“I heard you paint houses.” And, no, I’m not talking about housework. Apparently this is a phrase that mobsters use when inquiring the availabilities and willingness of a hitman. This phrase bottles up the gore and grit of mobs and gangs into a disarmingly gentle five word phrase. Scorsese’s ability to balance the humanity and horror of the arc of a gangster’s life is what makes The Irishman such an illustrious and impressive film.
The Irishman, the twenty-fifth feature film on which he has served as director, is Martin Scorsese’s crowning narrative of the gangsters that have inspired him for so much of his career. The film is a tender look at the rise, peak, and graceful decline of a mobster. Led by the incomparable Robert De Niro, the film anchors the grittiness of mob life with nuanced looks at the families behind the gangsters and the great reckoning of sin before the kings head to their graves. As one of the greatest actors of all time, an incredible performance from Robert De Niro us as surprising as a roasted turkey on Thanksgiving. The Irishman has a daunting runtime of about three-and-a-half hours, but De Niro’s portrayal of real life mobster Frank Sheeran steers the film on a steady, and ultimately fulfilling, course. The film is told through flashbacks with De Niro recounting his character’s history via voice-overs or documentary-esque interviews. With a little assistance from de-aging technology, De Niro expertly hits every note of the aging mobster. He’s at once the broken and repentant father, the ruthless hitman, and the bright-eyed new kid on the block. Likewise, Joe Pesci (who plays Russell Bufalino) and Al Pacino (who plays Jimmy Hoffa) deliver some of their best moments to date in this film. Pesci’s fatherly wisdom shines through his performance, while Pacino’s portrayal floats somewhere between the hysteric and the naïve. All three actors, who should all have no trouble scooping up Oscar nominations, give the audience a peek into the fathers, husbands, and humans behind the kingpins of the mob scene. This is a triumvirate of some of the greatest actors to ever grace a screen; their chemistry and raw talent simply elevate an already well-written film.
Scorsese’s direction is, as per usual, awe-inspiring. His gentle vision of an aging gangster reflecting on his sins and triumphs is simply beautiful. Through his direction, the de-aging technology does not overpower or distract from the magic happening on screen. Instead, his guidance over the film’s editing helps the overarching narrative remain seamless. In the vein of the film’s technical aspects, the subtle opulence of the costume design and the near-perfect production design definitely deserve some recognition come awards season. The screenplay, written by Steven Zaillian, balances comedic moments with the the wistful glow of age and the imbrued nature of the lifestyle. Zaillian handles the rise and decline of the Kennedy dynasty and the great fall of our principal mobsters with biting sarcasm and delicate love. The only drawback of the screenplay, if there is any at all, is the character of Peggy, the daughter of Frank Sheeran. Peggy is the primary lens through which the disconnect between Frank and his children, and his general shortcomings as a parent and husband, are explored. Understandably, Peggy’s character is not as fleshed out as it could be earlier in the film. Nevertheless, the time jump warrants some more depth to her character. Anna Paquin does the best she can with what she’s given, but this trend of female characters as plot devices as opposed to fully-realized roles (Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood) is getting old. The film could have benefitted from tightening the second hour and strengthening Peggy’s character to make the three hour runtime less of an issue.
The Irishman is arguably Scorsese at his best: a seasoned filmmaker who is more concerned with humanity and mortality than ever before. This is, without a doubt, one of the best films of the year. Scorsese has flipped the very genre of gangster films on its head; this a story about family, failure, age, contrition, and repentance. The idea of painting houses will never be the same after this film.