Grackles review The Irishman

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Reviewed by Scott Ray and Charlie Riccardelli 

In The Irishman, legendary director Martin Scorsese returns to the world of gangsterism that he’s explored in several of his most iconic films, but don’t mistake his latest with the kinetic, bloody opuses like Goodfellas or Casino. No, The Irishman is more restrained, a 3.5-hour meditation on death and the haunting realization of what we leave behind when we’ve failed to live a righteous existence. For a director who has made movies about Jesus and The Dalai Lama, this might be his most religious examination yet—a funeral mass for someone who is in no rush to face St. Peter.

Based on a true story, the film follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a WWII vet and truck driver whose willingness to follow orders, work hard, and keep his mouth shut help him get recruited and rise through the ranks as a soldier for Pennsylvania mobsters. Soon, Frank finds himself working as a right-hand man to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the legendary twentieth-century Teamster president who famously went missing in the 1970s. It’s safe to say that Frank will have more than a small part in the mysterious fate of Hoffa, a part that will weigh on his soul for the rest of his life. Because of his association with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), Frank crosses paths with some of America’s worst criminals and most tragic figures. Like an angel of death, nothing good comes from the places he’s been.

Charlie Riccardelli: The Irishman is based on the nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, a title taken from the first thing Jimmy Hoffa ever said to Frank Sheeran. To paint houses means you kill people for a living – painting the wall with the blood spatter that comes with a gangland murder. Killing is Sheeran’s legacy, and how many people want that to be how they are remembered? He begins his adult life as a soldier, where killing Nazis was just what you did, but where that war was a necessary evil, there’s nothing good to come from what Frank does on behalf of the criminal underworld.

The lasting sins that Frank and other criminals commit is at the heart of the film. Scorsese is maybe the most Catholic of all directors, and he’s always made the allure and destructive nature of sin a central focus of his work, though this is the first time he’s shown the lasting effect it leaves. When he beats a man in front of his young daughter, he cannot undo the image of himself he’s created in her mind. When he kills, he cannot unwash his hands of death. Scorsese, who just turned 77, has made a film that profoundly deals with cruel realities of growing old in a way that few filmmakers ever get to do. If this were his last film (and I sure hope it’s not), it would be one hell of a summation of his career.

Scott Ray: What’s so compelling to me is that while this film is intensely concerned with the weight of Frank’s sins in an overtly Catholic way, it still works if you discount the religion. Put aside the obsession the film has with the accumulation of mortal sin after mortal sin, with the hefty bar tab waiting for Sheeran at the end of a depraved lifetime filled with perfunctory violence—you don’t have to be Catholic or Christian or religious at all to see the way his actions leave a wake behind him, especially in the way his family perceives him. Beyond the idea of sin, this is a film about looking back and feeling bottomless, paralyzing regret at a life poorly lived. Sheeran is an extreme example of a mislived life, but it isn’t hard to reflect on your own choices and decisions as you watch the time slip away from him, faster than he might have ever believed it would as a younger man.

Scorsese is known and often criticized for the violence in his films. He’s accused of romanticizing the mobster life. I always wonder if the people leveling those accusations ever watched a Scorsese film until the end. The Irishman gives us clues all through the movie as to where this kind of life leads. The gruesome fate of almost every side character is revealed in casual subtitled freeze frames at their appearance. This isn’t a spoiler at all; it plays comically in the film. In this world you either die in jail or, much more likely, your friends kill you.

CR: Many of Scorsese’s films have been misunderstood by audiences, I think because he’s not a filmmaker who spoon-feeds his intentions. I’ve always been baffled that anyone could walk away from something like Goodfellas or Casino and think it’s anything but a condemnation of some truly despicable people. What makes those subtitles so effective in The Irishman is that it hammers home that these guys die brutally or end up in jail. In a scene lifted right from the book, the older Sheeran that narrates the film finds it hard to believe his lawyer would die of old age and not from a hit. Criminals don’t retire and collect a pension.

The Irishman is almost like the anti-It’s a Wonderful Life. In that film, James Stewart’s George Bailey learns the long reach of the good he brought to the world, but for Sheeran it’s all the bad. That bad is not limited to murder, but also his absenteeism as a father, theft, or devoting his life to criminals that even Frank’s young daughter can see through. The impact of the passing years would not be as profoundly moving without these older actors in the parts. In early scenes when the digitally de-aged De Niro is supposed to be a man half his age, it can be jarring, but as he gets older we really take in how the years have weathered the man. It also helps to have these veteran actors who have a career of crime films that inform these performers’ roles. I thought of the recent series finale of The Deuce which tackles similar themes, but with a younger actor made old. As moving as it was, you can’t quite shake the fact that you are watching someone who’s physically fit fumble their way through behavior they just can’t believably convey.

SR: The digital de-aging wasn’t really effective for me. Sometimes, particularly referring to Pesci or De Niro, I wasn’t sure where de-aging stopped and aging makeup began, but it didn’t really bother me. I’ll agree there were times when De Niro’s age showed in the way he walked or carried his weight. Like you, I found the payoff of the performances later in the film’s narrative, when the age of the characters aligned closer with the actors, to be worth the suspension of disbelief required for earlier moments in the film. This is perhaps why Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa was the performance of the film for me. Though Pacino is much older than Hoffa was when he disappeared, we mainly see Hoffa in the same time period. I suppose there must have been some digital de-aging for Pacino to play Hoffa, but I found his presence as Hoffa as charismatic as the Teamster boss himself must have been.

Speaking of aging, the The Irishman felt like a more mature director’s Goodfellas or Casino. It’s unmistakably Scorsese, but an even more subdued and reflective Scorsese. I said a similar thing about Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood earlier this year—it was unmistakably Tarantino, but a more measured Tarantino, one more aware of the time passing by. The Irishman moves slower than his earlier films. It spans decades like other Scorsese films, but it moves more like a feature of the landscape, like a river. It meanders. It feels like someone telling you a story, with all the deviations that come with that.

CR: Pacino is so locked into this film. Not since Insomnia back in 2002 can I remember him feeling so committed to the role. Back in the early 1990s, Jack Nicholson played the title role in Hoffa, and even he, an equal to Pacino’s talents, couldn’t crack the Teamster president’s mythic persona. Maybe it’s his years of performing Shakespeare on the stage, but Pacino has a Lear-like downfall that’s tragic in it’s unjustness and deep personal arrogance. Hoffa is the only major character in the film who stands for something. He does care about his union, even if he’ll go to illegal measures to keep it his own. He loves his family and friends. He shows gratitude to those around him. The tragedy is that he is expendable, so wicked men can continue to live comfortably.

I’ve heard De Niro’s Sheeran criticized for being the main character because he’s not as interesting as everyone around him. He may not have the dynamic personality of a Hoffa, but isn’t that the point? Hoffa lives for something and Sheeran lives for nothing except getting by. You get the sense that Sheeran doesn’t see himself as bad as fellow gangster ‘Crazy’ Joe Gallo, but De Niro plays him as such a banal evil that rarely gets depicted this in-depth if at all. It’s like a feature length depiction of Clemenza in The Godfather committing a murder, but he’s more focused on making sure he gets his wife’s cannoli out of the crime scene.

SR: There’s something in that banality. There’s something in the unremarkable nature of Sheeran. He claims involvement in an improbable amount of infamous Mafia events of lore, but even in the retelling of his own life story, he’s more of a side character. Perhaps that’s why Sheeran becomes such a powerfully metaphorical everyman, despite being basically a psychopathic killer. It’s all so mundane to him. He was doing his job. Just like the killing he did in the army, he was following orders. He’s measured out his life in “painted houses.” When he looks back at his life, his work and the poor decisions involved in it took him away from his family and children, from the things he took for granted.

The Irishman would be a perfect bookend for one of the most influential American directors still working in cinema. It is a culmination of all of Scorsese’s obsessions and interests he’s shared over the years. He examines the day to day grind of soldiers in organized crime, critiques toxic masculinity, and ruminates on what a life of sin does to the soul of a person. Fortunately, Scorsese is already at work on his next film, so this won’t be his last chapter, no matter how funereal and final The Irishman at times seems.

Scott Ray is from Mississippi. He is a PhD student in fiction at the University of North Texas. His work has appeared in Hobart, Measure, Jellyfish Review and elsewhere. He is the Production Editor at American Literary Review.

Charlie Riccardelli graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and earned his M.F.A. at William Paterson University. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Denton, Texas where he is a professor for the Department of Technical Communication, as well as their academic advisor. He previously served as an editor/writer for American Microreviews and Interviews and assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including film articles for PopMatters and Hobart.