadpan way that belies his sociopathic behavior.
De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a World War II vet who fights his way up through Italy. After the war he starts working as a truck driver for a meat company. Then, through a weird twist of fate, he becomes a hit-man for the mob, a union boss with the Teamsters and a close confidant and best friend of Jimmy Hoffa. In telling the story of Sheeran through the years he uses of multiple flashbacks and jumps in history. So, pay close attention to the time period.
De Niro’s character is a much more likable character than the real-life Sheeran, who is shown in the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. In the book Sheeran comes across as a thug and a loudmouth. On the other hand, De Niro specializes in playing characters close to the vest, and he creates a different character than the one the book portrays.
DeNiro is always at his best when he plays men who are cut-off from the rest of the world. No one is allowed in. No one is allowed to know what he thinks about a subject or situation. But the audience is always given that subtle hint by a look or a glance that presages what is going to happen –this is in opposition to a mistake many young actors make by trying to overact or emote in a scene when just a glance will do.
Remember the scene in Goodfellas when De Niro is smoking in a bar and staring at a member of the crew, who shoots off his mouth too much. As he takes a drag from his cigarette, we see a brief glance. Henry Hill sees it too. “Just like that, I knew that Jimmy was gonna whack Morrie. That’s how it happens. That’s how fast it takes for a guy to get whacked.” It was brilliantly done by De Niro and Scorsese then. “The Irishman” has several of these moments too.
The biggest question that I had before watching the film was that with all of the main characters aging, how would they make them appear younger for the flashback scenes. Well, there is a new CGI technique that at first de-ages the main stars of the film and shows them as much younger men. Then the filmmakers reverses the process to show them as old as he wants. While the technique isn’t exactly spot-on yet, it is good enough and shouldn’t really detract from anyone’s film experience.
Although here is the ultimate caveat: While CGI can make the actors “appear” younger, it isn’t a fountain of youth. In one scene , for example, in which De Niro is climbing over and around rocks on the shore in an attempt to ditch guns from a hit, he doesn’t look like a guy in his 30s or 40s…but that is nitpicking.
If you’re expecting the break-neck pace seen in a typical mob film, then prepare to be disappointed. This is a much slower-paced film that Scorcese has painstakingly put together.
Joe Pesci is outstanding as the quiet, composed mob boss Russell Bufalino, who runs Northeast Pennsylvania. Unlike his mercurial and bombastic characters in Goodfellas and Casino, Bufalino is always under control and wears the thinking man’s hood.
Sheeran meets Bufalino quite by accident as the mob boss helps him with his truck at a gas station on the highway. Later, when Sheeran gets charged with stealing beef off his truck, he’s defended by Bufalino’s brother, Bill Bufalino, a well-known lawyer played by Ray Romano. That begins Sheeran’s long tale of rise, fall, sin and betrayal inside of mob circles. Ultimately becoming known as a trusted mob hitman, Sheeran is introduced to Jimmy Hoffa by Bufalino, because Hoffa needed a bodyguard he could trust.
“I hear you paint houses,” is mob-speak for a contract killer asking if he is available for work. The paint is the naturally gruesome blood and brain splatter on the walls. Sheeran IS a man who paints houses, quite frequently.
Hoffa is played to the hilt by Al Pacino, who delivers his usual great dialogue with the body English he too is known for: As Hoffa is feuding with a crime boss, he stares daggers at him while eating a steak at a Teamster function honoring Sheeran.
Sheeran however, remains in the background. He’s content with being a bystander or a low-level operator in many of the great events of the 1960s and 1970s. It is almost as if he’s thrust into all of these events by accident. He’s involved in so many of these historic events, but remains somewhat detached from them all.
His family remains oblivious to Sheeran’s work….except for his younger daughter Peggy. She’s intuitive and sees through the subterfuge. She hates Bufalino, despite his many attempts to win her over, but adores the bombastic Hoffa. And after Hoffa’s disappearance, she stares accusingly and knowingly at her own father. She never speaks to him again. She’s played as a mature Peggy by Anna Paquin — but her character like Harvey Keitel’s Philly mob boss, Angelo Bruno, and Romano’s Bufalino — is mostly window dressing.
Scorcese does tell a detailed story: the film runs nearly three and a half hours and is followed by a nice interview segment with De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Scorsese. So, give yourself plenty of time to check it out.
A very good friend of mine worked on this film. He told me that they planned on a 90-day shooting schedule, which is already very long by Hollywood standards, and stretched it out to 110 days of filming. So, there were a lot of scenes that Scorcese wanted to get in the film…and did.
The dialogue, as in any mob film, is always slightly comedic. “They told the old man to tell me to tell YOU, that’s what it is.” More than once, Frank is told the words “No, not that,” which roughly translates into “We don’t want you to whack this guy…just yet.”
Scorsese’s mob stories never have happy endings and neither does this one. As he introduces each of the peripheral actors, he freezes the frame to put up a blurb to tell you…”Joey So and So was killed in his driveway with eight bullets in his head,” etc.
Sheeran’s end, unlike so many other mob guys that die violently before their time, is a sad one. He sits alone with no visitors in his old age home and is unaware, until the nurse tells him, that it is Christmas season. Even his family has abandoned him.
Scorsese gathered the best mob film actors of his generation and gave them their ‘Last Waltz’ on the big screen. Unlike the characters they portray, they grow old and age like fine wine. This is their tour de force. It is a fitting end to their careers as film tough guy mobsters.
This film will no doubt get compared to Scorsese’s other ones, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino. It is unlike any of them. But is just as powerful and expertly done.
“I hear you paint houses…”
Photo: TriBeCa Films