The Irishman is Scorsese at his storytelling best

The Irishman is Scorsese at his storytelling best

Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci in The Irishman

The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s latest contribution to the gangster genre, has just been released on Netflix, and if you’re a Scorsese fan, it’s every bit the film you need it to be.  Scorsese’s mobsters generally aren’t the bosses, they’re men with a job to do, men with families, trying to get ahead, and The Irishman is no exception. The mobsters in this story aren’t the glamour mafiosi. Sheehan and his friends have more in common with Tony Soprano than Michael Corleone. 

In a style reminiscent of Goodfellas, the protagonist Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert de Niro) acts as narrator. The film was drawn from a 2004 book based on Sheeran’s detailed confession to a journalist shortly before he died. And while many of the most explosive facts claimed in the book have since been discredited, by having Sheeran as the narrator Scorsese cleverly avoids the question of authenticity. In the film, as in life, Sheeran is an unreliable narrator. He is a man apparently damaged by the trauma of war, blunted to the horror of death and just trying to get by like any other man. He treats his job like any other middle-of-the-road man would, the fact that it involves killing people is neither here nor there, he’s proud of his work. But this story hinges on the part of his work that revolved around Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a man Sheehan built a close relationship with over many years.

As Sheeran tells his story, we jump back and forth over decades, weaving together the threads that makes sense of the whole, and ultimately exploring one man who cross between the mobster world and the powerful trade unions of the 60s and 70s, which was also intertwined with the politics of the time.

As Sheehan, Robert de Niro does some of his best work in recent years, as does Joe Pesci who plays Russell Bufalino, the well-connected mobster who introduced Sheehan to Hoffa. Both performances are nuanced and excellent, and it will be interesting to see who gets nominated for what come awards season. I suspect there will be a few for The Irishman.

This is a really good movie. It’s long, clocking in at about 3.5 hours, which is probably less of an issue if you’re watching on Netflix, as most will. I first saw this at the cinema, and just made sure I had plenty of snacks to hand. But really, with Scorsese you know you’re in good hands. He’s a masterful storyteller, and the film moves at a pace that keeps you moving with it. I did flag a little at a couple of points in the middle, but not seriously. If I’d been at home I probably would have paused for a little time out and a visit to the candy bar (AKA the kitchen) at these moments.  This is one worth switching off the phone and other distractions and putting the time in for.

A couple more thoughts on The Irishman, with a few spoilers… 

Unlike Scorsese’s other mobster classics, this one explores the ideas of loyalty, responsibility and guilt. Peggy, Sheehan’s daughter (Anna Paquin), is his conscience, silent but always there, always seeing. Sheehan’s ties are tested, and in the end he makes a clear choice – his mobster family over all else, including his blood family and his surrogate father figure Hoffa.

And while this was very much as Scorsese film, there was one moment, towards the end of the film as they’re in the car heading towards Hoffa’s execution, where there is an extended discussion about a fish. The dialogue becomes momentarily and noticably Tarantino-esque. I found that a little jarring and out-of-place, but fortunately that was just one short scene. I can only assume it was included as a moment of comic relief, possibly also to emphasise the face these were ordinary men in every way, except their choice of job. Whatever the reason, I think we could have done without it.

In the Irishman, skipping ahead to the old folk’s home, we know Sheeran survived his mobster lifestyle, unlike most of the other characters in the film who generally had somewhat abbreviated lifespans. We are reminded of this by the little pieces of information that tell us how each of the characters will die at some time in the future, as if all of them are fated to die a violent death — let’s face it, we know their business is high risk. So used to seeing all the terrible ways each of the characters on the screen meet their maker, the audience at the cinema I saw this in laughed at the one minor character who was, according to the notice which flashed up, universally liked and died peacefully of old age. A rare fate in this world, and as it turns out, the fate of our protagonist Sheehan also.

The world of mobsters according to Scorsese

This feels and looks very much like a Scorsese film, although it’s hard to pin down exactly what that means. He is not a showy film maker, although he has made some very beautiful and also very stylized films, but only when it has been servicing the story overall. With this film he uses interweaving timelines as a device, because a singular narrative thread would not have so effectively gotten to the heart of this story, or told it with as much depth, and beyond that this film is told really very simply.

Anticipating the release of this movie, a lot has been said about Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese’s other films set in the world of the Cosa Nostra, both of which also starred Robert de Niro and Joe Pesci, as does the Irishman, and we shouldn’t forget one of Scorsese’s earliest films, Mean Streets, which, while not a full-blown gangster story like his later films, was set in a world of small-time mobsters and wannabes, people on the fringes of the serious mobsters. The Irishman is more in Goodfellas territory, which was also based on a true story and involved an Irish-American who worked alongside the Italian mobsters, but it’s not Goodfellas. With it’s narrative that passes through most of Sheeran’s life, it is about more than the drama and betrayal of Hoffa’s murder. It is about this man, a cold-blooded killer if ever there was one, who saw didn’t see what he did as murder, but as business. At the end of the movie, and the end of his life, we leave him old, fragile and entirely alone, his family have cast him out, his friends are all dead, and the door of his room left open, presumably to welcome his next visitor, death.