THE IRISHMAN gets 8.5/10 Muscle memory

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin


When you’re a director of the calibre of Martin Scorsese, you can take as long as you fucking need to say what you want to say with film. If that’s three and a half hours, then audiences better develop some bladder control, as he’ll use all that time, never wasting a moment. Rather than being indulgent, this is using what’s given to breathe life into the tale of a union organiser and associate of the powerful Bufalino crime family, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and allow it to properly mature.

Based on Sheeran’s 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses (created from interviews and confessions), The Irishman covers Sheeran’s life, from his early meeting with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and work as either extra muscle or a hitman, to his involvement with powerful Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

There’s something different about The Irishman as a piece of cinema. Obviously the master of Mean Streets is on familiar ground with his tales of gangsters and the mob, but this film distinctly divides itself into three sections. At first, this feels unwieldy, with multiple framing devices nestled within each other (an elderly Sheeran in a nursing home recalling a road trip in his later life with family and friends, that prompts recollections of his early gangster career), but each section points to different themes the director wants to explore. Frank’s rise working for the mob allows us to see the personal impact on the family life, not in the dynastic mafia soap opera style we are so familiar with, but rather in a very average “meat and potatoes” sort of fashion. The second part ties more directly with the main story, and Frank’s involvement with famous labour union organiser Jimmy Hoffa, and links to his disappearance.

That would normally be the ending point for most gangster epics, but The Irishman launches into an extended coda serving as a meditation on aging, and coming to terms with the effects of our actions. It’s unlike anything we are familiar with in the genre, and certainly something that the film has been subtly working towards through its entire run, both in building Frank’s damaged relationship with his family (especially his daughter Peggy played in later life by Anna Paquin), but also in the small written obituaries that appear with many of the characters’ introductions. Again, playing into the familiar Scorsese territory of religion, reflection and loss (the meat of his last film Silence), but the themes are touched upon in a manner that’s unique. This is something that truly makes The Irishman a gem.

Then there’s the cast. De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are all in fine form. Pesci gives a very controlled and understated performance as the calculating head of the Buffalino family, Pacino looms large as the famous firebrand union leader, and De Niro manages to walk a middle line – often affable, but also prone to violent bouts of rage or matter of fact callousness. True, the digital de-aging technology may not be at the point required to believably recreate these actors as their younger selves, and the result is a little distracting in the early segments, but the strength of performance makes up for the technical failings.

A long work, but one told with deceptive ease, The Irishman soon enthralls you with its matter of fact storytelling, that belies the artistry behind it. This won’t have the crowd appeal of Goodfellas, lacking its dynamism, but instead, The Irishman offers a quieter reflection on the price of a life of crime.