For years, Gangs of New York was the project that was supposed to reunite Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese for the ninth time: after all, their director/actor collaboration is one of the most iconic in all of cinema history. For various factors ,that never happened, and Daniel Day-Lewis took on the role that was initially intended for De Niro, Bill the Butcher Personally, I think Scorsese picked the right actor and made perhaps his most underrated film. Gangs of New York was a critical hit when it was released, but over time the respect it deserves has waned. A few years later, The Irishman was announced as the reunion of all reunions, with Joe Pesci coming out of semi-retirement and even Al Pacino signed on. Scorsese was friendly with Pacino for years, but they had never worked together because the planets never quite aligned for the right project.
The Irishman is a film about old men, made by old men, with both characters and Scorsese looking back on their lives. De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a truck driver turned hitman for Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino. Sheeran ends up working for the leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The euphemism used when Sheeran carries out contract killings is “painting houses”: the film’s onscreen title is I Heard You Paint Houses, which is the same title as the nonfiction book by Charles Brandt that it’s based on. The film is wrapped around Sheeran in his days stuck in a wheelchair as he comes to terms with how he has lived his life and whether all the violence he perpetuated was really worth it, including his claim that he was the man who took out Jimmy Hoffa, which led to Hoffa’s “disappearance” in 1975. It’s a very mediative film, much in the line with another long-gestating project from Scorsese, his previous film Silence.
Scorsese has been forever tarnished as a director of “gangster films,” but while he made a few—and probably the best one ever made, Goodfellas—but he has dipped his toes in almost every genre except Science Fiction (although he circled Blade Runner during the ’70s!). The film is therefore as much a reckoning for Scorsese as for the character of Sheeran: Sheeran must come to terms with his past, but Scorsese has to ask himself whether he glamourised gangsters and violence or not. I personally think he always showed what attracts young men to the lifestyle, but also the consequences. Still, he felt like he needed a final, definitive statement to cap off that side of his filmmaking. The violence is deliberately muted, without any of the flashiness of Casino or Goodfellas, which makes the inevitable hit on Hoffa all the more shocking. He doesn’t even use any songs from his beloved The Rolling Stones on the soundtrack, with mainly just doo-wop and lounge singers in the film’s soundtrack plus Scorsese’s long-time music supervisor Robbie Roberson from The Band supplying some additional score.
The weak point is probably the Jimmy Hoffa stuff: you get the gist of why, as Frank says, he was as “big as Elvis and The Beatles” and the good side of Hoffa’s power, but also his deep corruption due to his mob links. Pacino is a little too wiry for Hoffa, who was quite stocky, something Pacino has never been. He does his best as Hoffa, even if it’s at times a little over the top, but never falls into his “Hoo-ah!” territory of overacting. Jack Nicholson played Hoffa in Danny DeVito’s woefully underrated Hoffa in perhaps his last truly great performance. DeVito, who is a Teamster himself, nails both Hoffa and the politics around him even better than Scorsese does.
Scorsese is more concerned with the character study of Frank and the gangsters involved with Hoffa than with the politics—the politics of the film are spot on, but they take a backburner. Scorsese has never been an explicitly “political filmmaker” because he understands that in some cases a movie can be bogged down by politics instead of focusing on universal themes, although by watching his films you get a pretty good idea of his own politics. Gangs of New York, for instance, brilliantly shows the initial utopian promise of America quickly fading into rampant corruption in all areas, with the powers at be using ethical rivalries to pacify the poor.
The much talked about de-aging technique used to have De Niro, Pacino and Pesci be able to play younger versions of their characters is something you get used to for the most part. The WW2 flashback looks a little too “Call of Duty,” and De Niro in his mid ’70s doesn’t move like he did back then, so some acts of violence make younger Frank seem prematurely geriatric. They could’ve used younger actors for these roles, and it would’ve probably worked better, but surprisingly for somebody who is such a classicist Scorsese isn’t afraid to embrace new technology when the project requires it.
In closing, The Irishman may not the crowning jewel of Scorsese’s career, but it sums up all his obsessions in a relatively breezy three and a half hours. The majority of the supporting cast are players from TV shows Scorsese has been involved with in the last decades, Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl, such as Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham and Jack Huston. When the film came out there was much controversy about the fact that Anna Paquin only has seven lines in the entire film, but her performance just proves that you can say everything you need to get across with just body gestures… it’s called acting. Marty’s long-time collaborator Harvey Keitel also pops up for a couple scenes and steals it. I could have used more Keitel, but so could any film.
Criterion Collection, which has become the defacto distributor of Netflix-released films deemed “worthy” enough to get the home video treatment, has compiled a two-disc Blu-Ray set. The first disc is just the film, given its length, with the second disc including a making-of documentary, roundtable discussion with Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, video essay from critic Farran Smith Nehme, some more featurettes, and archival interviews with Sheeran and Hoffa, alongside teaser and theatrical trailers. The booklet includes an essay from Geoffrey O’Brien.