Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ is a classic crime epic
Master filmmaker Martin Scorsese, arguably the most renowned pioneer of the modern-day gangster film, returns to the genre with staggering results. The Irishman is a scintillating saga expertly adapted by Steven Zaillian, who earlier collaborated with Scorcese on Gangs of New York (2002), from Charles Brandt’s 2004 best-seller I Heard You Paint Houses.
The film also reunites Scorsese with a number of earlier collaborators, most notably Robert De Niro, who portrays the title character, Frank Sheeran, a blue-collar truck driver who rose through the ranks to become not only a well-respected union delegate but also a much-feared enforcer for the Bufalino crime family.
This is familiar territory for Scorsese, having made such acknowledged classics as Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), and there’s a neat progression here. Mean Streets depicted mobster wannabes and bottom feeders; Goodfellas was the “suburban” gangster film, its protagonists depicted as working class; Casino moved up the ladder still, set in the glittering and glitzy milieu of Las Vegas. With The Irishman, its characters have direct ties to an upper echelon of politics. The link is more pronounced this time.
To each of these films, Scorsese has brought his trademark cinematic savvy and storytelling know-how to bring these disreputable but always credible characters to life. Frank Sheeran is a dangerous man, but he also possesses integrity. He owns up to and atones for the mistakes he makes; he follows orders, and yet there’s a palpable sense of guilt and remorse, both for the things he’s done and the things he hasn’t. It’s a fully realized characterization, one of De Niro’s best, and its great to see him in a leading role again.
There’s a lot of narrative ground to cover, as the story spans over 50 years. Despite a running time exceeding three hours, Scorsese maintains and sustains the momentum throughout, far more successfully than his last feature, Silence (2016), the epic religious drama (and a labor of love for Scorsese) that had its admirers but also its detractors (yours truly among them), and did not succeed at the box-office.
The cast could hardly be better. This marks Scorsese’s first pairing with Al Pacino, who is inspired casting as Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, to whom Frank becomes a friend and confidante. The Pacino bluster occasionally surfaces, which is certainly fitting for the role, yet this is one of the few depictions of Hoffa in which he is afforded some compassion. Incidentally, Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance is most certainly addressed here – and in very direct terms.
Joe Pesci, who won a well-deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for Goodfellas, makes a triumphant return to the screen as Russell Bufalino, Frank’s best friend and the man who brought him into the family “business.” The menace is still there but is much more subtly played here. Bufalino is also a dangerous man, but he’s a likable, sometimes endearingly insecure one. Reportedly, the unofficially retired Pesci turned down the role some 50 times before accepting, but this is one instance where persuasion paid off – in spades.
Harvey Keitel (who starred in Scorsese’s 1967 feature debut Who’s That Knocking at My Door?), Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Katherine Narducci, Domenick Lombardozzi, Gary Basaraba and Barry Primus (who appeared in Scorsese’s 1972 Depression-era crime drama Boxcar Bertha) all make solid contributions, and Welker White (the delightfully snotty, coke-smuggling babysitter in Goodfellas) is a sheer delight as Hoffa’s stalwart wife, Josephine.
It’s fascinating to observe how Frank’s actions had an impact, even indirectly, on important events. Whenever there was a momentous or scandalous event in American history – be it the Bay of Pigs, the JFK assassination, Watergate, or the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa – he always seemed to be hovering around the edges, usually with some insight into those figures more directly involved. Organized crime was big business, and isn’t that what America’s all about?
Indeed, Francis Coppola also alluded to this concept in his Godfather trilogy, but here the characters aren’t fictitious. They were real. They lived, and they died – some violently in both cases.
The period detail and song selection (another Scorsese trademark) effortlessly establish the particular era in which a scene is set, as the story shifts in and out of chronological order. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot Silence and 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street for Scorsese, brings a vividly stylized, color-saturated gloss to the proceedings. The emotional tone is darker and more contemplative than Scorsese’s earlier forays into the genre.
Like the film’s protagonist, it’s as if Scorsese was reflecting on his previous work in the genre from an older, wiser perspective. The Irishman is a mature and accomplished work, yet another triumph for its maker and undoubtedly one of the year’s very best films.