Most artists rarely find new subjects; the best ones manage to find new ways to look at them.
So while The Irishman – which the film itself really wants you to call I Hear You Paint Houses, as it comes up title-style twice over the three and a half-hour run time (it never drags for a second) – is Martin Scorsese’s return to widescreen mob drama a la Goodfellas and Casino, rest assured this is in no way going over old ground (well, maybe the part where a bunch of Mob guys go to a nightclub to see Don Rickles, as the real Rickles had a big part in Casino).
While those films were in part about people swept up by the power and glamour of the Mob at its height, the focus here is on Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), who’s already seen his fair share of killing in WWII before his truck driving job segues into theft and eventual murder.
Yes, DeNiro is CGI de-aged for a large chunk of the film; no it’s not really distracting after the first minute – and as the film explicitly positions everything we see as the reminiscences of the old Sheeran, it actually makes sense that in his memories his younger self would be a little hazy. More importantly, this isn’t a young man’s look at the mob no matter what the age of the people on screen: darkness hangs heavy over everything here, and even when the good times are in full swing, death – often in the case of superimposed text letting us know when and how various mobster meet their end – is never far away.
Where Scorsese’s earlier gangster films were more about the mileu than the leads – Goodfella’s Henry Hill and Casino’s Sam Rothstein get to the end and only regret that the good times are over – this is much more about the weight of a life of violent crime and how it crushes your soul.
DeNiro gives a far more restrained performance here than we’ve seen from him in years (decades?), but it’s telling that the only time Sheeran’s solid composure cracks is early on talking about how he was ordered to kill prisoners in the war. His friendship with union kingpin Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, keeping his usual excesses largely in check) is some of DeNiro’s most subtle and affecting acting in (again) years; if you know how Hoffa’s story ends you have an idea of where all this is going.
And yet, despite all the acting star power on show in the film’s first three hours – Joe Pesci is back out of retirement playing a thoughtful, almost kindly mob boss (so yeah, firmly against type) and he’s a revelation – the last half hour of this film is perhaps Scorsese’s best work, as age and time strip everything from Sheeran as he realises that his life has left him with nothing and no way to get it back.
All he has left is to wait to die; The Irishman is only going to be in cinemas for a weekend or so from the 7th (it’ll be on Netflix from the end of the month), and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Written by Anthony Morris