Greetings again from the darkness. The Copacabana tracking shot in GOODFELLAS in etched not only in my brain, but in cinema lore. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese teases us with a similar shot as the opening sequence in his latest. The camera snakes through the dank halls and rooms of an assisted-living center before settling on the well-worn face of wheelchair-bound octogenarian Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro). Mr. Sheeran is the titular Irishman, and he narrates the story of his life, at least as he recalls it. His is a life story that connects the mob to history and politics in a no frills manner surely to provoke thought, skepticism, and a knot in the tummy.
Oscar winning writer Steve Zaillian (SCHINDLER’S LIST, also GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN) adapted Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” for the film. Mr. Brandt was Sheeran’s attorney and worked with Sheeran on his memoir. The book title is highlighted by Scorsese at both the beginning and end of the film, as well as through a line of dialogue in the first phone conversation between Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. Mr. Sheeran was a WWII veteran turned truck driver turned mob hit man (and good soldier). He tells his story with little fanfare and in a way that we understand no glamour is associated with this lifestyle.
For those looking for the next GOODFELLAS or CASINO, you’ll likely be disappointed. This one is not as flashy or stylish as those two classics, and instead is a 3 and a half hour introspective look at the men who are efficiency experts in power. Violence is merely one of the tools in their box. The presentation is contemplative, not action-centric. The hits are abrupt and jerky and realistic, not the stylistic choreography of shootouts in films like JOHN WICK. There is a skewed theme of friendship and male bonding … even mentorship. It’s unlike what we’ve seen before from mob movies.
After a chance meeting over a timing belt on a delivery truck, Sheeran is taken under the wing of Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). This is Pesci’s first onscreen appearance since 2010, and he is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal of “the quiet Don.” His performance is 180 degrees from his comedy in LETHAL WEAPON (2.3.4) or HOME ALONE, and 180 degrees the opposite direction from his roles in GOODFELLAS and CASINO, where he was a bombastic man (not a clown) on the edge of violence at all times. Mr. Pesci has spent the last decade playing jazz under the name Joe Doggs. It’s such a joy to have him back on screen, especially as the father figure-friend-ruthless businessman. His Russell is always calm and calculating, whether plotting the next kill or putting up with his wife’s frequent smoke breaks on a road trip.
It’s Russell who directs Sheeran to connect with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Pacino flashes his blustery best as Hoffa in a couple of scenes, but is also terrific while spewing one of his countless “c***suckers”, or savoring one of his beloved ice cream sundaes – a simple pleasure in a complicated life. Sheeran and Hoffa develop an unusual friendship in their many years together, and Hoffa’s real life unsolved disappearance in 1975 is the basis for Sheeran’s recollections.
We learn that Sheeran’s time in WWII taught him to kill … there is a scene involving POW’s digging their own grave while his rifle is pointed at them. In fact, most of the story is told in flashbacks that bounce between different eras. Scorsese, as has been reported ad nauseam, has utilized the de-aging process from Industrial Light & Magic to show DeNiro, Pesci, Pacino and others over the years. The effect is a bit distracting at first, but the story and these characters are so intriguing that we simply roll with after the initial jolt. It’s also obvious how Scorsese worked to make DeNiro look like the hulking presence Sheeran was in real life (think Tom Cruise in the Jack Reacher movies). Camera angles, should pads, and shoe lifts are used to make us think DeNiro towers over the others the way Sheeran really did. DeNiro is excellent in portraying Sheeran as a good soldier, reserved in mannerisms – even flashing a slight stutter at times. He’s a proud man who simply looks at the mob work as his job.
In addition to the three stars who each excel in their roles, Scorsese has assembled a huge and talented cast. Harvey Keitel is chilling in a couple of scenes as Angelo Bruno, Ray Romano plays mob lawyer Bill Bufalino, Bobby Cannavale is steak-loving Skinny Razor, Jesse Plemons is Hoffa’s adopted son Chuckie O’Brien, Domenick Lombardozzi is Fat Tony Salerno, comedian Sebastian Maniscalco is “Crazy Joe” Gallo, Louis Cancelmi is bespectacled Sally Bugs, Jack Huston plays Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and even Steven Van Zandt plays crooner Jerry Vale.
You are probably wondering, ‘Where are the women?’. While there is no Lorraine Bracco (GOODFELLAS) or Sharon Stone (CASINO), Scorsese makes the point that with Sheeran, and these other mobsters, it’s all business and real family relationships are non-existent. Stephanie Kurtzuba plays Irene Sheeran (Frank’s second wife) and Katherine Narducci is Carrie Bufalino (Russell’s cig-loving wife). They have some brief but entertaining moments on the road trip, and Marin Ireland has an effective scene late in the movie as Carrie, one of Frank’s daughters, while Welker White plays Jo Hoffa. But it’s Sheeran’s daughter Peggy who is the quiet moral center of the story and his life. Played as a youngster by Lucy Gallina and later by Anna Paquin, Peggy is a mostly silent observer of her father, and whatever conscience he has, is impacted by her glances. Ms. Paquin is especially good with one question … “Why?”
Worthy of special mention is Stephen Graham who plays Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a friend-turned-rival of Hoffa. Graham and Pacino share two standout scenes – one in prison, while Hoffa scoops his sundae, and a later meeting where Hoffa takes offense to Tony Pro’s late arrival and attire. Both scenes are remarkable in that there is underlying humor balancing the surface anger. In fact, the film is filled with memorable scenes. Hoffa’s guidance on self-defense in guns vs. knives, and most every scene between DeNiro’s Sheeran and Pesci’s Russell. DeNiro and Pesci have a chemistry few actors share. It dates back to RAGING BULL (1980), and I believe this is their 7th film together.
The film reminds me of the 1970’s movies that fueled my movie obsession: THE GODFATHER I and II, THE CONVERSATION, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, CHINATOWN, and even THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Sheeran may or may not be a reliable narrator, but these are real people – even if we don’t know the specifics on every hit. Captions are periodically included to inform of us how a particular mobster met his maker – again providing some dark humor. What is a bit surprising is the male bonding, even friendship, between guys in such a brutal profession. And watching how the story weaves in and out of history with the Bay of Pigs, Cuba casinos, and the Kennedy assassination -“If they can whack a President …” is a bit unsettling.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (SILENCE, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) is a good fit for Scorsese’s vision, and you can catch the varying camera styles for each character – and don’t miss the stunning shot of the illicit guns in the river. Composer Robbie Robertson (The Band) delivers Scorsese trademark musical riffs, and 3-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmacker is in peak form editing this epic. This is the 8th film collaboration for Scorsese and DeNiro, but the first in 25 years (CASINO).
I’m a little concerned. In fact, I’m a little more than concerned. This feels like the end of an era. It’s not the end of Scorsese films, but it’s the final chapter of his mob films. No other filmmaker comes close in this genre. With the bookends of Sheeran reminiscing in the assisted-living home, this is quite the holiday gift for cinephiles … and a last one (providing Netflix survives).