Martin Scorsese directs Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino in this true crime life story of Frank Sheeran; demobbed truck driver, Mafia hitman, friend of Jimmy Hoffa and keeper of secrets.
Clearly Netflix decided this was going to be rebranded “The Irishman” and Marty was having none of it. The title card reads I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES at the start and at the end and in years to come that will be the name that sticks. We have a long stretch of cinema on our hands here. Three hours thirty. The first two hours fly by, the final act is a patient procedural of a conjectured historical event and then we get a very generous 30 minute epilogue following an old man and his regrets. Like Goodfellas’ penultimate shot of Henry Hill becoming a suburban mope elongated. Times 600. Or a mirror image of the closing moments of The Godfather. Instead of seeing a door close, excluding us from the secret world we have glimpsed and been seduced by, we are left with an open door, a man alone in darkness, full of stories he doesn’t want to speak and there’s no one left to listen. Bereft by his part in history. Tragic. If you watch it on your glowing tablet you are gonna want to pause and episode up these final dwindling sections. Don’t. In the cinema your patience, bladder and knees are tested by the brave midway slow down over such an unusual running time but the overall effect of watching it in a oner is incomparable. You feel like you’ve witnessed something. Something unrepeatable. You appreciate being trapped, locked in to the whole rather than convenient chunks.
Those first two hours might just be Marty and Thelma’s finest filmmaking in a 50 year career of greats. The story flows with a classical confidence. There’s only three or four scenes with any of the experimental verve and energy of Raging Bull or Bringing Out the Dead. This is the Scorsese of The Aviator or Silence lending that maturity and beauty and unfussiness to the gangster genre he already reinvented and redefined twice. The young man who made Mean Streets would be enthralled to see his world go painterly and platinum, his vision have clarity and elegance. All punk spunk has gone, we are left with smooth yet complex yarn spinning and oodles of character space.
You need the very best actors to fill that space. Look at that top line cast. Did you ever think you’d see them work together again? DeNiro washes away decades of cheap paycheck plays with a quiet, domineering anchor point turn. Pacino hams it up, but in a charming, avuncular way. His Jimmy Hoffa is a seductive old blowhard. I’d be a teamster on Jimmy’s ticket. The quotes come from him. The rest of the cast is rounded up from Scorsese’s quality TV projects; Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl. His HBO finds. Stephen Graham, Ray Romano and Bobby Cannavale all impress among the heavyweights, new legends among old. All of them carry the drama and hit plenty of dark laughs. It is a nimbly funny film too, if you like your humour black.
Man of the match though has to be Pesci. Playing a softly spoken criminal wiseman. An adjudicator, as much as an enforcer. There’s a perfect scene early on in an bowling alley and then another later at Christmas were we see the warped humanity of the man. He realises one of Sheeran’s young daughters sees him for exactly what he is. A corrupter, a thug, a murderer, a danger, a threat. He cannot win her over with gifts, money, smiles, affection or compliments. The sadness in his eyes that he knows she is right, and he can’t have a true relationship with an innocent is a never seen on screen before thump. A blow. You feel his pain, a new pain for us gawking civilians. The idea of not being liked by the pure, the prescience of the uneducated and unjaded child knowing your reality. He carries these scenes and the later bigger, showier ones with a self-awareness and dignity, a silent power. Amazing stuff.
Now the much talked about CGI de-aging FX aren’t perfect. The first scene in the harsh light of day feels like a cut scene from a PS4 game. After that, in the one lamp hotel rooms and after hour bars, you notice it less. It only takes you out of the film every 15 minutes or so. DeNiro’s eyes sometimes are ghostly, like there’s nothing behind them, not even skull and hair beyond the space. Maybe that’s how Frank Sheeran wants to remember these incidents. Maybe there’s a forger’s note to the fantasy. Maybe I’m making excuses and they should of used younger actor and prosthetics. Either way it isn’t the deal breaker you’ll think it would be. I watched this on the big screen. The flaws can’t hide. It didn’t detract from a brilliant piece of filmmaking. This is a brilliant piece of Scorsese filmmaking. If you love JFK or The Godfather Part 2, you’ll love this. To reach a strange precis, it is a true crime Forrest Gump. Taking an unspectacular man through modern history, using con shots to realise his brushes with the significant events. This guy’s smarter than Gump, he had no heart and he’ll blow your brains over the wall. That’s America.