Robert De Niro is the eponymous Irishman in this Martin Scorsese directed film, but the only relevance of his Irishness is the distinction of not being Italian. In all other aspects it’s just another mob movie, albeit one based on actual characters.
Shortly before his death, Frank Sheeran (The Irishman) claimed to have killed the President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, Jimmy Hoffa, in 1975. Author Charles Brandt told the story in his book I Heard You Paint Houses (2004), which takes its name from mobster slang for ordering a hit.
The film starts with Frank Sheeran seen as the last man standing, so to speak, as he sits in his nursing home chair waiting for the inevitable. He starts to think of his life, from his start in the mob, to his connections with the Bufalino crime family, his friendship with the head of the Bufalino family, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) to meeting with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and working for him as a high official in the labor movement.
Sheeran slotted easily into the Italian landscape of the mob with the understanding of Italy and fluent Italian learnt throughout his war service during WWII.
The main action of the film takes place in the 1970s in a series of flashbacks from Frank. Guests can expect an array of scenarios from Frank speaking to the camera, showing the audience his family, friends, his travels with his boss that’s accompanied by his second wife and finally to his time with Hoffa.
Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci are the quadrumvirate of good Mafia films. In this one, it is as though we have seen them all in similar roles, but they are now at a different time of their lives – especially Scorsese who is at the helm. Some de-ageing techniques are used to make De Niro, Al Pacino and Pesci younger than their 70 years apiece. De Niro also scores blue contact lenses to turn him Irish. These effects work, but it is the sheer power of the performances that really make the film something special.
They are all of an age where they are looking back on their lives, and the way they see them is now a little melancholy, a little less brave, in fact, just a little less in total.
Scorsese has succeeded in toning down his main actors to play the real men they are portraying. As Hoffa, Pacino shows the perfect shade of madness. As Sheeran, De Niro excels as the man telling his story through the reflective glasses of time; he sees the actions as necessary and natural progressions. He seems to have no alternative.
Pesci is a standout as Russell Bufalino. He is calm, he is strong, he holds the power and he has survived. There is a sense of measure in the memories that Frank evokes – talking to Hoffa while both in pyjamas in their hotel room where they are staying during a conference. There is banter, small talk, memories of what was said and the emotion of that time.
Ray Romano is the Bufalino lawyer who first introduces Sheeran to his cousin Russell. He is there supporting them both throughout the film. Romano is fantastic in this role and could potentially move into serious drama if this was his audition.
Anna Pacquin plays Sheeran’s eldest daughter who understands what her father does from an early age and rejected him for it. After he overreacts at a mishap with the local grocer in front of her (just remember that this is a mob film), she and her sisters shy away from him and avoid telling him about their lives as they are all scared of his reactions. When he is reflecting on his life from the nursing home, the audiences becomes aware that no family visits him or makes him part of their lives. He is on his own, and the story builds the case to explain why.
The music is evocative of a time and atmosphere and from the first played strings of In the Still of the Night performed by The Five Satins, I settled in for a film which I knew I was going to enjoy. As for the rest of the soundtrack, it doesn’t disappoint featuring Tuxedo Junction, Delicado, Song of the Barefoot Contessa, A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation), Cry and Melancholy Serenade.
Although The Irishman is quite long stretching out at three and a half hours, thankfully for viewers it is riveting to the very last minute.
Feature image: The Irishman. Image supplied via Netflix Media Center.