At the start of The Irishman, viewers see the words ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ on screen instead of the title. This euphemistic phrase is the truncated name of former lawyer Charles Brandt’s non-fiction book detailing the life and crimes of alleged mafia hitman Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran.
It’s a perfect statement to introduce this late masterpiece from Martin Scorsese: at once grimly descriptive – if one imagines what might ‘paint’ interior walls following a Mob hit – and simultaneously coded, a claim spoken quietly by men who decide on life and death. The organised crime fraternity commission murderous ‘matters’ using careful wording routinely in Scorsese’s film and, one suspects, in real life.
Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, is the focus of The Irishman, with 50 years of his life contained within a double-framing device. Octogenarian Sheeran looks back at his life from his nursing home in 2003 at 1975, when he and Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) drive their wives to a wedding in Detroit. This road trip is used as a jumping-off point to explore the bulk of the narrative, roughly containing the 20 years leading up to the wedding.
We see how Bufalino hires Sheeran as a young truck driver before putting him on jobs where his stoicism learned during World War Two becomes a great asset. In a brief flashback (arguably a flashback within a flashback within a flashback if you count the framing devices), Sheeran executes enemy soldiers without a change of expression. Here and throughout, De Niro portrays a ruthless professional criminal with an icy resolve and unrivalled intensity that we’ve not seen since Heat in 1995.
Bufalino and Sheeran’s friendship, while fascinating and nuanced, is not The Irishman’s key on-screen pairing. That arrives when Bufalino introduces Sheeran to crooked yet phenomenally successful Teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa funnels union money into Mob hotels and becomes a close friend of Sheeran’s, making him a branch president of his powerful union and entrusting Sheeran to sleep in his hotel suite while guarding him.
Pacino, like De Niro and Pesci, puts in one of the best performances of his career. The real Hoffa was a firebrand union leader who used the criminal underworld and got used back in spades. He was a complex figure that demands to be recreated with the rhetorical might, fierce presence and unshakeable resolve Pacino unforgettably channels. The tenderness and warmth he displays to Sheeran adds a poignant and believable dimension to the soap-box stomping and scenery-chewing we’ve long known Pacino can do with his eyes closed.
It’s not just Hoffa that Sheeran gets swept up with. Scorsese may be focused on one man and the immediate people in his life, but the epic sweep of The Irishman is something to behold. Sheeran is seen delivering weapons to the CIA ahead of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, while socio-political touchstones including JFK’s murder and the Watergate scandal figure.
The director has enlisted Industrial Light & Magic to provide extensive de-aging visual effects, helping the cast play themselves at different ages (aside from De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, Harvey Keitel – now 80 – has a part as a much younger mobster, Angelo Bruno). While de-aging is not yet a perfect art, the results are impressive and a few minutes in, viewers will forget it’s even there. Perhaps 76-year-old Scorsese himself has had some real-life de-aging because, yet again, the New Yorker who’s been shooting movies for half a century directs with the boundless energy and ambition of a filmmaker half his age.
But a cinematic undertaking of any kind is never the work of one person and others deserve their share of the credit, too. Of the cast not mentioned above, there are superb turns by Ray Romano as Bufalino’s affable lawyer cousin Bill, Stephen Graham as Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano and Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy.
Graham is particularly memorable as the fierce rival Teamster official/mobster who rows with Hoffa when the latter is imprisoned for bribery and fraud. A scene where Hoffa castigates Pro for being late and wearing shorts to a meeting is hilarious, fraught with danger and utterly unmissable; the poisonous verbal sparring of Pacino and Graham is one of The Irishman’s many highlights. Paquin, meanwhile, as the film’s moral conscience, barely says a word but is quietly heartbreaking as the young woman who eventually renounces her murderous father. In the film’s devastating final act, an unfussy scene in a bank says more about broken parent/child relationships than a dozen screaming rows.
The reunion of the De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese triumvirate has been justly feted, with The Irishman being the director’s best work since Goodfellas – and so much more. This time, Scorsese leans in even harder and deeper on friendship, regret and death, with the latter’s inevitability tackled in forthright fashion with the gravity it deserves. We can also celebrate Keitel coming back to the Scorsese fold, and be thankful for Pacino finally working with him.
Off-screen, Steven Zaillian provides the script for Scorsese (written a decade ago) for the first time since he co-wrote Gangs Of New York. It’s a screenplay that crackles with taut scenes of dialogue and scenes shorn of flab, while Silence and The Wolf Of Wall Street cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and costume designer Sandy Powell ensure everything looks as immaculate as we have come to expect at this level of filmmaking.
Many greats helped make The Irishman and special mention must go to Thelma Schoonmaker. Having edited all of his work since Raging Bull almost 40 years ago, Schoonmaker is among the world’s best and most respected editors. Schoonmaker’s tireless work and instinctive back-and-forth with Scorsese is surely the reason why this 209-minute film flies by with complete clarity, feeling at least an hour less than its epic running time.
The film concludes with a majestic final scene and indelible final shot in which Sheeran prepares to face the one foe even he can’t conquer. They may yet make more together, but it feels like De Niro and Scorsese putting a cap on one of film’s greatest partnerships.
In a recent interview with Sight & Sound, Scorsese explained that he and De Niro had tried to work with each other for years since Casino in 1995, on projects that didn’t quite work out. Eventually, the actor told him: “I’d rather, with the time we have left, revisit that world that we feel very confortable in.” Everyone should be glad they revisited that world. The Irishman is nothing less than a monumental film from a master of cinema.
The Irishman is out in selected cinemas from 8 November and is available to stream on Netflix from 27 November.