The Irishman movie cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale
The Irishman movie director: Martin Scorsese
The Irishman movie rating: 4 stars
Is this goodbye? Martin Scorsese, of Goodfellas and Casino, Gangs of New York and The Departed, turns to his favourite collaborators — actors who have played some of the greatest gangsters on screen — for an intimate, tender look at the Mob and its men long after both spotlight, even infamy, has moved on.
To do so, Scorsese has turned to a 2004 novel, I Heard You Paint Houses (by Steven Zaillan), and seen it through a development hiatus till he could bring De Niro, Pacino and Pesci together, the three of them in the same film for the first time. It has taken Netflix, a bigger budget than any of his films, three and a half hours, and technological advancements which let him de-age his main actors for screen, to put up this passion project.
Frank (De Niro) and Russell (Pesci) are not gangsters of the scale and scope we are used to in a Scorsese film — though he keeps returning to the Irish-American and Italian-American themes of his films. Frank, for the large part, is a small muscle for hire, who will kill anybody for money. Russell is the middle-man that all kinds of people turn to, so as to smoothen things over. Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is more well known but, as the film underlines, that could be because of the mystery that surrounds his disappearance. Once, though, Hoffa controlled the powerful truckers’ unions of America, and had dealings with the Mob as it went about building up Las Vegas.
Zaillan’s book dealt with one theory about what happened to Hoffa. And the film builds on it to look back at Frank and his friendship/relationship with Russell and Hoffa. This is not a film about growing up but growing old, about what all those years of living entail — the choices, the betrayals, the loneliness, the love, the pain and the aches.
The film takes a while to grow on you — with some of the drawling conversations a pardonable indulgence. However, eventually the beauty of even the road trip that runs as a central theme through the film slowly dawns. This features two couples and a shared lifetime between them that allows one to demand frequent cigarette breaks and another to loll about in a lazy, open-mouthed nap.
De Niro, the pivot of the story, seems to do a lot of what he does well, till he seizes your heart by the depth of his grief at a choice he has to make. His face is a dam waiting to burst, various emotions struggling under the surface, his nose twitching, his eyes downcast, his lips determinedly pursed. Pesci, brought back from virtual retirement for this role, plays Russell as a patient man who has lived and breathed violence all his life, and knows when to deliver what punch. A man who knows the value of loyalty and friendship, and what they mean in their cut-throat world.
However, it is Pacino who delivers a virtuoso performance as the showman Hoffa. He electrifies every scene he is in, by his edginess, his excitability, his unpredictability and even his stupid stubbornness to play by his own rules — when the stability of the whole system rests on no one challenging the status quo. With Hoffa come the whispers of bigger conspiracies, America’s Cuba misadventures, and the rose-tinted Kennedy years with their whiff of Mafia scandal. One scene where Hoffa sizes up his rivals while sitting on a stage being celebrated is masterful acting.
Paquin is also quite good in the minor role of Frank’s daughter who sees Hoffa for who he is, and why he is just that bit different from her father and his world.
However, this was also a time when men didn’t make excuses for their actions. And, in keeping with Scorsese’s themes of Christianity, faith and mercy, they faced their Maker with full knowledge of and responsibility for their past. In Scorsese’s other films, their deaths though came before they had a time to consider all that, or had a reason to. In The Irishman, it’s life that defeats them.