It’s a happy coincidence that The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s latest gangster film which arrives on Netflix and in select cinemas in November, comes just short of thirty years after the release of Goodfellas, one of the most influential and revered of all time in the genre.
That movie, which shares with this one stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, was the director at his most entertaining and carefree. Its lead, Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill, huffed piles of cocaine and meted out violence with little thought. Consequences eventually came for our anti-hero, but you never got the sense that he had learned a thing.
In contrast, The Irishman is a powerful, slow-burning meditation on remorse: one that has quite clearly come with age. At three-and-a-half hours it’s an epic, but it feels surprisingly quaint.
Robert De Niro, who features in nearly every single scene, plays Frank Sheeran, a real-life teamster (or truck driver to anyone outside of the US) turned mercenary for the mob, who develops a close relationship with union leader Jimmy Hoffa (played, with gusto and a bit of CGI de-ageing, by Al Pacino).
The film is based on a true story, as told by former prosecutor Charles Brandt in the memoir I Heard You Paint Houses. It spans over sixty years, from a brief glimpse at Sheeran’s days in Italy during WWII (where he learned how to whack people) to the days before his death in 2003.
It opens to a camera slowly making its way through a retirement home until we find Sheeran, who is telling an unseen person about his days in organised crime, before the story takes us back to his days delivering meat in New Jersey, when he was recruited as a hitman by Harvey Keitel’s Angelo Bruno, and Pesci’s Russell Buffalino.
In his earlier roles Pesci seethed and snarled like a chihuahua with a bite to match its bark. Here, he’s more like a stately bulldog in its twilight years: a little quieter, a little more reserved, yet no less intimidating.
Buffalino and Sheeran develop a deep bond, propelled by the latter’s workman-like attitude towards murder. Sheeran disposes of his victims very methodically and cleanly (though the blood splatter that he leaves gives him a reputation as a “painter of houses”). There is little fuss: a couple of gunshots to the head where possible; if the headshot is out of the question, as many as it takes to get the job done in the shortest amount of time.
When he goes to work for Hoffa, it’s under Buffalino’s direction. Hoffa, a leader of the working classes, pays his dues to the mob, and needs Sheeran’s help maintaining control of his base. But a rift with hot-headed Capo Anthony Provenzano (played excellently by Stephen Graham in a role that would have suited a younger Pesci) and a power struggle which follows his incarceration, leaves him out in the shade, and puts Sheeran in the awkward position of trying to keep his closest allies from killing each other.
Pacino, at 79, is majestic here; bringing a youthful energy that compliments, or perhaps takes the attention away from, the much-discussed anti-ageing technology. If he’s not in the conversation for best supporting actor at this year’s Academy Awards, it’ll be because Pesci, after years out of the game, has squeezed him out of the spotlight.
And while the film dwells predominantly on the relationships between the three central men, the most interesting is that between Sheeran and his eldest daughter Peggy (Anna Pacquin). In an exquisitely staged early scene, Sheeran discovers she had been reprimanded by a local shopkeeper and walks her back to his store, throws him through the window and breaks his hand on the curb with his boot while Peggy watches in muted distress.
Peggy is mostly a silent presence throughout the film, judging Sheeran and his colleagues (apart from Hoffa, whom she bonds with over ice cream sundaes) from the sidelines. She is Sheeran’s only connection to the humanity that he buries deep inside of himself in order to do his job effectively.
The film may have a problem with gender – women share about ten lines of dialogue between them over the course of 210 minutes – which is not unusual in Scorsese’s oeuvre. But Pacquin’s presence is powerful, nonetheless.
The last hour sees De Niro doing some of his best work in years, as Sheeran, in his old age, is left to stew on the crimes he committed throughout his life, and death looms over him. Throughout the film, his victims were like candles snuffed out with minimal fuss, but his own fate doesn’t come quite as fast as he would have liked it to.
The actor, now 76, doesn’t give much away, but when he does, it is a sight to behold.
The Irishman is out in selected cinemas on Friday 1st November, and on Netflix worldwide on Friday 27th November