The age of films about the American criminal underworld looks melancholy back in time. On paper, the Irishman is reassuringly predictable - another Scorsese trip to the gangster underworld, crowned with a prestigious cast. Luckily, the veteran wasn’t content with cheap nostalgia.
The film is based on a proposal from Charles Brandt's book "The Greatest Mafia Murder in History", the murder of Jimmy Hoffe - I Heard You Paint Houses. The title is in fact a metaphor, and it is very unambiguous: to paint a house means to kill a man; "paint" is the blood that splashes on the floor and on the walls.
After years of pre-production squabbling - you know, the Academy loves a good story of sacrifice and suffering for art, and the Irish Genesis is its latest version - Martin Scorsese has, under the auspices of Netflix, realized his vision for the latest mafia epic.
The Irishman is a film adaptation of the biography I Heard You Paint Houses, in which mafia mercenary Frank Sheeran claims on his deathbed that it was he who picked up the infamous Jimmy Hoffa, a mafia-linked unionist who crashed into the ground in 1975. The title role was given to Robert De Niro by the director, Hoffa was played by Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel star in the supporting roles - only Leonardo DiCaprio is potentially missing from this Scorsese All Stars match. What is this other than a bunch of Scorsese's "superheroes"? Ironically, if we think about the enthusiasm with which the veteran recently hit such "amusement parks" ...
The above comparison isn’t deadly serious, but other similarities could be found: Netflix isn’t officially revealing its budgets, but according to the highest estimates, the Irishman has approached $ 300 million, comparable to the biggest spectacles. Is there really such a difference between investing in explosions and investing in technology that can digitally smooth and rejuvenate the faces of 75-year-olds?
Robert De Niro has not worked with Martin Scorsese since the Casino (1995), and Al Pacino has not. Photo: IMDb
Another parallel: just like with Marvel’s blockbuster, so with Scorsese’s mob movie, you more or less know in advance what you’re going to get. Consistency and reliability or repetitiveness and lack of fresh ideas? You know all the key items from before: the gangster saga set in New York, a cocktail of explicit violence and Catholic motives, themes of sin, guilt and forgiveness. Many people complain about the minutes, which are more appropriate for a miniseries nowadays (the film is 209 minutes long) - but the length is what allows Scorsese to give the Irishman an introspective note in addition to testosterone. He indicated a similar mood in his previous feature film, Silence (2016).
The life story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is long and full of unpredictable twists and turns; screenwriter Steven Zaillian conveys it through leaps and bounds, probably in a similar way to what Frank himself would have narrated (so it’s also clear we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator). As a young trucker with a questionable work ethic, he finds himself in the office of a union lawyer (Ray Romano), who is also a cousin of junior mafia boss Russell Bufalin (Joe Pesci).
Occasional services for the Bufalino Frank dynasty soon lead to a permanent position of mafia mercenary or. t. i. a fixer, from where he progresses among the supporters of Jimmy Hoffe, the leader of America’s largest union, who diligently fills his own pockets in the name of “workers’ rights ”. Frank, whose fate is completely intertwined with that of his two mentors, Russell and Jimmy, is unstoppable as Hoff's right-hand man for many years - until the wheels of history (with a little help from the Kennedy clan) begin to fall apart.
In fact, the Irishman does not have a solid female role. Kathrine Narducci and Aleksa Palladino fit the “faithful wife” mold, and Anna Paquin, who plays one of Sheeran’s daughters, doesn’t get the real work (or dialogues). Her character is interesting enough that the script could explore him more closely, but Scorsese just doesn’t. Photo: IMDb
Legend has it that Joe Pesci rejected Scorsese as many as fifty times before agreeing to return from retirement for the Irishman. Photo: IMDb
Digital rejuvenation needs to be considered for a moment. The final look of the film is better than promised by the first trailers, but no one will claim that there is nothing rubbery, lifeless, unnatural in the close-up of "Young De Niro" (and close-ups are the ones where facial expressions should be most convincing). A similar problem with the mimicry of reality, which can never be really good enough, was encountered by Disney with The Lion King this summer: the Lions were too naturalistic for the animation we are used to, and too little "real" to be seen as straight left. The goal of film art, after all, is probably not to capture reality as accurately as possible but to create fictional worlds that are a reflection of ours.
Would it really be so very wrong to hire other actors for the role of the younger Hoffe, Sheeran, Bufalin? For something like this, an idealistic faith would be needed for the Irishman to be equally well-received (and expected with the same zeal) if all the veterans listed would appear only in episodic roles as outdated versions of their characters.
But there is also a counter-argument: The Irishman is, as has already been said, a deeply introspective, at times even melancholic film. The mood is set by the story itself: a scene of a troubled Frank Sheeran in a wheelchair, reminiscent of the past. He may not be in his last breaths yet, but it is clear that he is approaching an encounter with the Creator. A film made by a group of forty-year-olds could not be imbued with an awareness of their own transience in an equally honest way. This is not the Scorsese of the Goodfellas (1990), who put the weight on the brotherhood and arrogance of the mafia - this is the more sober Scorsese, who seems to be sighing sadly: Sic transit gloria mundi. Also, don't expect the agile, energetic camera shifts of the Wall Street Wolf - this time the prudence and steadfastness of the legitimacy of the world to which Sheeran belongs branch out from every shot.
Harvey Keitel is almost criminally Untapped in Angel Bruno’s episodic role. Photo: IMDb
The trio in the lead roles easily justify their status. Joe Pesci, known for his roles as explosive choleric, this time delegates murderous affairs with eerie composure. Pacino, who enters the story only somewhere in the second third, is a melodramatic performer who is very easy to believe will never voluntarily step down from power. De Niro is somewhere halfway between them: a stoic dog capable of the most brutal acts of violence. (His role is further harmed by the intervention of new technologies.) The protagonist's (allegedly) bad conscience is symbolized by his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), who intuitively understands her father's true nature and breaks off all contact with him. Her role is clear, but it still works almost insultingly that the actress gets no other work than to accuse the accuser from a corner (she utters only about ten words throughout the film).
The Irishman may not be a revolutionary or a pioneering representative of his genre, but he is an ambitious project that draws a decent line under Scorsese's descents into the underworld - entering into dialogue in various ways with Both Streets of Evil (1973) and Gangs of New York (2002). And this time, it will be difficult for anyone to accuse the master of glorifying the murderous industry - the bloodiest judge in Ireland is age and helplessness anyway, which is a surprisingly subtle insight into this genre.