RATING: **** (OUT OF FOUR)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jesse Plemons and Jack Huston
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian
Running time: 209 minutes
Never mind about all the people Frank Sheeran murdered.
The big thing on the hitman’s conscience is his troubled relationship with one of his daughters.
Sheeran — a real-life union heavy and mob assassin — is the focus of Martin Scorsese’s completely immersive new crime epic, The Irishman. A three-and-a-half-hour meditation on personal loyalty, organized crime and recent American history, The Irishman involves a superb cast in mesmerizing storytelling.
This is peak Scorsese — all manner of terrible things made wonderful to look at.
The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses, and it follows Frank Sheeran over nearly 60 years. Sheeran’s criminal claim to fame is his involvement in the disappearance and death of union leader Jimmy Hoffa.
We meet Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in a nursing home at the end of his life. He narrates parts of his own story, which is a sort of Horatio Alger mob tale; the seeds of his rise in the crime world seem to be planted in WWII service that leaves Sheeran adept at, and unbothered by, killing people.
(How “painting houses” came to be a mob euphemism for killing people involves bullets through the head and colourful blood spatter on walls; yergghh. The violence in The Irishman is understated and personal, and next-level disturbing as a result.)
Sheeran’s tale unfolds over the course of a three-day drive to Detroit to attend a wedding. He drives in the company of his friend and mentor, crime family kingpin Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives.
As Bufalino, Pesci plays the wise, quiet, moral centre of the mob universe, a contradiction in terms that kind of sums up the whole picture. The movie involves an extraordinary cast putting in flawless performances, and even so, Pesci manages to be a standout; something about his physical stillness and unwavering gaze is beyond anxiety-inducing.
As the road trip progresses, the story of Sheeran’s involvement with the union and with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) unfolds. Other stories come out of that tale. The underworld and the rest of the world are not separate from one another; here is the mob’s offhand involvement in the Bay of Pigs incident, for example, or in John Kennedy’s election and in his death.
As always, Scorsese pulls a viewer completely into the world he has created. The cast includes Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Jack Huston, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons and Kathrine Narducci, not to mention the usual arresting collection of unique secondary players and faces that the filmmaker never fails to produce.
Anyway, consider The Irishman an entirely transporting experience.
The Irishman opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this Friday. It will expand to additional Canadian cities in the coming weeks before streaming on Netflix Nov. 27.