A mob hitman recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Charles Brandt (book), Steven Zaillian (screenplay)
Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration Available
From the off, you know you’re in the hands of Martin Scorsese. As the song In the Still of the Night, by The Five Satins, plays, the camera weaves forward, tracking through corridors and round corners, taking you into the heart of the story. But this time it’s no nightclub we’re penetrating. It’s an old people’s home — and we eventually find our player, the Irishman, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), trapped in a wheelchair, a dying man in his eighties, white-haired and bloated.
Frank tells us his story, first as internal monologue and then speaking to us. So as it begins we know where this ends. “Even such is time which takes in trust / Our youth, our joys and all we have, / And pays us but with age and dust…”
The Irishman, brilliantly scripted by Steven Zaillian, is a faithful adaptation of an amazing book, originally published as I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt, based on five years of conversations with the real Frank Sheeran, towards the end of his life, in which he spoke about his involvement in decades of organised crime, both with the Mafia and with the Teamsters union, led by Jimmy Hoffa.
Sheeran, born in 1920, served 411 combat days in Europe in the Second World War, apparently becoming indifferent to killing. Afterwards, he worked as a truck driver before becoming an associate of Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino, who introduced him to Hoffa.
In Brandt’s book, much of which is in direct quotation, Sheeran casually reveals he was responsible for multiple murders, including the famously unsolved disappearance of Hoffa himself in 1975.
The appeal of this material to Scorsese, the master of the mob movie since Mean Streets in 1973, is obvious — and he has made from it an absolute summation of the form, with a classic cast. Scorsese is 76, as is De Niro and Joe Pesci, who is magnificent here, brought out of retirement to play the quietly spoken but lethal Bufalino, ordering murder with no more than a frown. Harvey Keitel, who has a more minor role as another mafia boss, is 80, while Al Pacino, sensationally energetic and raging as Jimmy Hoffa, is 79.
Yet the story goes back to Frank’s life in his late twenties and mid-fifties (the movie is a retrospect within a retrospect, as Frank recalls a road trip to Detroit he took with Bufalino that culminated in the killing of Hoffa, going further back from that to explain how his life took him to that point). To make this possible, Scorsese has used new digital “youthification” technology fro for his leads. It works up to a point.
What this technology still can’t disguise is that their bodies and movements have the stiffness and slowness of much older men (De Niro can’t recapture the frightening nervous energy he had back in the day).Yet for the purposes of this film, not only does that not matter, it works in a strange way to emphasise that this is a film about looking back in time, about the motion of memory, what is lost and cannot be recaptured.
Likewise, the impassivity of De Niro’s face in this role — blank and still, turned inward, a man lost to himself, a Mount Rushmore face — is absolutely right for this world where being told “it is what it is” is unambiguously a death sentence. There’s a moment when Hoffa embraces his nemesis and tells him he loves him, before fatally observing: “Frank, you never reveal how you feel.” When Bufalino orders the hit on Hoffa, at a motel breakfast, Frank’s face is itself a landscape of desolation.
The Irishman is three hours 29 minutes long and, despite the many scenes of violence, choreographed as expertly as ever by Scorsese and edited immaculately by Thelma Schoonmaker once more, it’s slow, as well as epic. Some may find its length and pace self-indulgent, and when it’s released on Netflix on November 27 the temptation will be to home-serialise or even speed through the show. That, though, would be to diminish it, to avoid the experience in absolute duration that it offers, its eloquence about what lasts and what does not (throughout the film as we meet the minor characters there are freeze-frames and proleptic obits, telling us when and how they eventually died).
And besides, just to be in the world of such expert film-making, in which every camera angle and movement has intent, every piece of music adds meaning (strange nobody else manages this so well, not even Tarantino), every face is expressive of a world, is a complete sensual pleasure. The interaction between de Niro and Pacino, in one of his finest ever performances, is unmissable. And it’s frequently shockingly funny, too.
In America, Sheeran’s claims in Brandt’s book that he was such a big hitter have been derided. Even the expression “to paint houses”, meaning blood-splattering murder, has been said to be otherwise completely unknown. But this doesn’t matter either. Scorsese makes no truth claims for the film. “In the end, who knows what really went on. This is a version thereof, so to speak. The truth is in the relationships and how those relationships play out within the world of the men, our world.” It is what it is. A brand new classic.
– DAVID SEXTON, London Evening Standard