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Review: The Irishman

Ciaran Brass reviews Scorsese's latest film, a three-and-a-half-hour mob epic starring Robert de Niro and Al Pacino

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Image Credit: Netflix

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Al Pacino
Rating: 15

“You can’t miss the big picture.”

As Martin Scorsese approaches the close of an incredible career spanning five decades, it’s hard to think of a more fitting summation of his body of work than a three-and-a-half-hour mob epic starring Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino. The Irishman reunites Scorsese for the first time in 24 years with actors Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci (Pesci’s first significant role in two decades), with Harvey Keitel for the first time in 31 years, and marks, somewhat unbelievably, his first ever collaboration with the legendary Pacino. Spanning almost 60 years, The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro), a WWII veteran and Teamsters truck driver who gets involved “painting houses” for mob bosses Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Keitel) before his involvement in the Teamsters leads him to become a bodyguard-cum-confidante of mob-adjacent Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). As the decades progress and Hoffa’s influence wanes, the mobsters and Frank are forced to take action as Hoffa’s mad King Lear unravels.

The Irishman differs significantly Scorsese’s previous mob epics such as Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed – placed in the context of Scorsese’s career, it’s interesting to note that this is a film which begins at the end of the narrative. Signatures of Scorsese such as his energetic, frenetic camera movement and editing are largely replaced in favour of static, over the shoulder shots, probably due to the limited mobility of the elderly cast. In the same manner, the random acts of violence that so memorably punctuate his other mob movies are largely replaced by an assortment of grudges and tension that build over the decades. Of course, there are a few stylistic flourishes, such as Scorsese’s favoured slo-mo shots and the classic rock/doo wop/blues musical sensibility of the soundtrack, but this otherwise measured approach may come as a surprise to some.

One trademark of Scorsese’s which The Irishman has in spades is his fascination with and unique ability to submerge the audience in different subcultures. The audience can observe the intersection between organised crime and the unions through Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa, who sit at the nexus of the two structures. The close relationship between the two organisations is echoed in the shared language – Sheeran is referred to as a “brother” both by members of the criminal element and the Teamsters organisation. Additionally, after his first phone conversation with Hoffa, Sheeran tells Russ that he feels as if he just spoke to General Patton (the military being yet another organisation Sheeran was a part of). One exceptional scene has Russ gifting Frank with a ring, one of only three in the world, the other two being owned by Russ and Angelo. These scenes work in concert to demonstrate to the audience an authentic feeling of “belonging” and the code of morality within these insular communities.

Indeed, Scorsese’s films are occasionally criticised for being morally careless, or glamourizing a dangerous and harmful lifestyle, particularly concerning films such as Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. While this criticism seems to lack bite to those with the attention span to observe the characters receiving their comeuppance onscreen at the end of the respective films, the character of Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) functions as the film’s overt moral compass. Even as a small child, Peggy senses something wrong with Russ, and limits her contact with him even as he dotes on her and plies her with gifts. In contrast, she idolises Hoffa to the point of giving presentations on him at school and is proud of her father’s association with him and the Teamsters. As Peggy matures and her understanding of her father’s connections with organised crime deepens, her refusal to countenance Frank’s actions proves to be the final blow to their relationship. Other viewers, however, may contend that Russ Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa represent a false dichotomy, as the legality of their actions and modus operandi are closer than Peggy observes.
Predictably, de Niro, Pesci, and Pacino are all excellent. Pesci in particular, returning after almost two full decades away from cinema, is so far removed from his incendiary, scenery-chewing turns in Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino that typify his career it’s easy to see him getting Oscar attention next year. Pacino has the most visible of the three roles as the fast-talking, charismatic Hoffa, who is pitched perfectly against the more measured Pesci and Pacino. De Niro as Sheeran, predictably, is the glue of the film, and the way he portrays Sheeran’s silent sociopathy (of particular note is the scene of Sheeran recounting his war crimes in Italy) is the work of someone with decades of experience nailing tricky characters. The end of the film finds Sheeran, for the first time in his life, looking to make amends. But to whom? His friends are long gone, his family have abandoned him, and he still has no remorse for the victims of his actions. Even Sheeran’s priest is at a loss as how to help him – and to the fiercely Catholic Scorsese, who initially trained to become a priest, there is no higher repudiation of a life wasted on immoral deeds.

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