HIS STORY CHANGED HISTORY.
It began with Robert De Niro picking up a copy of Charles Brandt’s book ”I Heard You Paint Houses” and getting quite emotional about the fate of a mobster hitman. He told Martin Scorsese about the book, but it would take many years before filming could begin. This would ultimately be a chance to get the gang back together. Scorsese hadn’t made a movie with De Niro and Joe Pesci since Casino (1995). At first, Pesci wouldn’t hear of it; after all, he had retired. He was reportedly asked 50 times or more before finally relenting. Harvey Keitel and the director hadn’t worked together since 1988.
As icing on the cake, Al Pacino joined the cast; it’s the first time he’s made a movie with Scorsese, but obviously this would also be a nice little reunion with De Niro. The Irishman is three and a half hours long, but we never feel it. These seventysomethings are still spellbinding.
Life as a hitman
We meet Frank Sheeran (De Niro) in a nursing home. He’s a very old man now and has a few things to say about his life as a hitman for the Mafia. It began in the 1950s when Frank was a truck driver. That’s when he was introduced to Russell Bufalino (Pesci), head of a Pennsylvania crime family. Frank grew close to Russell and started doing him favors; soon, he was a trusted hitman. Russell introduced him to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the powerful leader of the Teamsters, and Frank eventually became Hoffa’s bodyguard. After the election of John F. Kennedy as president, the corrupt Hoffa was targeted by the Justice Department who sent him to prison. After his release years later, the stubborn Hoffa found himself on thin ice…
Slowing things down a bit
We all know how Hoffa disappeared without a trace in 1975. Brandt’s book wants us to see Frank as his killer, but there’s still no evidence whatsoever linking Sheeran to Hoffa’s murder. But that’s not what’s important in this movie. What we have here is a masterful filmmaker slowing things down a bit, contemplating the past and taking his time telling the story. Fear of death and anxiety over what your actions have done to other people, and to your own life, dominate. Especially in the last 45 minutes, where we follow Frank and Russell’s decline in detail; we would never have seen this in GoodFellas or Casino.
It’s stark and honest; one of the most touching aspects of the film is how Frank’s job and loyalty to Russell ruins his relationship with one of his daughters, Peggy, who already as a kid shows signs of disapproval. As a young woman, she simply stops talking to him. Frank is frequently put on trial for various crimes connected to Hoffa or the Bufalino family, but he always gets away with it. Still, everybody knows. And there’s no getting away in the eyes of his children. We can really see the regrets in De Niro’s eyes, through the years. The film takes us through several decades and uses expensive, sophisticated visual effects to ”de-age” the actors. Most of the time, it’s surprisingly effective. The standout performance belongs to Pesci who contrasts his out-of-control performances in GoodFellas and Casino with a much more mellow touch here.
This is the best gangster movie to come out since the last one made by Scorsese, The Departed (2006), its mature style a fascinating comparison with the director’s first Mafia movie, the youthful Mean Streets (1973). Fans of Scorsese will enjoy the golden oldies on the soundtrack, but Robbie Robertson also contributes with a wonderfully melancholy harmonica theme.
The Irishman 2019-U.S. 209 min. Color. Produced by Troy Allen, Gerald Chamales, Robert De Niro, Randall Emmett, Gastón Pavlovich, Jane Rosenthal, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: Steven Zaillian. Book: Charles Brandt (”I Heard You Paint Houses”). Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto. Music: Robbie Robertson. Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker. Cast: Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Thomas Rogari… Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Steven Van Zandt, Jack Huston.
Trivia: The onscreen title of the film is I Heard You Paint Houses.
Last word: “When Netflix got into the picture – because then we had the backing. Prior to that, it was almost like putting on a show in the barn. It’s not even about the money or about being compensated and appreciated for your value. It’s about the physicality of [making a film] where nobody’s giving you anything. At a certain age and physicality for the actors, it may not be worth it.” (Scorsese on what made Pesci change his mind, Entertainment Weekly)