Another Scorsese Masterpiece
In a scene from The Irishman, the new film from Martin Scorsese, union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) says to mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), “I heard you paint houses.” Frank does indeed paint houses… but not how you might expect. Frank is a mob hitman and he paints walls with the blood of those who had it coming. A double tap to the head, a quick disposal of the body, and Frank is on to the next job, never pausing to consider what effect his work is having on his family, or even on his own soul.
The reference, which replaces the film’s actual title in the opening, comes from the name of Charles Brandt’s non-fiction book, upon which the movie is based. The book and the film (from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian) tell the true story of Frank Sheeran who eventually confessed to the 1975 murder of Hoffa. And if you’re familiar with the Jimmy Hoffa story, the real details of his ultimate demise as told by Brandt, are a bit less dramatic than the urban legend that had his remains buried in the West end zone of Giants Stadium. That is, unless you consider painting a house with a man’s brains dramatic.
Coming in at a whopping 209 minutes (that’s 3 1/2 hours), the film takes us through Frank’s life (via a DeNiro narration), from his European tour as a WWII Nazi killer, to his job as a meat delivery truck driver where he first encounters crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), to his final days in a convalescent home. But the events aren’t told in order as Frank jumps around in time, hitting the high points, then dropping back to the beginning, then on to somewhere in the middle before eventually ending up with a fascinating tale that never feels as long as its three-and-a-half-hour runtime. Instead, this thing is as taut and tight as a piano wire. The kind one might deploy from the back seat of a car.
As Frank moves up the organized crime ladder, he eventually becomes ingratiated to Jimmy Hoffa, the loud-mouth hotheaded leader of the Teamsters union. Frank is eventually promoted to union president, while Hoffa becomes entangled in numerous questionable affairs including the Kennedys, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and others. He even does some jail time before eventually trying to wrest back control of the union. However, Hoffa’s belligerence eventually gets the best of him and he becomes a problem that the mob needs taken care of. Who do you think the mob calls upon to rid itself of a problem? That’s right, the house painter.
As is the case with any mob movie, particularly one with Scorcese at the helm, the violence in The Irishman is in your face and fully deserving of its hard "R" rating. But it is also eerily distant. That’s due to Frank’s passive nature and ruthless professionalism as he follows orders with little moral discomfort. In one early scene, Frank brutally attacks and beats up a local grocer for simply having been rude to his young daughter, Peggy while she looks on in horror. Peggy eventually grows up (Anna Paquin) cautious and afraid of her father. A relationship that plays out in brutal authenticity in the film’s closing scenes.
Much has been made of the film’s use of digital de-aging technology. We know DeNiro and Pacino are in their seventies, but in order to depict them as much younger men, they were de-aged via CGI. The effect is astonishingly seamless, allowing us to totally buy in to the men as much younger versions of themselves in the film’s flashback sequences.
The Irishman also stars Jesse Plemons, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Steven Van Zandt, Anna Paquin, and others. But the real star of the show is Scorsese, who seems to have mellowed a bit in his old age as he trades in the salty language (for the most part) and over-the-top violence for sobering clarity. Largely missing too are the classic rock- and-roll riffs played over bloody killing sprees, replaced by deafening silence. It feels like a much more personal film for Scorsese, with equal amounts of splendor and sorrow. And The Irishman is a much better film because of it. After all, it is more about looking back. A retrospective, if you will, of a man's life, and the choices he's had to make. And that’s why everything Scorsese has done with The Irishman makes the film a true masterpiece. Believe the hype, buy into the buildup. It is that good.
(Released by Netflix and rated"R" by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.