“Where is Jimmy Hoffa?” was a question at the forefront of many Americans’ minds in August of 1975. Many wild theories were produced after the disappearance of the former Teamsters union president on July 30, 1975. Some are credible, such as the idea that he was killed by the Mafia and incinerated. Others are more wild, such as the theory that his remains lay underneath the end zone at the former Giants Stadium in New Jersey. For almost 30 years, Hoffa’s disappearance was a mystery, until Frank Sheeran, an Irish American hitman for the Bufalino Mafia family, came fourth in 2003, claiming to have killed Hoffa. His life story was later turned into a highly controversial true crime book, I Heard You Paint Houses. Now, Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest American directors working today, has adapted it into a sprawling yet intimate, somber but relentlessly entertaining epic. The Irishman chronicles Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) life with the mob, from when he first met Russel Bufalino (Joe Pesci) at a roadside Stuckey’s in Pennsylvania, to his rise to the top of the mob and friendship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), all the way to the end of his life. The story Sheeran presented in Houses is a hotly contested one, but Scorsese turned this “true” crime story into a bittersweet sendoff to a genre of which he was once the primary innovator.
The Irishman is proof that Scorsese’s filmmaking continues to evolve. Frank is a much colder, harsher protagonist than anyone we have seen in other Scorsese films. Although both Goodfellas and Casino guide us through their stories through the viewpoint of morally repugnant human beings, they never kill anyone on screen. In The Irishman, Scorsese has no qualms about showing Frank killing people; we see in no uncertain terms what it means to paint houses. Frank is a very impersonal killer; he kills for hire, having no problem with shooting people multiple times in the face in the middle of the street, only to run away and dump the gun in the river. That’s another way the violence in The Irishman differs from that in other Scorsese films. Where in Goodfellas and Casino, violence is very heat of the moment; in this film, killing isn’t a way of getting revenge, it’s a way of getting things done. Scorsese also strays from his usual path in other ways. There is not a traditional “Scorsese soundtrack” filled with hard rock classics. Here, The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” is the only song of note, appearing three times throughout the film. Despite The Irishman boasting a 209-minute runtime (3 1/2 hours), it never drags. Every actor is at the top of their game, with De Niro in one of his best performances ever, and Pacino in perhaps his most reserved role to date. Even Joe Pesci, who typically plays the role of the little angry guy, is surprisingly laid-back, playing the calm and reserved Russell Bufalino, a mob boss who organized the famous meeting of the Five Families of New York in 1957. Even some of the minor roles, such as Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino, and Jesse Plemons as Chuckie O’Brien, Jimmy’s foster son, are all extremely captivating and well-acted.
Above all else, The Irishman is a bold film: it isn’t concerned so much with the characters’ actions, as it is with the consequences of those actions. The camera lingers at certain points throughout the film, sometimes for uncomfortably long amounts of time, to make the characters’ actions and their consequences appear more powerful. Scorsese has been often criticized for just making gangster films, and with this one, he certainly is making a gangster movie, but this is much more than a greatest hits album. From the opening shot, the film has a bittersweet tone; this may well be Scorsese’s goodbye to the gangster genre, and if it is truly goodbye, he’s going out on a high note.