By Nick Maylor
At three and a half hours, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is an epic epilogue to a story it feels like the veteran director has been telling his entire career. It’s also the best film of 2019. Sadly, at this point in time, there seems little chance that Scorsese or the film will wall away with Oscar gold in the major categories. However, The Irishman is a film that people will be discussing for decades, long after we’re all dead.
Based on the Charles Brant book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, Scorsese’s crime epic reunites him with his frequent collaborators Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, the latter having come out of acting retirement to appear in the film. The movie also marks the first collaboration between Scorsese and Al Pacino, making it a legendary ensemble piece with the finest and most noteworthy actors of the crime genre all working together at this late stage in their careers.
De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a teamster union man and self-confessed hitman for the mob. Working under his mentor and close friend Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), Sheeran relays the story of how he rose in the ranks of the mob and became good friends with teamster union President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Sheeran narrates the story from a chair in his rest home, nearing the end of his life. The story unfolds about how Hoffa’s braggadocious behaviour and penchant for talking a big game, came into conflict with his friends in organized crime. Sheeran tries desperately to warn his friend to tread lightly, hinting that his actions could put him in a dangerous position. Hoffa believes himself to be untouchable.
De Niro is flawless as Frank Sheeran, a blue-collar war veteran who becomes entangled in the world of organized crime. De Niro is stoic and sublime in every moment. The greatest scenes are his reactions, the silent contemplative moments where the pain and turmoil read clear right on De Niro’s face. The strong, silent type, Sheeran is portrayed by De Niro who, while in familiar territory, delivers a heart-wrenching performance amongst his best.
Pacino is also brilliant as Hoffa, leaning into his strengths when it comes to being loud, brash and the ultimate bully. Under the direction of Scorsese, Pacino delivers some of the finest work of his career. Certainly his best work on the big screen since Donnie Brasco (1997). As Hoffa, Pacino steals every scene he is in playing the Teamster’s Union President. Becoming close friends with Frank Sheeran, Hoffa becomes increasingly arrogant and volatile with his rhetoric, oblivious to the swinging axe that may soon fall on him. The chemistry between De Niro and Pacino is pitch-perfect and the tale becomes truly tragic as Frank desperately tries to convince Jimmy to tone down his rhetoric. Pacino soars in the film.
Joe Pesci came out of acting retirement to play Russell Bufalino and in doing so, delivers the finest performance of his career. As opposed to the off-the-wall psychopaths we are used to seeing Pesci play under Scorsese, Bufalino is calm, reserved and even elegant as a man, yet he is equally terrifying with his power and presence. Pesci’s chemistry with De Niro is as obvious as it has been for years as the two actors have worked together several times. Pesci shows that even though he has been out of the game for almost a decade, he hasn’t lost any of his skill or instincts as an actor. A truly mesmerizing performance.
Equally good are the supporting players. Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino, Russell’s cousin and mob attorney. Anna Paquin in a near-silent role as Peggy Sheeran, Frank’s daughter is mesmerizing with her quiet, accusatory eyes, always knowing that Frank is up to something insidious. Harvey Keitel has a brief role as mobster Angela Bruno where he is just as terrifying as Pesci is as Bufalino.
The music, the scope and the storytelling are all top-notch in what might be one of the finest films of the last decade. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, The Irishman is a film for the ages.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor