My Verdict | ★★★★★
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With over fifty years in the industry you’d expect Martin Scorsese to be getting a bit nostalgic. Not so in his latest mobster epic The Irishman (adapted from Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses). Featuring a return from his veteran actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, and joined for the first time by Al Pacino, this isn’t an easy-going or celebratory reunion for the director and actors.
Not that age hasn’t brought some slowing down, some reflection. In contrast to the adrenaline rush of Goodfellas, The Irishman is steadily, sombrely paced. The opening car journey is a seemingly uneventful trip down ‘memory-lane’. The short-sleeved, liver-spotted, greying mob veterans sit upfront, windows down, no smoking, with pampered wives in tow. No guns in sight. There are holiday bags in the car boot rather than a body. On the surface its all retiringly pleasant, but underneath it’s no less disquieting.
De Niro plays Frank Sherman, a trusted right-hand hitman of Irish descent to Pesci’s Russell ‘Russ’ Bufalino. A quiet word and knowing look from the unassuming, bespectacled mafia don to Frank- and the job is done. After their first meeting in the 1950s, Frank binds his loyalty to Russ and begins forty-years of solid commitment. Yet, this loyalty is tested when he’s assigned as bodyguard to Pacino’s presidential hopeful Jim Hoffa. With a compromised but charismatic union man on the one side and the dark manoeuvrings of mobster politics on the other, Frank finds himself caught between duty and friendship.
It’s De Niro’s finest performance in years. While he’s the unflappable centre of The Irishman, he isn’t the drive. De Niro gives us Frank’s exterior of implacable grit but always hints at the regret and bitterness growing from an unresolvable friction within. It’s a stark contrast to the performances of decisive, unpredictable, self-aggrandising men that the actor gave in his earlier career. Instead, De Niro reduces his considerable presence to being stony lipped and merely watchful. Despite his clear efficiency in the job- whether dispatching Russ’ enemies or mediating between rivals – he is often impotent. It’s a performance that is strangely yet consistently moving over the story’s fifty-year span.
Pesci and Pacino are more directly commanding. Pesci plays against his usual temperamental type – his ‘Russ’ is still, purposeful and with a powerfully cold presence despite his stature. It’s left for Pacino to provide the uproarious mood swings. Whether grandstanding in a crowd or throwing glares to his enemies while chewing steak, Pacino succeeds in wrestling for both our attention, amusement and sympathy. The exchanges between actors are magnetic when given scenes together- often held in intimate spaces such as hotel rooms or restaurant booths. While ‘business’ is always on the table, there’s still a brotherly (even fatherly) undercurrent in the parallel dynamics with De Niro and Pesci, De Niro and Pacino. The trio are captivating and supported adeptly by Stephen Graham, Ray Romano and Harvey Keitel (who, admittedly, is a glorified cameo). Less well served is Frank’s daughter, played by Anna Paquin- reduced to a penetrating stare that serves as Frank’s gnawing conscience.
Steven Zaillain’s screenplay entices with perfect razor-sharp dialogue, tense humour, and those essential beats when nothing needs to be said at all. Despite presenting a comprehensive (if conspiratorial) picture of these complex political-historical events it rarely allows us to lose the pulse of those who are wrapped up in them, or pulling the strings. While Scorsese’s pacing and cinematography give us the gravity of a Leone-style epic (to which composer Robbie Robertson’s whining Morricone-inspired score gives added reference), what is produced is an intimate, mournful confession. True to Scorsese’s best work, we are left to judge a character on their decisions. In Frank’s case, what has been the benefit of his loyalty? The slow erosion of time and pointless clinging to his commitments betray someone wasted and lost, never able to recover another form of life. The bravado and heated disgust of a mobster’s existence in Scorsese’s earlier work couldn’t be further away from this.
There is little indulgence, despite the evocative shots of New York’s smoky, stained streets which could have been lifted from Taxi Driver or Once Upon A Time In America. Instead, The Irishman is a frank testimony to the price of a life spent on loyalty and crime. A masterful piece of filmmaking- it’s Scorsese at his very best.