REVIEW: THE IRISHMAN is Scorsese’s captivating epilogue to his exploration of the life of the mafioso on film


Taken along with GOODFELLAS and CASINO, THE IRISHMAN explores the melancholy and regret in the life of a former mob hitman set against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the Teamsters Union.

Early on in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, were introduced to Jimmy Conway, an Irish truck hijacker, and gangster who styles himself The Irishman in the mob, flaunting his wealth and position in the Mafia and the importance and respect it affords him. We’re told Jimmy, played by Robert DeNiro, couldn’t be older than his late 20’s as played by the almost-then 50-year-old DeNiro and we buy it because of DeNiro’s aplomb and personality.

29 years later, DeNiro plays another Irish mobster in his 30’s and the namesake player in Scorsese’s The Irishman, based on Frank Sheeran’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, set against the backdrop of the rise in power of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) from the 1950s to his disappearance in the 1970s. DeNiro plays Sheeran, a Teamster truck driver who steals and sells stolen meat he trucks on the side to the mob. He is caught and defended by lawyer Bill Buffalino (Ray Romano), the brother of connected crime figure Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci). Buffalino takes a shine to Sheeran and he brings him into the Northeastern Pennsylvania Mafia, which causes his family life to suffer and shift as he loses the favor of his eldest daughter Peggy. Along the way, Russell asks Sheeran to solve some issues for Jimmy Hoffa, who also takes Frank under his wing and develops a close relationship with his family; setting up a divided loyalty between himself and Russell and his duty to Hoffa as a friend. This becomes tested as Hoffa’s actions threaten the mob’s relationship with the Teamsters and their cash flow.

While The Departed is my favorite of Scorsese’s gangster epics, it’s my core belief that his best overall films are those with Pesci and DeNiro at their heart. The Irishman plays much like the third part of a saga starting with Goodfellas and Casino and ending here; with Pesci playing against type as the wise and levelheaded mob boss and DeNiro as something of the man caught in the middle serving two masters but wanting to appease both. The film uses the same voice narrative as Goodfellas and Casino, with DeNiro narrating the whole story rather than the dueling narrative of Casino. Sheeran is something like Henry Hill in Goodfellas; learning the ropes of the mob life but narrating his tale from a place of regret at the loneliness this life has left him in and the resignation of the inevitability of a death he knows is imminent and will go unmourned. It goes without saying that Pesci and DeNiro are doing career work here; with DeNiro doing his strongest work in years and Pesci delivering one of his strongest performances ever as Buffalino. Pacino is all sizzle here, delivering the kind of over the top stylized role we expect from him, but it’s his effortless chemistry with DeNiro that really makes the role work.

The other big question around the film is the use of CGI as digital makeup to make the lapse of time convincing. While swagger and affectation worked three decades ago for DeNiro, that’s not so much the case anymore. While jarring at first, you get used to it, though you’re never really convinced that you’re seeing DeNiro in his 30’s. The choice to put DeNiro in blue contacts doesn’t help in suspending your disbelief. DeNiro has lived a life and its very hard to show him as a spry man when he’s pushing 80. That being said, the film’s best scenes are when we have DeNiro playing an older man and are the most affecting.

The Irishman is a late-career masterpiece by Scorsese and Steven Zaillian. The film clocks in at almost 4 hours, but the time flies by and you’re sucked in by all-time work by three of the greatest actors to ever grace the screen. My main complaint stems from the great actors who have roles in the film but are given almost nothing to do like Jesse Plemons and Anna Paquin, but given the story told and the names that are there, it makes sense why some have to be bit players in service of the larger tale being told.