The Irishman: badfellas
07 November, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in The Irishman
Directed by Martin Scorsese
BOSS Jimmy Hoffa was a major player in American politics, with tentacles that reached across workplaces and from east to west. His was an empire that fought for its members – but also abused the power wielded to feather Hoffa and his friends’ nests. His reign came to a violent end in the mid-70s, when he was murdered by a mystery gunman.
This is at the centre of Martin Scorsese’s return to the mobster stomping grounds that have made his career.
It is the late 1940s and truck driver Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) has pulled up to fix something under his bonnet. Seemingly Good Samaritan Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) comes to help. This by-chance meeting will radically change Sheeran’s, and many others’, lives. Bufalino was a key player in the Mafia, and saw something in Frank he felt he could use.
Though Irish, Frank becomes very useful for the Italian mob – not least because of his willingness to commit violent crime and his sense of loyalty to those who pay him to get his hands bloody.
We follow his ascent in Mafioso circles, the effect it has on his family, the wise guys he befriends – and then how he became a close confidant of Hoffa (Al Pacino).
De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are a trio of cinematic godfathers, and it’s glorious to see them together – even if their shtick has been well rehearsed in other Scorsese films. To allow the story to span decades, the director uses CGI to offer youth and you’ll be distracted enough by the dialogue and plot not to notice the lack of grey hair, or ironed out wrinkles as they spit lines at each other.
Lasting longer than three hours, you might expect parts to drag. But the historic scene-setting means the length is right.
Scorsese has always drawn on the language of the Italian American diaspora, of New York wise crackers, and that’s another reason each scene feels so satisfying: just as he did on Goodfellas (remember the skit about how to make the perfect ragu while doing a huge drug deal?) Scorsese has his characters to and fro over minor conversational details while much bigger events take place.
As well as the pitch-perfect design – if you’re a fan of cars with tail fins, bowling shirts, cool glasses and American diners, you’ll drool throughout – the film walks us through elements of American social history. It ranges from GI war crimes to the rise of the Kennedys, and the
Cuban revolution. Such tricks are used to suggest all you see actually happened.
The film is based on I Heard You Paint Houses, Sheeran’s 2004 co-written memoir in which he said he killed Hoffa, a confession that was later firmed up by other evidence. Perhaps it was a way of Sheeran, a Catholic, to find solace, an issue at the heart of the film.
Do gangsters feel a sense of remorse as they slip slowly into the dying light? Scorsese is ambiguous. Frank mourns the loss of a relationship with his children, but it is left open whether the deaths at his hand really haunted him because of a surge of late-life empathy or whether he is hedging his bets as he wonders if he might be about to meet his maker.