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Just when I thought I was out, The Irishman pulls me back in


directed by Martin Scorsese

Scorsese’s dream cast and trademark tropes deliver a mob movie from the ageless.

Twenty-four years after he last directed Robert De Niro, in the exhilarating Casino, Martin Scorsese gets the band back together with De Niro on lead, and Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci and new recruit Al Pacino as the star-powered backing group.

Fittingly, this gang of septuagenarians (Keitel has hit 80) have reunited to tell a tale of mobsters and union power. At the heart of this lengthy and involved adaptation of Charles Brandt’s true-crime book, I Heard You Paint Houses, is Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro), an unassuming truck driver who became a hitman implicated in the 1975 murder of legendary Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).

That euphemistic book title cutely captures the almost cuddly bearness of De Niro’s character, who is alternately aged and de-aged thanks to startlingly subtle CGI.

It is thrilling to watch these doyens of classic cinema (this is De Niro’s ninth film with Scorsese) effortlessly recreating the types of characters we find so compelling. Pesci is stunningly assured – less frightening than his usual wild-eyed hot-head (see Goodfellas and Casino) while walking the line between wicked and wounded. Pacino, so grossly OTT as a Hollywood agent in Tarantino’s latest, is superbly nuanced as Hoffa. And De Niro, although his computer-rejuvenated eyes are a little distracting as he attempts to play a man 30 years his junior, is a revelation in a role that unnvervingly renders him decades younger than his contemporaries. It also demotes him below the likes of young bucks such as Bobby Cannavale, whom he would have overpowered earlier in his career.

But the film is long, as it traverses several decades of Sheeran’s busy career. At 200 minutes, it’s Scorsese’s lengthiest movie. So, it’s perhaps a blessing in disguise that it has the backing of Netflix – this very cinematic movie has only a limited time in cinemas before it’s available to subscribers of the streaming giant.

The Irishman is densely talky, only sporadically flashy, and potential fans will have to carve out the time to watch it carefully. I usually prefer the cosy womb of a theatre, where I am a captive viewer far from the remote control that tempts me to disrupt the director’s flow. Although films ought to satisfy on a single viewing, this is one that will doubtless improve on a second. So, maybe that pause button will come in handy.

Too much has been made of Anna Paquin’s minimal dialogue (as Sheeran’s beloved daughter), but Scorsese’s intention was to create Peggy as the all-seeing, ultimate judge of her father’s exploits. The character has plenty of screen time, and her stares and reaction shots speak far louder than words.

Now 77 himself, Scorsese’s flair has not diminished and the director’s tropes are present and accounted for: the whip-pans may move slightly slower nowadays, but there are tracking shots, a revisit to the Copacabana nightclub, and Welker White, who played the stroppy babysitter in Goodfellas, has graduated to play Hoffa’s ballsy wife, Jo. The voiceover even begins with, “When I was young …”, nicely evoking Henry Hill’s, “As far back as I can remember …” from Goodfellas.

But it’s actually closer in tone to Silence, Scorsese’s contemplative 2016 film about Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan. Which is befitting to the ageing gentleman behind it, and if one is prepared to sit quietly and do some work then The Irishman is a fine film. Because Marty’s not doing all the work for us.



Video: Netflix

This article was first published in the November 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.