'The Irishman': Film Review | NYFF 2019

Oldfellas, with soul.
11/1/2019

Martin Scorsese assembles a powerhouse cast headed by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in Netflix's saga of mob hitman Frank Sheeran and his complicated association with union boss Jimmy Hoffa.

"Sinful and sorrowful." Those affecting words from a young priest's prayer are loaded with contemplative weight when repeated by Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, living out his days in the solitude of a Catholic retirement home. He's a dinosaur whose mob cohorts have been killed or died out and what's left of his family has detached themselves from him, his sadness matched by their bitterness. A melancholy sense of looking back also pervades the best parts of The Irishman, in which the elder statesman of organized crime in American movies, Martin Scorsese, reunites with his most totemic screen actor to tell a sprawling gangland saga that's by turns flinty, amusing, richly nostalgic and rueful.

With a reported budget of $160 million, this is a big swing for Netflix, and the movie's self-indulgent running time of three-and-a-half hours will pose challenges for home-screen viewing. Having dipped his toes in longform TV storytelling with Boardwalk Empire — and less successfully with Vinyl — Scorsese's choice to make this a stand-alone feature and not a limited series seems mildly perplexing. Anyone hoping for the propulsive dynamism of, say, Goodfellas or Casino may be disappointed.

But The Irishman is also on many levels a beautifully crafted piece of deluxe cinema. It's full of sinuous tracking shots from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto that induce swoons; sumptuous period production and costume design that evoke not just a vanished America but a near-extinct American movie realm; and fluid cutting from indispensable Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, who maintains the flow even in patches when Steven Zaillian's dense screenplay grows protracted. The movie is never less than engaging and its milieu at all times vivid and alive.

Anchoring the drama are three tremendously effective contrapuntal performances. De Niro may be playing the title figure but Frank is also the least flashy role, constrained to some degree by the inherent limitations in any middleman character. It's when his hardened, get-the-job-done grimace dissolves to hint at the conflicts within the WWII veteran turned mob heavy that Frank's calloused humanity is revealed. As his mentor in the criminal underworld, Russell Bufalino, Joe Pesci emerges from retirement to give a superbly measured performance as a don whose quiet thoughtfulness and composure don't soften his ruthlessness; he's the polar opposite of the lit-fuse firecrackers Pesci famously portrayed for Scorsese. And teaming here for the first time with the director, Al Pacino is in invigoratingly fine form as pugnacious labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa, the actor's tendency toward grandstanding bluster deftly channeled into a hilariously colorful hothead, unable to control his irascibility and power-trip ego even as they dig his grave.

Much advance talk on the movie has focused on the de-aging technology developed by Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic to allow key cast to play the same characters over a number of decades. There's as much hair dye as Brylcreem onscreen, but the combination of visual effects and makeup is fairly seamless. It's distracting only on initial impact, and for the most part easy enough to accept De Niro, Pacino and Pesci playing characters 20 or 30 years younger than them; certainly, it's leaps and bounds ahead of the old days of seasoned stars shot through so much gauze you could hardly see them.

Working from Charles Brandt's 2004 book on Sheeran, I Heard You Paint Houses, Zaillian (who last teamed with Scorsese on Gangs of New York) uses the framing device of an elderly Frank, near the end of his life, telling his story to an unseen interlocutor. The intermittent use of his voiceover seems a deliberate throwback to Goodfellas, an inevitable comparison that's not exactly favorable in the early going.

Within that frame is a second structural peg, an interstate road trip taken in the mid-1970s by Frank, Russell and their respective wives, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie (Kathrine Narducci), to attend a Bufalino family wedding. That thread is played partly for low-key comedy, with fastidious Russell banning smoking in the car, and the women demanding constant cigarette breaks. But the humor also makes for a more impactful dark turn when one of Russell's many business stops becomes a job of extreme gravity for Frank, unlike the cold efficiency he brings to most kills.

The movie skips back to Frank's early days as a truck driver for Teamsters 107 out of Philadelphia in the 1950s, and his first encounter with Russell at a Texaco gas station. Frank has no idea of the mobster's identity, but he knows enough to recognize him as a man of consequence, and to remember him when they meet again. In the meantime, he's started ripping off his suppliers and selling beef on the side to Philly crook Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), a former butcher who hasn't lost his taste for steak. Skinny introduces him to the city's new crime boss, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), and to the latter's Northern Pennsylvania counterpart, Russell. The latter instantly takes a shine to the Irishman, who learned to speak passable Italian during his four years of combat there.

Frank starts out collecting cash for his new mob associates, with occasional intimidation required. When an error of judgment causes him to take on a side job detrimental to one of Angelo's businesses, Russell's affection for him gets Frank a pass, but it also requires him to carry out his first kill. At the same time, his late hours and shady friends make his family nervous. Both his first wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) and her successor Irene tend to look the other way, but Frank's daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina) misses nothing. Even before he delivers a vicious beating to the corner grocery store owner for shoving the girl, she perceives something sinister in her father and keeps her distance from "Uncle Russ," despite his fawning over her.

This is very much a movie about middle-aged men, and you miss the electric female energy of great roles that Scorsese shaped for Lorraine Bracco, Cathy Moriarty and Sharon Stone, among others. But while the wives predominantly occupy the story's fringes, Peggy is an interesting character, a solemn witness no less forceful in her silent moral judgment than the Virgin Mary statues placed around the elder-care facility where Frank ends up. Gallina's unblinking intensity is matched in Peggy's late-teenage and young-adult scenes by lovely, subdued work from Anna Paquin, her character's refusal to forgive Frank wounding him deeply. That said, Zaillian's script gives Paquin very little to do, so her characterization is largely internalized, and as the sister who's marginally more forgiving with her father, Marin Ireland is limited to just a single strong scene.

The real meat in the narrative — and the point at which the film gains welcome momentum — arrives when Russell sends Frank to help out Hoffa, who the movie tells us was the most powerful man in the country after the president in the '50s and '60s. Frank's first job is to eliminate a rival taxi company, a task Hoffa justifies with typical hyperbole by likening non-union operations to Nazi collaborators during the war. He's the kind of blowhard Pacino clearly relishes playing to the hilt. Between ice cream sundaes, he dispenses such wisdom as, "You charge a guy with a gun, with a knife you run away," or "Never put a fish in your car. You'll never get the smell out."

While the film points to mob support as a factor in getting John F. Kennedy elected to the White House, Hoffa is outraged when the president appoints his brother Robert (Jack Huston) as Attorney General and he goes after the union leader for corruption. His other nemesis is Anthony Provenzano, known as "Tony Pro" (Stephen Graham), a swaggering, mob-affiliated New Jersey Teamster who keeps stepping on Hoffa's toes. One of the film's funniest scenes is a supposed détente meeting in Florida during which Tony inflames Jimmy by being late and showing up in shorts, while Frank attempts to keep the peace.

The climax follows Brandt's book in explaining Hoffa's 1975 disappearance according to claims Sheeran made shortly before his death in 2003. This yields some terrific scenes and allows De Niro to dig beneath the surface of his pragmatic enforcer character, uncovering the troubled depths of a man cornered into betraying a friend he genuinely loves. That gives the final hour an affecting elegiac quality that also carries the poignant suggestion of Scorsese and De Niro reflecting back on their shared cinematic past.

Aside from Pesci and Graham (Boardwalk Empire), who makes the most of his scenes as brash loud-mouth Tony Pro, other actors who have a history with the director are somewhat wasted in roles that lack definition, notably Keitel and Cannavale. Ray Romano has droll moments as Russell's attorney cousin Bill Bufalino, and Louis Cancelmi has a killer scene as Tony's wiry goon, his irritability a good match for Hoffa's. Jesse Plemons' minimal role as Hoffa's foster son Chuckie suggests he might have been a cutting-room casualty, particularly in the late action where his character presumably would have had a more significant reaction to what transpires.

Despite the movie's many pleasures and Scorsese's redoubtable directorial finesse, the excessive length ultimately is a weakness. Attempts to build in social context during the Kennedy and Nixon years, at times intercutting news footage from the period, aren't substantial enough to add much in terms of texture. The connections drawn between politics and organized crime feel undernourished, and the movie works best when it remains tightly focused on the three central figures of Frank, Russell and Jimmy. Netflix should be commended for providing one of our most celebrated filmmakers the resources to revisit narrative turf adjacent to some of his best movies. But the feeling remains that the material would have been better served by losing an hour or more to run at standard feature length, or bulking up on supporting-character and plot detail to flesh out a series.



Production companies: Sikelia Productions, Tribeca Productions
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jack Huston, Kathrine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Gary Basaraba, Marin Ireland, Lucy Gallina, Aleksa Palladino, Welker White, Louis Cancelmi, Dascha Polanco, Steven Van Zandt
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian, based on Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa
Producers: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler, Gerald Chamales, Gaston Pavlovich, Randall Emmett, Gabriele Israilovici
Executive producers: Rick Yorn, Richard Baratta, Berry Welsh, Niels Juul, George Furla, Nicholas Pileggi, Jai Stefan, Tyler Zacharia, Chad A. Verdi
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production designer: Bob Shaw
Costume designers: Christopher Peterson, Sandy Powell
Music: Robbie Robertson
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Visual effects supervisor: Pablo Helman
Casting: Ellen Lewis
Venue: New York Film Festival (Opening Night)

Rated R, 209 minutes