A spoiler is what it is.
The big question with this movie, based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt from the confessions of hitman Frank Sheeran, is whether it’s all true. I’m going to plead the fifth on that one and go for an even bigger question: Does it make for a great movie? The truth is I was glad to see this on Netflix, because at three hours and a half, I can only manage to do that with a pause button, a fridge and a restroom within reach. That being said, this is a rather absorbing film to watch – in the comfort of your own living room.
The Irishman was directed and produced by Martin Scorcese based on the screenplay by Steven Zaillian. The title of the original book by former prosecutor, Charles Brandt, I Heard You Paint Houses, is referenced in the film as mob speak for the role of hitmen. The movie focuses on the rise (or fall) of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) from truck driver to errand boy to hitman for the Mafia. For that it traverses along different time periods with Frank on a nursing home, on a road trip with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) to see Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and the younger Frank beginning his career with the mob.
This is a magnificent film to watch in one sitting, although at its rather extensive length it might turn off the casual viewer. Violence is not framed as particularly dynamic. We’re not watching some sort of artful assassination but rather brutal executions. They’re mostly depicted in wide camera shots, where the blood spatters but the hitman keeps on walking. It makes for a more cold and less glamourized depiction of murder. At the same time, the music is non-intrusive. We don’t the regular cues from action films that we should be thrilled or excited for what’s coming up.
The storytelling takes more of the foreground, with cinematography depicting the smokey bars, the dimly lit restaurants, the bright heat of the sunny Florida road trip and the dark and dank alleyways. Casual chats intermingles with mob business as Frank and Russell share their worries, talk about their families and basically have a relationship more akin to old friends than mob boss and right hand man. The movie takes the time to establish their rapport a long time before Hoffa comes in the picture, something I appreciated in the long run.
The performances are outstanding and engaging. DeNiro is the loyal go-to-guy that has both an innocence and raw brutality about him. He’s the goon, really, but he’s effective and never questions his orders. He does show a more diplomatic side later in the film, but let’s not get to that yet. I think I was enthralled more by Pesci, who plays the head of the Bufalino family as a rather cool-headed and serene negotiator. He’s calm, he does not get hot-headed unlike those around him, and he always knows the best thing for business. You’d think Pesci would be chosen to play the loose canon, but he doesn’t. He’s almost zen-like calm, rarely ever losing his temper and seemingly one step ahead of everyone else.
It’s Pacino who enters the picture later as Jimmy Hoffa and then you could argue he steals the film. That being said, I wasn’t particularly keen on the devotion that DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran has for Hoffa. Not that DeNiro’s performance is any less good, but the whole act of trying to act as the mediator between Hoffa and the mob becomes almost a little tiresome even as it starts. Pacino’s Hoffa seems to be almost begging for a fight. It’s supposed that he’s also charismatic enough to charm Frank’s family, specially daughter Peggy (played when older by Anna Paquin) but I didn’t see it.
It’s a very long film, to the point that it almost feels like two different ones. I think Frank’s rise through the ranks and establishing his dynamic with Russell Bufalino was probably my favorite part of the film. Once Hoffa comes into the picture, I found myself almost waiting for the outcome to play out. It’s here that the length starts to affect the film, as going into another failed attempt to reconcile Hoffa with the mafia seems one too many. Harvey Keitel is also here as Angelo Bruno, but his role is only limited to a few scenes. I guess I also have to mention the de-aging technology here, but the best thing I could say it that it is not blatantly obvious so it does its job.
Selectively recommended for an audience willing and able to take on the runtime, but specially for fans of crime films – specially mob ones. I believe casual fans might need an introduction to Scorcese first and this is not the most convenient film to jump into. Apparently Joe Pesci came out of acting retirement for this film and I think his performance is worth the ticket. Definitely not for children, families or as a popcorn flick. This is definitely a niche movie but one that can stand with some of Scorcese’s best. Better watch it on Netflix as you will have the freedom to decide your own breaks.
That will do for now.