I was terrified when I first heard about this film. I thought that a movie of this length and subject matter, coupled with the cast it boasts and the man in the director’s chair, would be so ambitious that it would ultimately turn out being too good to be true, another victim of excessive hype, which is completely understandable given the now-legendary ensemble that created it. But I’m glad that I was incorrect. While it doesn’t have the frenzied, musical kinesis of Goodfellas or Casino, The Irishman, in many ways, proves to be a far maturer and more thoughtful picture about ageing, moral conflict, unquestioning loyalty, loss and regret.
Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran is an old-fashioned, salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar American kind of guy. A veteran of the Second World War, he would later earn a living driving meat delivery trucks across the state of Philadelphia for a meagre salary, and his uncomplicated personability, opportunistic streak, and no doubt his hulking 6’4 frame (this was in reality, De Niro is stocky but he’s obviously not that tall) soon brought him into contact with his union’s legal rep, William Bufalino. As this occurred when Sheeran would have been in his late 30s/early 40s, you’ve no doubt heard that de-ageing technology has been used on De Niro, and the result is a little odd upon first glance, but admittedly you do get used to it. As a supplement to the classic Scorcese voiceover, the film also cuts back and forth to Frank in his present-day nursing-home as he plays raconteur.
William Bufalino is the cousin of none other than Russell Bufalino, the boss of Philadelphia’s most powerful Mafia family, and upon introduction, Russell is immediately taken with Frank’s transparent grit and non-resistant approach to orders, and no doubt with an Irish-American’s ability to speak fluent Italian (he picked it up during a tour of duty). In an interesting contrast to the type of roles that form the majority of their careers, Joe Pesci & Harvey Keitel respectively portray bosses Bufalino and Angelo Bruno with an intense, pensive silence, rarely raising their voices or becoming animated in any way, always opting for reasonable discussion as the first tool for any problem. It is an accurate reflection of what Bufalino & Bruno were purported to be like in real life, and a refreshing change-up for Pesci & Keitel, who prove that they have adeptness beyond playing brutally aggressive men.
Having proved useful with assignments such as debt collection, intimidation and contract killing, Bufalino deduces that it is time for Frank to forge the partnership that ultimately becomes the backbone of the narrative, seeing potential in Sheeran to be the ultimate protective force in the family’s labour union racket, where they are represented by the one and only Jimmy Hoffa. Al Pacino plays Hoffa as if he were in the grips of a perpetual manic episode, but that’s not a criticism. Whilst the real Hoffa didn’t come across as constantly shouting and just generally being nuts (from all of the footage you can find, anyway), the guy was obviously something of a mad dog, allowing the Mafia to use the pension fund of the Teamsters labour union as a bank, going head-to-head with the Kennedy family (it is implied that Hoffa pulled a string or two in John and Bobby getting taken out), and acting more like a gangster than a labour organiser, and that includes being ever-ready for a fistfight. It’s crazy to contemplate that this is the first time Scorcese and Pacino have ever worked together, and it proves to be infinitely better late than never.
The working relationship between Sheeran and Hoffa evolves into a very close, long-lasting friendship, becoming more like blood brothers than the ‘brothers’ that connotes union membership, their respective families merging into one large unit. Another interesting contrast to Scorcese’s other two rise-and-fall criminal epics is that, unlike the partnerships of Henry Hill and Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas and Ace Rothstein and Nicky Santoro in Casino, the bond between Frank and Jimmy is one that allows the audience to become intimate with them, carrying a plaintive, ephemeral air to it. Certainly, these are not especially nice men, but unlike the aforementioned characters, they don’t explode in violent rages over the slightest provocation or hurt and kill people for no reason. Instead of being indicative of general sociopathy, both men earnestly believe that they are doing the right thing by themselves and their families, and they contend with rivals by dealing directly with the person in question as opposed to unnecessarily cruel attacks against people close to them, another trait that has at least a modicum of integrity to it.
Something very special about The Irishman is that it is also a subtle opus of metafiction. Far from being merely a biopic about Frank Sheeran, it is also a biopic of Scorcese’s cinematic style. A large array of both major and bit players in his seminal works are present, as are the central themes associated with his moniker (Italian ethnic identity, masculinity, guilt), his love of rhythm & blues and ’50s doo-wop classics, even a few of the locations used for Goodfellas and Raging Bull crop up to brilliant effect. As everyone involved is now comparatively ancient to their first stint with Scorcese, so too does the film join them in that twilight phase, moving at a far slower pace and offering more in the way of reflection. Unlike Henry Hill or Nicky Santoro, the way that Frank’s family view him in light of what he does for a living has a great effect on him, he desperately strives to be a good father and provider, but his caginess and default preference for violence in approach to a problem (his young daughter’s altercation with a shopkeeper early on showcases how serious of a threat he can be) only cause for deepening alienation amongst those he loves, something that the film handles in a blunt and painfully honest manner.
As a die-hard fan of Scorcese, not only as a creator but as an auteur as well, I expected something in the key of his usual format as opposed to the glacial saga that The Irishman proves to be, but I am only glad and reverent that he decided upon a different style of execution. There is plenty here for fans of gangster movies to get their teeth into, and the film is also extremely funny in places, in that understated Scorcese manner that is present even in his most brutal pictures. Opening and closing with ‘In The Still Of Night’ by The Five Satins, the film ultimately reflects the song in its wistfulness, Frank retreading the good and bad times with dynamism and genuine regret, and always with a blunt ‘and that’s that’ attitude that cements the fact that, while he’s not the sharpest or most compassionate tool in the box, he was unequivocally a thoroughly tough son of a bitch. It’s wonderful to see Scorcese back on the boil, and I only hope he has many more years of life and great work to come.