When it comes to movies, it’s been a particularly good year for me. I don’t expect to come across another year quite like it any time soon. The magic started at the end of May when after thirteen years, I finally got to see an ending to one of my favorite shows with Deadwood: The Movie. Now, in late November, I’ve just seen another film I had dreamed about for years: The Irishman (aka I Heard You Paint Houses), a film that reunites Martin Scorsese, Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci — it’s just unfortunate that Frank Vincent couldn’t be there too.
Both Goodfellas and Casino are important films for me. They’ve brought me so much joy, even outside of viewing them — you have no idea how many times I’ve quoted either film to friends or family.
These films spurned my interest in gangster history. The history of these hoodlums can teach you a lot about the current American Empire, and it’s shocking how much power they had and how many politicians were in the grips of their corrupting influence.
Their lives will also tell you a lot about human nature. This is the thing that Scorsese and the storytellers of HBO like David Chase (creator of The Sopranos) and Terence Winter (creator of Boardwalk Empire) tackle so brilliantly in their respective mediums. It’s the fragile humanity of these hoodlums, from Goodfellas‘ Henry Hill, Casino‘s Sam Rothstein and The Irishman‘s Frank Sheeran that makes these films so fascinating. It’s the Faustian bargains they make to enrich their lives, the spiritual cost that comes with a life of crime.
But no matter how despicable their actions, we cannot hate them. On the most primal level, we understand them, even empathize with them — or at least a part of them. A part of us yearns to attain their boldness and the power that comes as a reward. We know we shouldn’t. We know we should take our medicine instead. Going down that road never ends well. Yet, it’s fun watching other people break bad, isn’t it?
It’s naturally everything around it. It’s the expertly depicted, often shocking violence. It’s the brilliant and authentic slang delivered brilliantly by its performers — often improvised. It’s in the way Scorsese directs the camera. It’s the surprising hilarity that ensues through all that depravity.
Filmmaking is a collaborative process of course. These films are brilliant, due to the performances, the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, the brilliant script, etc. But it’s Scorsese that wraps it all together in one unforgettable work of art.
And I’m ecstatic to tell you that The Irishman can sit proudly among the likes of Goodfellas and Casino.
A Sprawling Story
At the beginning of The Irishman, we venture into an assisted living facility, passing the withered, aging and dying. Among them is Frank Sheeran (Robert Sheeran), who happily tells us his life story. Through flashbacks and narration, we see his grueling experiences in World War II, in which he learned to follow orders for the greater good.
Working as a delivery man, he comes across a high-ranking mobster named Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and the two begin a budding friendship. A misunderstanding between another high-ranking mobster, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), almost costs Frank his life but Russell intervenes on his behalf, saving his life in the process. Feeling indebted to him, Frank becomes a loyal enforcer to the Bufalino family. Like a good soldier, Frank follows Russell’s orders without question, even if it means murdering someone in cold blood.
As time passes, he also befriends Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the president of the powerful Teamsters Union. Hoffa is intimately involved with the mafia and has enriched himself and his fellow brothers, through numerous corrupt dealings. Hoffa has become an important asset to the mob, especially with the money he’s accumulated with Teamsters’ pension fund.
The good times cannot last however as Hoffa’s legal troubles eventually get him into jail. After returning to civilian life, he pursues the position of Teamsters president once again. This is much to the chagrin of the mob who considers Hoffa’s temperament to be a liability and the replacement figure they put in his place is much easier to control.
Time moves on and the rift between Hoffa and the mob increases. Sheeran’s criminal lifestyle begins to bleed into his personal life, especially alienating him from one of his daughters, Peggy (Anna Paquin). The ultimate price Sheeran has to pay, the damage he inflicts upon his soul, becomes apparent in the film’s final heartbreaking act.
The incredible cost of its production has been well-documented. Film studios didn’t want to fund the project, but luckily for us, Netflix came to the rescue.
The bulk of the money was spent on digitally de-aging the three leads. This has not been uncommon lately, though the effect is still not perfect. The uncanny valley effect is still there in parts.
In The Irishman, there’s the occasional shot where the faces look a little too digital. Eventually, however, I stopped noticing it. I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was too entranced by the story and its performers.
This is naturally a testament to the quality of its narrative. Yet one shouldn’t dismiss the hard work of the visual effects artists working tirelessly to make the seventy-year-old Robert De Niro look like a thirty-year-old man. The fact that I hardly noticed it is a testament to all their hard work; unfortunately, in Hollywood, they rarely get the credit they deserve.
People often forget that Goodfellas and Casino are historical films, just as much as they are gangster dramas. One could even conceive of them as period pieces. They are meticulously-researched films, and often times more historically accurate than films labeled as “historical fiction”.
The problem with gangster history is the unreliability of some of its narrators. The real Henry Hill, for example, seems to exclude himself from any murderous actions throughout Wiseguy, the book that would be the basis of Goodfellas.
Looking through the library of tell-all crime books, you will find a scourge of men confessing they’ve murdered Jimmy Hoffa or were involved in the conspiracy to kill JFK. While Goodfellas and Casino are based on the respected works of crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi, the source material for The Irishman — Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses — has been met with some controversy, from numerous experts. Ultimately, there’s some serious debate about the veracity of Frank Sheeran’s murderous exploits.
But Scorsese himself has said that he considers this of lesser importance. The dubious claims of Charles Brandt’s subject notwithstanding, it’s still a fascinating story to tell.
The Return of Joe Pesci
The Irishman shows the return of Joe Pesci, who was unofficially retired and had to be convinced by Scorsese to return in front of the camera. Besides voicing a Mosquito in 2015’s A Warrior’s Tail, Pesci’s last acting performance was in 2010’s Love Ranch, though he did appear afterward in a Snickers commercial alongside the late great Don Rickles.
Pesci immortalized himself in cinema history by playing the psychotic gangster, Tommy DeVito, which won him a well-deserved Academy Award, though I personally consider his performance in Casino as Nicky Santoro to be superior. Children probably recognize Pesci as the more intellectual element of the Wet Bandits duo from the first two Home Alone films. We shouldn’t forget his role as the streetwise lawyer, Vinny Gambini, in My Cousin Vinny. He also stars in one of the best Tales from the Crypt episodes, Split Personality.
Looking at his career, however, it becomes apparent that Hollywood was only interested in casting Pesci in comedic roles, something he was naturally skilled in — which were probably honed during his vaudeville days with Frank Vincent.
But Pesci could do so much more than that. And he illustrated that in quieter moments in movies such as Raging Bull. Even though he also plays a high-ranking mobster in The Irishman, Bufalino is a completely different character than either DeVito or Santoro. Don’t expect him to venture into a foul-mouthed monologue or stab someone with a pen. This is a man in control of his emotions, not someone who engages in meaningless temper tantrums. Bufalino chooses his words carefully and strategically. He’s always seemingly polite but won’t hesitate to orchestrate your death if you get in the way of business.
Despite this, it’s an equally satisfying performance in comparison to his more bombastic presence in Goodfellas and Casino. It’s unclear whether he will return to retirement after this. If so, it’s the perfect send-off to a wonderful career.
Like most of my fellow cinemagoers, it’s been painful watching Robert De Niro squander his incredible talent for sub-par movies in the last decade. Seeing the guy transition from Raging Bull to Dirty Grandpa has been heart-wrenching. Occasionally, he chooses a project worthy of his name, such as Being Flynn or The Wizard of Lies. But most of the films he’s starred in from the last decade have been beneath him.
But he’s in the safe hands of Martin Scorsese, who directed some of his greatest performances of his career. The last time they collaborated on a feature film was with Casino in 1995 and this film, according to De Niro, represents “unfinished business”. Their cinematic reunion after twenty years is as magical as it always was.
Frank Sheeran was a role apparently close to De Niro’s heart, and it shows. Sheeran is portrayed as a true soldier, a man who follows orders for what he perceives to be the common good. Yet, throughout the film, there’s an internal struggle, a certain awareness creeping in. Similar to Pesci, this is a more subdued performance, especially in comparison to co-star Al Pacino, who plays with the role of Jimmy Hoffa with his signature shouting gusto.
The poignancy of his arc becomes clear in its last act when the character finally begins to reflect on the bloodshed his life was built upon. It’s the moment when the film is elevated from a gangster film to an intimate character study.
I would be remiss not to mention Pacino’s greatness. Like his fellow co-stars, he’s absolutely mesmerizing. As many people have pointed out, this is also the first time Pacino has worked with Scorsese.
Hoffa seems like a role that is tailor-made for Pacino. Jimmy Hoffa — a man who created a union empire to be reckoned with, who refuses to back down from anyone, be it Robert Kennedy or the mob — had been memorably portrayed by Jack Nicholson in Danny Devito’s Hoffa. A great film in its own right, there’s a greater sense of tragic inevitability to how the character is written in The Irishman. This Hoffa is guided predominantly by his ego. A man who when he made up his mind on something, can’t be reasoned with. A man who due to his great achievements in life, considers himself unstoppable.
In both Nicholson’s and Pacino’s case, their idiosyncratic charm shines through. It’s hard to choose a favorite among the two, especially since I’m a fan of both performers. Though Nicholson probably received the greatest accolade imaginable, since Jimmy Hoffa Jr. apparently cried after seeing Nicholson made up into the character, saying, “that’s my dad!”
The Final Shot
Both Goodfellas and Casino had such memorable endings, but the ending of The Irishman has stuck with me for days. It’s nothing overblown or fanciful. Nothing pretentious. Everything you need to know is in that final shot. It’s the perfect way to end a three-and-a-half-hour epic film.
To me, it perfectly illustrates that Scorsese is the master of cinema.
Even though I wasn’t planning on mentioning the ridiculous controversy regarding Martin Scorsese’s comments about Marvel, it’s hard not to. This film proves that his detractors should probably remain quiet. This is a film that proves (once again) that Scorsese is one of the greatest living filmmakers.
It’s one of the best, if not the best film of the year. It’s three and a half hours, so you better strap in for a long journey, but trust me, you won’t be disappointed. This is cinema at its finest.
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