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The Irishman
I Heard You Paint Houses
First run Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema Screening room

Reuniting many of his longtime collaborators, the celebrated seventy-seven-year-old Italian-American director Martin Scorsese, delivers a very different kind of gangster picture than we’ve come to expect from him. The Irishman (or I Heard You Paint Houses, as its onscreen title reads at the beginning and end) represents a kind of swansong to the genre this filmmaker redefined over the course of his long career.  Based on Charles Brandt’s much-disputed “true-crime” bestseller I Heard You Paint Houses (2004), the movie tells the story of a Philadelphia mob hitman, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, and his role in the still-unexplained disappearance of Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa. The three and a half hour epic boasts a screenplay by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, Gangs of New York, Moneyball), a dream cast of Scorsese all-stars (Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale), and some great stars working for the first time with the legendary director, such as the wonderful Ray Romano, and, most significantly, Godfather star Al Pacino. With all these external factors, The Irishman appears on its surface to be the ultimate exploration of this filmmaker’s obsession with mafia relationships, extreme violence, and period detail. In many ways, it is. However, apart from the cast and subject matter, The Irishman has less in common with Scorsese’s extravagant, action-packed mobster pictures Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Departed (2006) and more in common with his contemplative, spiritual films like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997), and Silence (2016).  Like these quieter films, The Irishman focuses on characters struggling with their beliefs and trying to reconcile with the ways they’ve lived their lives.

The film opens with a long tracking shot that wines its way through the inside of a building and ends up on our main character, Sheeran (De Niro), who begins telling his story directly to us. But this opener is not one of Scorsese’s celebrated, technically complex, perfectly choreographed Steadicam shots like the Copacabana entrance in Goodfellas, Jake LaMotta's walk to the boxing ring in Raging Bull, or Jordan Belfort's promenade around the hustle bustle of his office in The Wolf of Wall Street. The Irishman opens with a bumpy, lumbering meander through the nondescript hall of a nursing home, which signals immediately to us that this movie will not be the grand, cinematic showcase we might expect this director to make from this material. The Irishman is epic in scope and length, but it’s the least ostentatious narrative feature Scorsese has ever made, which is both a refreshing surprise and a bit of a disappointment. 

Sheeran is an elderly man nearing death who is looking back on five decades of life. In this past, he was discharged from Army service in WWII, where he learned to follow orders dispassionately, even when those orders meant executing people in cold blood. Working as a truck driver in Philadelphia, Sheeran meets and befriends Russell Bufalino (Pesci), the Sicilian-born boss of a Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. Sheeran soon begins doing jobs for Russell, including “painting houses,” which is code for doing hits for the mob. Russell introduces Sheeran to Hoffa, who has financial ties with the Bufalino family. Sheeran starts working as Hoffa’s bodyguard and becomes close with the famed labor leader, trying to help him navigate mounting pressure from the federal government and another prominent Teamster boss, Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano (Graham). As with all mafia films, issues of power, loyalty, duty, family, and personal honor run parallel with extreme violence, misogyny, toxic ego, paranoia, self-preservation, and delusional denial.

Scorsese’s pictures are often celebrations of a bygone place and era, such as the rough, gritty Little Italy neighborhood of his youth in Mean Streets, New York’s cocaine-fueled peak of wiseguy culture in Goodfellas, or the “halcyon” days of pre-corporate Las Vegas when the city was controlled by the mafia in Casino. The Irishman is not an intense, exciting, funny mob movie like Goodfellas or The Departed. It is a serious meditation on a criminal way of life that seems downright quaint by the standards of today’s international gang violence, rampant cooperation, and legalized law-breaking. But while it’s easy to be nostalgic about the past, the life depicted in The Irishman, and even the American labor movement as epitomized by Hoffa and his Brotherhood of Teamsters, doesn’t come across as anything to be especially wistful about. 

The A-list cast helps make The Irishman one of the year’s best pictures. It is wonderful to see all these talented actors assembled for a film of such gravitas. But, with a few key exceptions, the performances here are more notable for their meta-textural significance than for exceptional acting. For example, this movie marks the first time the legendary Italian-American cinema icons Pacino and Scorsese have worked together in the half-century they’ve each been making movies. De Niro and Pacino haven’t starred together since Michael Mann’s glorious cops-and-robbers epic Heat (1995), which was the only movie these two colossal movie stars ever made together apart from The Godfather Part II, where they never interact. Pesci was reluctantly coaxed out of retirement to play opposite his Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Casino co-star De Niro one last time. And all three men, as well as others in the cast, are digitally de-aged so they can play the characters at the various time periods depicted. Had The Irishman been made in 2007, when Scorsese and De Niro began to develop the project, the filmmakers might have opted for traditional make-up techniques to handle the characters’ ages in different decades. But with De Niro seventy-five and Pacino pushing eighty when the cameras finally rolled, Scorsese turned to Industrial Light & Magic to make his elderly actors appear to be in their fifties, forties, and even twenties.

Visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman created a new motion capture system that doesn’t require the physical application of tracking dots on the actors’ faces to enable the CGI facelifts. The results are pretty good—they don’t cross too far in uncanny valley territory—but the incongruence (of characters whose faces look young but whose physicality and mannerisms betray the actors’ older ages) often distracts. Likewise, De Niro is given blue eyes to help sell him as having the titular character’s ethnicity, which is an unnecessary misstep. De Niro is not, and will never look, Irish, yet he didn’t need to wear blue contact lenses to play "Jimmy the Gent" Conway in Goodfellas.  The digital eye color adds an additional layer of artificiality to De Niro’s portrayal of his character here. He’s perfectly good in The Irishmen, but his performance is hardly one of his best in his long and impressive career.  As elements that create an impression of understated menace, the mannerisms, facial expressions, and vocal infections that De Niro brings to Sheeran are nothing we haven’t seen this actor do before, sometimes to far greater effect.

As Hoffa, Pacino chews the scenery to a degree he hasn’t since his embarrassing (but Oscar-winning) turn in the best-forgotten Scent of a Woman (1992). Of course, the real Hoffa was a famously flamboyant grandstander, so Pacino is as obvious a choice to play him as De Niro is to play the introverted Sheeran. But all Pacino’s shouting and jumping around grows wearisome before The Irishman reaches its halfway point. In addition to the digital de-ageing, the ILM animators seem to try to make Pacino look like the real Hoffa, which renders his head bizarrely out of proportion with his body.  And Pacino has the same limits of physical age in scenes when Hoffa is supposed to be younger that we see with De Niro.

But, while sometimes jarring, the discrepancy between the varying ages of the characters and the consistent ages of the actors can be viewed as an effective and purposeful choice made by the director. After all, The Irishman is a film about an old person looking back on life with the weight of hindsight. Watching scenes from the past played out by younger looking versions of the old men in this story—men who still seem to be those old men—is perhaps more appropriate than if the youthful incarnations were embodied by different, age-appropriate actors.

The best performance in the picture by far comes from Pesci. As Russell Bufalino, the diminutive actor brings an ominously quiet focus. Bufalino is the kind of man who never needs to raise his voice to be heard and heeded. He meets with people in hushed, one-on-one encounters, for friendly, yet frightening, exchanges. His eyes constantly survey the telltale behaviors of the person he’s talking to. Part of what makes mob stories so effective as movies is that all the characters either lie or speak in coded language that’s hard to misinterpret. Russell Bufalino is the most original character in this collection of familiar archetypes. He transcends the typical quiet but deadly Mafioso leader. His face is impenetrable, yet we see his mind is always working. The fact that Bufalino is the complete opposite to Tommy DeVito, the energetic, unpredictable hothead of Goodfellas that won Pesci his Oscar, is just one small layer of what makes this performance so affecting and memorable.  

That a major studio did not finance and release The Irishman is another extra-textural factor that makes the film so notable. Since all the major Hollywood studios are now reluctant to risk big money on movies that don’t come from well-established preexisting properties, the only company that would fund Scorsese’s $160 million, three-and-a-half-hour drama was Netflix. Thus the movie will enjoy only a limited theatrical release because the major cinema chains are too weak to get the deep-pocketed streaming service to abide by the decades-old ninety-day theatrical window that most releases enjoy before films become available in any home format. To independent theater programmers, this arrangement is a boon. They are only too happy to have rights to run the new Martin Scorsese picture in their cinemas. Indeed, between Boston and New York, the two cities I most frequent, I had my choice of eight different indie and arthouse cinemas that were running The Irishman on their biggest screens for much of that month. Netflix even booked Broadway’s Belasco Theater for all of November to give this movie a grand, old-fashioned showcase in New York City. Still, even at the peak of its theatrical run, the film is only playing on about five hundred screens.  Netflix will then dump the movie onto their streaming service where, undoubtedly, most people will see it. The irony that the director most devoted to film preservation and the cinematic experience would team up with the company that is arguably most responsible for the decline of theatrically released cinema (and whose business model clearly demonstrates how little they care about what happens to their original content in the future) says a lot about the state of the industry today.  

This particular epic film may lose a considerable amount of its power when watched casually at home, where viewers have other demands on their time and attention, as well as the ability to hit the pause button. Or the picture may be in some ways oddly well suited to the small screen. It’s shot like television—mostly in tight, brightly lit close-ups and two-shots. All the digital work also gives it the feel of a modern TV period piece. However, whether viewed in a cinema or at home The Irishman remains a quintessential feature film because, unlike 90 percent of long-form television, it has an actual ending that’s deeply satisfying, as opposed to a huge letdown. It’s in this last act where The Irishman fully takes on the qualities of Scorsese’s spiritual pictures. Despite Sheeran’s Catholic faith, his sins and the sins of his employers seem too great to be forgiven. The film wrestles with the very idea of atonement for men of such violence and dishonesty. The stance of Sheeran’s daughter Peggy—powerfully played by Lucy Gallina as a teen and Anna Paquin as an adult, in nearly wordless performances—suggests that absolution is not (and should not be) available to men like her father.

The Irishman takes on many potent themes and has a lot to say, but too much of what makes it special exists only within the context of its genre and its director’s career. On its own, it is not a great mobster movie like Goodfellas or a groundbreaking character study like Mean Streets. Much of this picture’s true power would be lost if you came to it not knowing much about Scorsese or the history of gangster cinema. Unlike, say, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992)—which is a fantastic western that also serves as a meditation on its director’s work and a summation of its genre—The Irishman doesn’t tell an exquisitely constructed original story within the confines of its genre conventions. The cinematic baggage this movie carries is ultimately what makes it such an intriguing and rewarding watch. 

Twitter Capsule:
That Martin Scorsese’s epic yet intimate gangster eulogy feels more on par with his spiritual dramas rather than his crime thrillers is both a refreshing surprise and a bit of a disappointment.

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Martin Scorsese, Irwin Winkler, Robert De Niro, Randall Emmett, Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Gastón Pavlovich, Troy Allen, and Gerald Chamales

Screenplay by Steven Zaillian
Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt

With: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Jack Huston, Aleksa Palladino, Domenick Lombardozzi, Steven Van Zandt, Dascha Polanco, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jake Hoffman, India Ennenga, Thomas E. Sullivan, Paul Ben-Victor, Louis Cancelmi, Welker White, Paul Herman, Lucy Gallina, Gary Basaraba, Kevin O'Rourke, James Lorinz, and Kelley Rae O'Donnell

Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music: Robbie Robertson

Runtime: 209 min
Release Date: 27 November 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1