In 1950s America Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) works as a truck driver delivering frozen meat. When he starts selling off some of his cargo to local mobster Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), he gets caught by his employers. Saved in court by lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) Frank catches the attention of Russell (Joe Pesci), the head of a Pennsylvanian crime family and who takes him under his wing. However, when casual favours become more serious, Frank finds himself sucked into a life of crime.
… In a film where people tell other people what others wouldn’t like to say in person, you instinctively know that violence will be the next full stop.
Director Martin Scorsese has a history with crime. From ‘Goodfellas‘, ‘Casino‘, ‘The Gangs of New York‘ and his fêted salvo of ‘Mean Streets‘, ‘Taxi Driver‘ and ‘Raging Bull‘, the eternal ingredients of organised crimes, street life and male rage run through his films like a red river. In his latest the ‘Irishman’, it is most similar to ‘Goodfellas‘ covering similar characters albeit seen through a different prism.
In a story which takes places over multiple decades, Scorsese starts as he means to continue. As a slow, opening Steadicam shot weaves its way through a forest of bodies to arrive at its main character, you know you’re watching a Martin Scorsese film. However, when repetition also seeps into the dialogue, the patois of ‘The Irishman’s’ dialogue starts to feel over-familiar. In a film where people tell other people what others wouldn’t like to say in person, you instinctively know that violence will be the next full stop. Dangerously skirting on parody where every laboured phrase carries a double and treble meaning, the mafioso code is easily broken down into a series of catchphrases.
In a historical telling of criminal envy and murderous suspicion wrapped up in familial respect, time is actually the real villain. Placing a near impossible constraint of a story told over multiple decades, the current fascination for de-ageing actors has arrived at Robert DeNiro’s door. As we see him climb the mob ranks, his face and those around him are digitally altered to look correct for the time of life been shown. However, this is only partially successful. As with Carrie Fisher in ‘Star Wars: Rogue One‘, this is a technology still in its infancy. Between different shots, the technology can veer between convincing and computer game-like. In carrying this CGI burden, it is actually Al Pacino and Joe Pesci who fare better with less biographical weight to carry. Whereas Joe Pesci was the psychotic Tommy in ‘Goodfellas‘, here he is the taciturn mob boss Russell and is nonetheless effective for it. In another movie where he is not a central character, his is the performance that steals light in every scene. Long retired from acting and personally persuaded to return to film by Robert De Niro, he again repays the favour by upstaging everyone else around him.
Framed in an elderly road trip that reaches back into the past, ‘The Irishman’ is a historical retelling of mob dominance from the 1950s onwards. Whilst it touches every strand of society and public life, it is essentially a story of my pile is bigger than your pile and the envy is the petrol that will set our respective worlds on fire. Every time you see a wide of a car who almost feels it’s going to explode and this is the baggage that Scorsese is saddled with. For when the chit chat becomes increasingly mundane, the more dreadful you know the results will be. Like a slow uncoiling time-bomb, the tension is how things will happen rather than when.
With superb supporting performances throughout from the likes of Stephen Graham as Anthony Provenzano or a scene-stealing six words from Anna Paquin as Frank’s accusatory daughter Peggy, ‘The Irishman’ is what Scorsese does best – a crime drama that punches above its weight, although, this time the road to redemption could have been considerably shorter.