Years in the making and decades in the narrative, The Irishman (titled onscreen as “I Heard You Paint Houses”) is Martin Scorsese’s latest epic crime drama, telling the life and confessions of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. Though it doesn’t feel it’s 3 ½ hour run time and the drama is beefy enough to fill it, it also never feels like enough excitement or emotion occurs within the film to justify it’s length.
The story focuses on Frank Sheeran, a WWII Veteran and truck driver who slowly becomes wrapped up working for various mobsters and crime families, including Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa. The story spans from flashbacks in World War Two right up to Sheeran’s death in 2003, and is based on the 2004 biography written about Sheeran’s confessions. The film takes its name from the mob code “to paint houses” meaning to kill people and paint a wall with their blood.
Robert DeNiro stars as Sheeran, with Al Pacino as Hoffa and Joe Pesci as Bufalino, and it’s almost redundant to say it but all three of them are just stunning. Their characterisations throughout are brilliant, and even at their age they can still play the tough-guy personas they’ve been doing for years.
DeNiro also narrates the film as Sheeran, and his narration is wonderfully natural and realistic, with soft afflictions and imperfections making it seem as if he’s telling a personal story just to you. Often, Al Pacino is playing a hilariously angry caricature of himself, and calls people “c*cksuckers” at least 20 times. Joe Pesci, who came out of his retirement for the role, is still the same tough guy he’s always been and doesn’t seem to have changed since Casino, though he is certainly softer than his angrier past characters.
The film also stars Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino, an American attorney and cousin of Russell; Bobby Cannavale as mobster Skinny Razor; Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno, head of the Philadelphia mob; Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s daughter Peggy; and the always amazing Stephen Graham, once again hiding his thick scouse accent playing mobster Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano.
Of course, what is key about this movie is the technical achievement of telling a story spanning 60 years with the same actors throughout. This film utilises state-of-the-art CGI de-ageing techniques to make Robert DeNiro look far younger than he is, and it must be said that for the most part, the effects are a stunning achievement. Though mildly distracting at first, it soon just becomes another story telling tool for Scorsese to help tell his narrative, and this means the odd shot here or there that doesn’t quite work can be excused.
The film’s scale is monumental, both in terms of narrative and in terms of settings. It seems like there are hundreds of single locations being used in the film, and on several occasions huge practical sets appear for only one scene. The costuming, set design and cinematography work very well together and really help tell the wide-spanning narrative as effectively as possible.
Cleverly, Scorsese has built the film to have constant momentum. Unlike modern lengthy films like Avengers: Endgame which is distinctively broken into three parts, The Irishman is a lengthy film without obvious pause points. Clearly Scorsese knew how his audience would be intending to watch his film, and has crafted it in a way that will force them to tap into their ‘binging’ nature, rather than going mad with the pause button.
So then, with all these factors, it’s unfortunate that the film didn’t really go anywhere. Or rather, for 3 ½ hours, I wish it had gone further. There’s a nice splattering of blood through the film, but similar to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, this is a mood piece as much as it is a thrilling drama, with not as much action as you’d expect.
Overall, if you have the time, The Irishman is definitely worth a watch. Like all Scorsese films, it’s lavish in its length, themes and scale, and, with the help of some crafty CGI work, sports some stunning performances from actors who are past their prime but still on the absolute top of their game. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s still a fascinating watch.
Scorsese has of course been in the news recently for his public denouncing of the Marvel franchise and similar films, stating that they’re “not cinema” and that they’re in fact “theme park rides”. While The Irishman certainly stands up to his definition of ‘cinema’, I must admit that sometimes, I don’t mind a rollercoaster…