“ ‘I heard you paint houses.’ To paint a house is to kill a man.” -Frank Sheeran aka The Irishman
Where Goodfellas showcased a life of excess and reckless abandon, The Irishman is an exhibition of regret and the tragedy of getting old watching the world pass you by. It is the reality we all face, no matter our status in this world of materialistic worship, no one hits as hard as life, I believe Rocky Balboa said that once but I paraphrase of course.
If you were to split Martin Scorsese’s work into two categories they would be contemplation and fever dream. A prime example of each would be something as introspective as Silence, a profound but arduous glare into the world of religion and its origins in parts of the world still yet to hear the doctrine of Catholicism. On the other side of the coin is a fever dream like pacing with The Wolf of Wall Street or Goodfellas. While not a celebration of the lifestyle on display in either film it never shuns or shames any of its characters as they partake in truly abhorrent behavior. It is simply a window into the world of criminality that took place on a daily basis(most likely still ongoing). With Goodfellas it was a celebration of living on the fringe of society where rule of law was just another thing available for purchase. It rarely lets up from the moment Henry Hill says, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” By the end, his biggest regret is not being apart of “the life” anymore, getting subpar spaghetti and meatballs. Remorse for his actions simply wasn’t there.
The Irishman poses the questions: What if there was regret? How do you live with yourself having lived in such a way?
I think one of the greatest strengths to The Irishman, of which there are many, is the ability through story to create such empathetic characters despite their unforgivable behavior. By the film’s end, as these hitmen and mob bosses were overtaken by the roots of old age I found myself feeling bad for them. I admit I was a bit taken aback at my reaction. I just watched for three hours these men maiming, shooting, outright brutally murdering people, even their closest friends, but I felt bad for this now white-haired hitman requiring a cane and assisted living. He left his first wife, practically abandoned his children and as I said, killed an estimated twenty-five people but poor him he made it to old age. We should all be so lucky. But again I believe that’s the brilliance of the writing is its ability to humanize deplorable but relatable characters. I’ve never killed anyone (yet) but I felt for this man as he reminded me of my grandfather (about to celebrate his 81st birthday this Monday) or my father losing his battle with a multitude of illnesses that eventually took his life in April of this year. It was a reminder of mortality and no matter how many “painted houses” these mobsters tallied up, life always wins the game of death. I am only thirty years old but it had even me contemplating my life choices up to this point.
Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran was a man of principle and loyalty. He learned to take orders and kill without hesitation in WWII. Taking his lessons of repeated violence to the world of gangsters he soon became a right hand man of Russell Bufalino, boss of one of the most notorious crime syndicates in American history. Frank painted houses, which meant simply and plainly, he killed without provocation and would follow any order to do so, with the approval of Russell of course, his loyalty never wavering. This story takes place over decades of bloodshed in the mafia and the weight that life places on those that lived it. Living beyond the law means living beyond its protection as much as its limitations. This life has weighed heavily on Frank and he’s ready to tell his side of things, to be believed or not is entirely up to every individual hearing his words. This is especially true of Jimmy Hoffa, who’s disappearance has baffled the world since 1975. Frank just might be able to shed some light on the subject.
I started reading articles about the possibility of a new Scorsese gangster film nearly six years ago. Beyond the director’s involvement it was the cast and screenwriter that truly made this one of my most anticipated films of the last decade. Steven Zaillian who has written such classics as Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo(Fincher version, best version, fight me) to name a few came aboard to adapt this absolutely touching, highly emotional, and sprawling gangster epic. To breathe life into his words came the cast, a cast that is nothing short of iconic, once in a lifetime, legendary.
Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran is a contemplative, pain-filled expression of regret, a deep desire for re-connecting, and a half-hearted acceptance of his self-imposed isolation. He is reserved in nearly every moment but no less tragic simply because fate directed this man down a very specific path. Al Pacino, like De Niro, gives his best performance in a very long time. As Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino is boisterous, charismatic, loved, but seriously lacking in caution, especially where the mafia is concerned. He believes he is untouchable, we all know how far that got him. In a film made up of almost entirely highlights, pure brilliance in nearly every regard, a standout moment for me was hearing about Joe Pesci officially coming on board the project as the infamous, calculated, Russell Bufalino. Known for his more viciously larger-than-life Goodfellas character, Tommy DeVito, his performance as Bufalino is one of reserved confidence while maintaining a constant air of intimidation. Bufalino’s reputation preceded him everywhere he went and Pesci conveys this masterfully. He is something special here, I assure you.
Beyond these three master thespians is an array of pure talent featuring the likes of Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, and Bobby Cannavale among so many others. This is the definition of an all-star cast.
And then there’s the maestro himself… Martin Scorsese.
What can I say about this man that I or so many others haven’t already over the years of his remarkably accomplished career? He is a man whose talent has not only maintained but arguably improved with age. His patience with pacing and editing and overall storytelling is a sign of experience but with his skillset, never losing the youthful touch of someone able to sprint all the while having their hair set on fire as he never shies away from the brevity of a story knowing that time is of the essence. He knows when to move, to fast edit or slow the rhythm of the story, to take a breath and allowing the characters to do the same. With The Irishman he allows his real life characters a chance to think, to react after thought, and to simply just be quiet without words, as so often happens in real life.
I am biased when it comes to Scorsese, I own that, but I do so because he has simply never let me down. He is the ultimate captain of the ship, captain of the airplane, a General of cinematic expression and execution. The Irishman is a demonstration of strengths from all involved. Scorsese at the helm, his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker at his side as confident as ever before, Steven Zaillian bringing the story to screen, and of course the cast, I can’t say enough about this cast but I’ll refrain for now.
I loved this movie, the story, and its characters, so vulnerable but every bit as visceral and unforgiving as one might expect of a gangster. The Irishman is not Goodfellas, it’s reflective in every light, even in the moments of unflattering realism, it embraces everything in hopes to convey a message that is universal but no less tragic. We are all of us, susceptible to the burdens and triumphs of life, each providing their own kind of weariness.
If given the opportunity, please see The Irishman in a movie theater, it’s worth the drive, the three and a half hour runtime, and the attention it demands to truly be appreciated as it should. My favorite film of 2019, The Irishman. Masterpiece.
Rated R For: pervasive language and strong violence
Runtime: 209 minutes
After Credits Scene: No
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Bobby Cannavale
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Out of 5 Nerdskulls
Story: 5/ Acting: 5/ Directing: 5/ Visuals: 5
OVERALL: 5 Nerdskulls
Buy to Own: Currently in limited release in theaters. Premieres wide on Netflix, November 27, 2019. If it ever comes to physical media, Criterion possibly(I hope), a definite must own.
Check out the trailer below:
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