The Irishman: or, I Heard You Paint Houses
Updated: May 1, 2021
It's no secret that Martin Scorsese is one of the most celebrated, exceptional, and gifted filmmakers of our time, leaving behind a legacy with such classic films under his belt as Goodfellas, The Departed, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and, believe it or not, Hugo. After being semi-dormant in his filmmaking for quite some time now (outside of Silence), Martin Scorsese has returned to his A-game with another masterful mob movie: The Irishman.
There are plenty of things I'm trying to remember about this movie from its three-and-a-half hour runtime, so I'll try to keep it to as much of a CliffNotes version as I possibly can.
The story is about a man named Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, who was a World War II veteran after serving 411 days fighting in Italy. After starting business in the meat market, he crossed paths with Russell, the head of the Bufalino crime family, and from that meeting onward, he was tasked under his guidance to carry on mob hits, or to "paint houses". Soon, his reputation among the crime family caught the attention of the legendary Jimmy Hoffa, played by the equally legendary Al Pacino, who was campaigning as President of the Union, and business started to boom out of the close companionship they both developed. However, Hoffa's outbursts got to a point where they compelled the Bufalino family to make a monumental decision that would've challenged Frank in more ways than one and sparked a national mystery.
There were times when I sensed a little bit of length in certain scenes, and some of the dialogue was a bit hard for me to pick up on the first time around, but all the same, I couldn't keep my eyes away from the screen as the characters did their own thing. I was that invested in the movie.
In fact, I found The Irishman to be a fascinating character study of a man who served in the army and was serving a crime family next. What added to the story's intrigue was that as we, the audience, witnessed the scenarios as they occurred in Frank's past, the movie flip-flopped between that and Frank, as an elderly man in a wheelchair and in a retirement home, talking about those life experiences...despite the very first shot of the movie showing us that he was all by himself. Could he be reflecting on his life story for his own self-discovery? Could he have been preparing to share what he reflected on with someone else? Who knows.
Something else I thought was fascinating about the movie was the application of the de-aging effects. I got a taste of that when it was applied onto Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel, as well as onto Chris Evans, only the other way around, in Avengers: Endgame. Here, the de-aging effects felt practically perfected.
Whenever I saw Robert de Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, or anyone else in the movie as their characters, only younger, they never looked eerie or off-model. They still looked like their younger selves, especially as they may have looked in movies they starred in from the mid-70's through the early 90s. The effects were so good, and the characters still as emotive as ever underneath those effects, that it puts The Lion King remake to shame.
Speaking of emotive, that's part of the biggest asset The Irishman benefitted from: the acting.
Robert de Niro was the perfect actor to portray Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran. His stern voice still lended him qualities that resembled that of a tough guy, and Frank was all that, and then some. Being that his character served in World War II, this synced in perfectly with de Niro's acting whether Frank was a highly experienced soldier, an up-and-coming Mafia member, or as a well-intentioned yet struggling father.
Yet, de Niro was more fantastic, in my opinion, when he was in a quiet, contemplative, or conflicted mood. When he looked as if he had something on his mind, you can feel his inner moral conflict. And the best moments that occurred from those emotive withdrawals was when he was ordered to pull off tasks that would've taken a personal toll on him, and which he knew would've taken a personal toll on him.
You remember what I said about Joe Pesci in GoodFellas, and how I thought that his acting was so good, that I've witnessed him peel away his actor self until all I saw of him was his character?
In The Irishman, I've witnessed lightning strike twice. Joe Pesci, after so many years of being low-profile in the acting business, made a smashing grand re-entrance as Russell Bufalino.
His character was compelling as the head of the Bufalino family, with a great sense of composure, a seemingly quiet demeanor, and a complex but nonetheless menacing disposition. That may be the biggest reason why I was so blown away by Pesci's performance: the character he put all his energy into was a different beast from someone as wild and reckless as Tommy DeVito from GoodFellas. He was more along the lines of Vito Corleone instead.
And it only got better in terms of acting. The other actor who I felt managed to peel away his actor self until I saw just his character was Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa.
Pacino embodied Jimmy Hoffa with a sense of sternness, underhanded prowess, and the confidence of a leader who had the Union under his thumb. However, he went even further with his character; he also had him go through a convincing myriad of mood swings, from calm, confident, and intimidating, to angry when things didn't go his way, and to angry as part of his usual tantrum, not to mention let Jimmy Hoffa unleash a cocky and pigheaded side to him. Two cases in point: one, he easily got irritated when someone he's meant to meet up with was late. Two: his arguments with "Tony Pro" when he called him and his companions of Italian origin "you people". This resulted in immediate fistfights between them, and they occurred not just when they were serving time in prison together, but also shortly after they got out of jail.
As different as he was meant to be characteristically, Hoffa did have shades of being this movie's Tommy DeVito.
The rest of the actors - and there's a lot of them - didn't miss a beat once in The Irishman, either, including Breaking Bad's Jesse Plemmons as Hoffa's foster son, Chuckie O'Brien, Pulp Fiction's Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno, and...the subject of the next big thing I liked about this movie.
One of the most interesting parts of the movie and Frank Sheeran's life, in my opinion, was the connection between him and one of his daughters, Peggy. This one subplot is what I feel added the most tragedy to Frank's story. The first time this occurred was when Frank went with Peggy to assault a grocery man who had previously shoved Peggy for making a mess out of one of the grocery products by accident. From there, Peggy started to fear him and become more suspicious of him, especially after reportedly reading news stories covering the murders in which Frank had a role. The first time I saw it, I thought it because she was highly disapproving of her father's crime life. And yes, I still believe it was for that reason, but I also found out about how close she was with Jimmy Hoffa, to the point that he was more of a father to her than Frank ever was. What really cut off her relationship with her father, reports claimed, was when Jimmy Hoffa went missing in July 1975. Peggy's suspicions over him and his crimes took a toll and she left him behind forever, without ever speaking to him again.
All the actresses who portrayed Peggy, especially Anna Paquin, had a ball with their roles, and the result was a terrified young lady whose discontentment with her father and his job made us, the viewers, empathize with her every step of the way.
In fact, Anna Paquin as Peggy left such an impression, that people admitted to having the same issues with her role in The Irishman that they had with that of Margot Robbie from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That being, both their characters deserved more involvement and screentime than they were given.
Would I have liked it more if Peggy was given more screen-time and dialogue in The Irishman? Absolutely. However, at the same time, I couldn't help but appreciate in retrospect the subtleties of her acting in the movie, and that her expressions, moods, and tolerance to her father's crime life really spoke volumes. They all clued us in to how she was feeling in any given moment, and more often than not, they were all hinting towards budding suspicion and disapproval. And it was all pulled off without Paquin needing to do or say much. That's the sign of a great supporting performance.
One of the most interesting parts of the movie, besides the interpersonal drama unfolding from Frank's involvement with the Bufalinos, was the ending of the movie. As in, where Frank successfully murdered Jimmy Hoffa in cold blood after being ordered to by Russell. I do remember this scene being just as tragic as the subplot focusing on him and Peggy, especially since Sheeran and Hoffa were close friends throughout the movie. However, did it close the case on the whole Jimmy Hoffa mystery?
Even though this murder did crop up in Frank Sheeran's real-life confessions to Charles Brandt in the nonfiction book off of which this movie was based, "I Heard You Paint Houses", this jumpstarted a series of debates questioning Frank's, and the book's, credibility. One of the reasons was that Frank Sheeran said in 1995 that he had nothing to do with the crimes concerning Jimmy Hoffa. Whereas in 2004, through this book, he finally admitted that he did. Another reason was that while Jimmy Hoffa was missing since 1975, he was declared legally dead in 1982. So, that would've been years after the time in which Jimmy Hoffa would've been murdered by Sheeran, if it ever occurred at all.
Despite the controversy surrounding these claims, Robert de Niro just shrugged it off, feeling that what the real-life Frank Sheehan had to say sounded believable enough.
From the little snippets I managed to read about The Irishman before I saw it, I remembered seeing how many people said that this movie was everything you'd want from Martin Scorsese and more. It seemed like interesting hype for a movie that made its public debut on Netflix.
After seeing this movie, those people were absolutely right to call it a masterpiece.
The actors were on a roll with their characters, the de-aging effects couldn't have been better, the intricacy of the story was fascinating, and this all took Martin Scorsese ten years to complete, no joke. He's been toiling away at it for so long, but couldn't get it off the ground yet; he had to wait for the de-aging effects to be at the stage where it would have helped him tell his story the way he wanted to. At this rate, the commitment he had to his craft is very evident.
Sometimes, the biggest bursts of cinematic champagne and caviar can come from the unlikeliest of places. And Netflix's The Irishman demonstrated it in the grandest of fashion.
My Rating: A+
Before I saw the movie, I noticed in the Golden Globe nominations that Pesci and Pacino received nominations for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture, whereas Robert de Niro was nowhere to be seen in the Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama category. That baffled me, but after watching the movie, I became even more baffled. I thought all three of them did a terrific job. Let's hope the Oscars will come along to rectify that and give credit where credit's due.
Keegan, Rebecca. “Making of 'The Irishman': Robert De Niro, Al Pacino Bring Scorsese's 10 Years in the Making ‘Experiment’ to the Big Screen.” The Hollywood Reporter, 26 Nov. 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/making-irishman-robert-de-niro-al-pacino-bring-scorseses-career-experiment-big-screen-1257256.
Ryan, Patrick. “'The Irishman': Robert De Niro Defends Anna Paquin's 'Powerful,' Mostly Silent Character.” USA Today, 29 Nov. 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2019/11/29/the-irishman-robert-de-niro-anna-paquin-debate-role-women/4330315002/.
Vadala, Nick. “Robert De Niro’s New Movie Is about a Philly Hit Man Who Claimed He Killed Jimmy Hoffa. Why Did He Tell the Daily News He Didn’t Do It?” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 Aug. 2019, https://www.inquirer.com/entertainment/movies/irishman-netflix-frank-sheeran-robert-de-niro-martin-scorsese-20190821.html.