‘The Irishman’ review: A Ruminating and Poignant Tale

The opening tracking shot leads you into a brick building, winding its way through corridors and nurse stations, passing geriatrics and their help, into what seems like a break-out area, at which point the camera comes to rest behind a man slouched in a wheelchair. This sequence is, of course, the build-up to meet Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who will be our narrator for The Irishman. It could also be the track to the long and exhaustive road that its director, Martin Scorsese has covered in his long and well, exhaustive career. From gritty crime dramas to psychological thrillers to romantic odes to religious magnum opuses to….you get the drift. And of course, defining gangster movies in cinema. It’s been a prolific journey for Scorsese, which is why he could, as Sheeran is, be in a ruminative mood in his latest outing.

That rumination is what sets off Sheeran’s story via a flashback to a 1975 road trip. Sheeran is driving with Russell ‘Russ’ Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie (Kathrine Narducci). And as they stop for cancer-stick breaks for the wives’ sake—they both don’t do much throughout the movie, and that includes their dialogues, and that seems a tad uncooked as the movie progresses—and pull-overs for Russ’s work, that Scorsese, via Sheeran, plots out his story and the major players orbiting in it. Sheeran’s rise from a meat truck driver to working for and befriending the Mob is done in languidly beautiful scenes of cinema. There’s not a scene that seems extra, nor does the 3-hour plus run time of the movie ever feel that way. Because Scorsese with writer Steve Zaillian teases out his characters’ behaviors from Frank Sheeran’s hotly-contested biography by Charles Brandt (spoilers in book link), I Heard You Paint Houses. Whether Sheeran spun hazy half-truths and all-lies in his book isn’t what the director’s looking for. It’s how Sheeran, Russ and the latter’s cousin, lawyer Bill Buffalino (Ray Romano in terrific form) and the rest of the Italian Philadelphia mob is thrown in a state of flummoxed and angry despair with the rise and snarl of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) that his keen lens probes.

Al Pacino, Ray Romano: getting a good shot.

In this pointillistic drama, the relationship between Russ and Sheeran, and Sheeran and Hoffa, and Russ and Hoffa spins and creates intricately woven poignant moments, even as the action ratchets up a bit. That’s much like life too. As you get the first head rush of power, you could just show off some muscle, just to show ’em who’s boss. Here, Sheeran teaches the local grocer a lesson about shoving his daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina and later by Anna Paquin). Peggy, with her searching eyes and touch-me-not demeanor slowly becomes the conscience of Sheeran, one that he learns to subdue and weasel through with. If there’s anyone Peggy ever gets close to, it’s Hoffa who takes to her as if his own daughter. Russ, meanwhile, simply ever can’t connect to Peggy, and in a touching scene, De Niro’s Sheeran tries to explain why because of how Peggy is as a person. It’s as clear as the ball rolling towards the pin in the alley that Sheeran’s as disconnected from his own daughter as Russ feels. It’s as if he’s salving not Russ, but his own befuddled paternal feelings.

Joe Pesci is at his mellowest in a beautifully toned performance.

But back to Sheeran’s new-found power in the 1950s, when he begins working with the Buffalinos. He takes up an arson assignment in a scene that’s done with just the right tensile stress, while Robbie Robertson‘s score is the opposite. Languid, laid-back, jazzy. (The composer’s theme is haunting, employing a long-lost Western mouth organ, trepidatious drum beats and a part-ominous part-mournful violin.) That assignment puts Sheeran in touch with Angelo Bruno (the marvelous Harvey Keitel, but alas in a bit-role), and also shows him just how good a friend and mentor Russ is to him.

Robert De Niro finds his calling.

As Sheeran and Hoffa become closer and the latter’s dealing of and with the labor union International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) gets more and more complicated — throwing the Kennedy brothers Jack and Bobby into the story, hinting at dark and vicious quid pro quos, financial skullduggery involving pension funds, casinos, and politics (we could well be talking about the here and now) —Hoffa finds his options narrowing by the day. That doesn’t dampen him digging his Achille’s Heels in nor does it prevent him from shooting his mouth off and going against his once-trusted Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) and Allen Dorfman (Jake Hoffman); and taking on the swaggering Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham). The tension is palpable in the scenes here, and Scorsese pulls tight, especially in a scene where the jangling of car keys becomes analogous to the ticking of a time bomb. With revenge bombings going back and forth, the director’s truly wound up your sympathetic nervous system in time for the car keys scene. Elsewhere, there’s an almost loving ode to guns with De Niro’s voice-over an instructional teacher on the caliber of guns, while Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto place the objects of affection against an orange background. For a moment, you feel the guns are up on a wall, a la a museum. It’s only when the camera cuts to De Niro placing the guns on the background do you realize they’re atop a bed. That’s a classy shot.

Ray Romano, De Niro, and Pacino experience breaking news.

But The Irishman isn’t just a gangster-gun movie with mind-boggling de-aging special effects. It’s the director and his three leads — De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci — looking at how far they’ve come, and how far they’ve taken us along. It’s a poignant portrait of men who’ve ruled what they were in charge of, and the inevitable trajectory of life and aging. (Which is why the special effects are so pertinent.) It’s a morphing and re-morphing of loyalties and friendships as situations take unexpected kaleidoscopic forms, something that each one of us faces as we orbit around the sun. It’s a coming together of terrific talent. Joe Pesci is so dialed down, you half-think this is a gag and he’ll pull out a club anytime soon to spill some brains out. He’s empathetic, he’s caring, and he’s superb. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro play out like kindred souls with North Pole-South Pole personalities. In one scene, Pacino tells De Niro, “You never reveal how you feel, it’s hard to tell.” That’s exactly how the two of them perform. Pacino is all angst and bluster, wearing his performance on his sleeve with a heart-breaking touch of naiveté. De Niro is studied and all inner turmoil. When he’s not looking at a character, he’s looking at you, as if collecting his thoughts. But in his eyes you see the resigned acceptance of what’s to come, and what’s passed by. De Niro is in top form here, and he’s the mirror to Scorsese’s vision.

De Niro and Romano look at Pacino flag off trouble.

The Irishman is also a stopping look at life, at what happens to us when we’re the surviving lot from amongst a group of friends and enemies. It’s about the realization that life was good and in one’s grasp until one day something happened. That something is the dawning of one’s mistakes in a past that’s so far in terms of dimensions but closing in with inescapable emotions that are scrawled across the walls surrounding us. It’s also the sinking in of something else. It’s what director Scorsese’s been telling us all through the movie by introducing characters with notes announcing their names and their manner of (mostly violent) passing. In the movie that sinking in happens with the quietude of a last sigh — the inevitability of one’s own mortality. In the end, it’s what it is.

The Irishman (2019) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

The Irishman is rated A (Restricted to adults) Gangsters, violence, and wall painting.

The Irishman
Director Martin Scorsese Time 3h 29min
Writer  Steve Zaillian
Stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
Genres  Biography, Crime, Drama