It’s easy to overlook this grimly long and truly gritty Scorsese epic – but you’d be missing out on one of the career-high performances of De Niro, Pesci and Pacino.
A real-life crime story, the 1950s East coast of America, the Cosa Nostra – we’ve heard it all before. When you mix these conventions with the Midas touch of Martin Scorsese, the Academy Award-winning director and one of Hollywood’s most celebrated filmmakers, you know you’re in for a grim, mobster masterpiece. The Irishman is just the latest in the catalogue of Scorsese’s wise guy movies. However, the media frenzy it whipped up with its limited theatrical release, coupled with a star-studded cast, may just make this film stand out in his already illustrious career.
The film takes place throughout the 20th century, primarily in Philadelphia. Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a World War Two veteran working as a meat truck driver in the 1950s, depicted as young as 24 years old. By chance, he crosses paths with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a mafioso who takes Sheeran under his wing. Frank uses his truck to carry out odd jobs and deliveries for Bufalino and soon Sheeran is introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a well-known trade union leader and influential figure. Connected to authoritative figures, Frank soon becomes a trade union official, powerful racketeer and ruthless mob hitman. We see his rise to power in jarring moments, many of which involve Frank displaying his ruthlessness and lack of compassion for anyone – even his friends. The film builds up from his early, innocent, truck driving days, to the highest point in his organised crime career – killing someone he valued as a close friend.
Where many directors would choose to end the film, Scorsese goes on to show his downfall. Sheeran faces jail time and the film digests into a bleak, melancholy and reflective one. After 3 and a half hours, we meet Frank back where we did at the start – from the comfort of his care home, recalling the story of his life to us.
The Irishman exemplifies the incredible attention to detail Scorsese has illustrated throughout his directing career. In one of the film’s key scenes, Frank carries out a hit on Joe Gallo, a mobster who indirectly killed a kingpin. We see from the outside the neon-lit signs of ‘Umberto’s Clam House’. Based on a true story, Scorsese not only details the exterior and interior of the restaurant exactly as it was in 1972, but even uses the same paintings, kitchen set up and wall decorations as existed in the actual building.
The Irishman packs in incredible detail and also caters for one of De Niro’s finest acting performances. He may be past his heyday, but he’s undoubtedly not past his sell-by date, as is well documented in another pivotal scene. Just a day after Frank kills his close friend, he phones his now widowed wife, who is unaware that Frank killed her husband. Scorsese uses a close-up shot of Frank’s anxious face – an effective move, as it displays Frank to the audience as a clearly nervous man, yet he’s desperately trying to hide it. The killing would haunt Sheeran for years to come and neither Scorsese nor De Niro does a bad job at showing just how much of a detrimental impact this has on him. Frank also has a guilty look on his face, which shows us the human, emotional side of him – he’s not an emotionless robot, this is simply ‘just business’. This is the key turning point in the narrative structure of the film, as after the killing, we quickly see Frank age, go to trial, and into the care home. There is no more killing after this phone call, merely the ageing process speeds up and we see Frank slowly deteriorate. His killing spree may have ended, but the effect it has on him will follow him to the grave – losing out on friends, family members and power.
What makes Scorsese’s film a masterpiece isn’t just the innovative digital de-ageing technology or dark mafia lore, but rather the way it carries us from a fast-paced, sprawling drama, to a sombre reflection on the bloodshed, distrust and betrayal. On the last night of his life, a now decrepit and ailing Frank Sheeran is left alone in his care home room after a conversation with a priest. As the priest leaves, Frank says,
“Hey, Father? Do me a favour? Don’t shut the door all the way. I don’t like that. Just leave it open a little bit.”
Sheeran demonstrates one of Hoffa’s key habits in this final scene, showing the incredible impact that old friend had on him. Even then, he refuses to express remorse or reveal details regarding his killings, despite his clear guilt. Psychologically numbed and deprived of the ability to speak with his daughter, Frank is worn out and washed up.
The Irishman is not just any old mob story, but a tale of the aftermath. Scorsese shows us the grit and the bloodshed and controversially, consequences of it all. That’s why The Irishman is a must-see, a true epic that grips the viewer from the fast pace of the first half, all the way through to the incredible tension and bleakness at the close.