No one in the history of cinema has become such an expert at taking a certain genre, organized crime, and expounding on it in ever more profound ways.

The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, brings Scorsese to the genre he is most adept and recognizable for. It is a dark movie about terrible people, as in Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed, but tinged with far more guilt and remorse than Scorsese has allowed his characters to experience perhaps since only Mean Streets.

The Irishman digs into the story of the infamous labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa. The film is told from the perspective of Hoffa’s close friend Frank Sheeran, also known as “The Irishman.” Although both of the individuals are real life figures, Sheeran’s version of the events, which this movie dramatizes, that led to the disappearance and later death of Hoffa, have been closely debated.

But Scorsese, unsurprisingly, is not on a truth-finding mission. He never has been. As with all the other films he is known for, he uses this fascinating piece of story to showcase the violence, machismo, greed, casual racism and eventual downfall and sense of guilt and betrayal that are the hallmarks of the gangster life.

Sheeran (De Niro) more or less stumbles into criminal life by delivering steak to a mafia boss from the slaughterhouse that employs him as a trucker. His employers get wise and sue him, but Sheeran’s determination not to name any names endears him to the mob bosses.

He is then introduced to Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a reserved, highly calculating crime boss who ran an outfit out of Northern Pennsylvania.

“I met what was gonna turn out to be the rest of my life,” says Sheeran of his first formal introduction to Bufalino.

They quickly bond over Sheeran’s experiences in World War II and Bufalino takes a liking to him after learning how an Irish-American could have such good fluency in the Italian language. It is a slippery-slope for Sheeran from there on in, graduating from stealing to intimidation and finally to “painting houses.” He is also introduced by Bufalino to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).

“I heard you paint houses” is one of the things Hoffa says to Sheeran. The phrase was code in the underworld. Its meaning can be illuminated by replacing “paint” with “kill” and “houses” with “people.”

Hoffa, who is introduced 40 minutes into the movie, was deeply connected to the network of Pennsylvanian crime bosses. They help him remain the boss of the largest union in the United States as well as pocketing some “retirement security” on the side while Hoffa helps them get “loans” from the large pool of money the union mobilises in the form of pension funds. It was a sweet quid pro quo that worked preciously until the federal government started to sniff around Hoffa’s deals.

Like Bufalino before him, Hoffa also takes a liking to the Irishman. It even gets to the point where the infamous union leader helps Sheeran become a high-level official inside his union. All goes well for the Irishman until the mob bosses Bufalino represents and Hoffa begin to have a difference of opinions which, since the mafia is involved, ends up fatal.

At 30 minutes shy of four hours, The Irishman takes its time indulging in the personalities of the characters. As with Goodfellas, this gangster movie is more about the personalities of the characters rather than their emotions.

Scorsese makes sure that the story of Hoffa, Sheeran and Bufalino is told not just from the crime but political and institutional perspectives as well. Unlike Goodfellas, this film does not just look at the mafia but also how much the underworld was reinforced with shady politics, the geopolitics of the Cold War and corrupt local and federal institutions. It really is about the part of the American soul, born out of international migration into the US, race and money, and has ever since greatly impacted, for better or worse, the country’s economy, politics and culture.

Arguably, The Irishman is darker than Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed. Everybody dies, and even those that do not are racked with unbearable guilt.

“Usually, three people can keep a secret only when two of them are dead,” is a line that best encapsulates the general attitudes of the protagonists in the movie.

It is the acting that gives the colour to the movie. De Niro is understated as Sheeran. Playing a character that made his career standing in the background and doing what he is told to do, De Niro is highly reserved in his acting, almost dispassionate. He humbly allows the show to be stolen by Pacino’s passionate portrayal of the rambunctious Hoffa.

Although the film does not have any allusions about the highly corrupt dealings of Hoffa, it is the strength of Pacino in portraying flawed but ultimately tragic characters that allows the infamous union leader to appear sympathetic. Hoffa is portrayed as a character a lot like Tony Montana, Carlito Brigante in Carlito’s Way and Lefty in Donnie Brasco. They are all ultimately ugly, small men who sold their souls to the devil a long time ago. But old habits die hard, and none of their attempts at redemption save them from the tragic end they had set up for themselves in joining the criminal underworld.

Pesci’s return to acting to play one last Mafioso is also all that it was hailed it would be. His character is not as loud as the ones he played in Goodfellas and Casino. But Bufalino’s personality is just as imposing and Pesci plays him with all of the grace and rat-faced backstabbing sincerity the character deserves.

The Irishman gets better with repeated viewings and that is because of the immense sum of small details Scorsese infuses it with. And for this, Netflix deserves recognition for allowing such a great director to run amok with his imagination. Scorsese, with a budget of 160 million dollars, is allowed the discretion to make use of an epic script, a memorable score, which has creeping Jazzy intonations, a fantastic cast and state-of-the-art technology to de-age De Niro, Pacino and Pesci.

Netflix might not be entirely convinced of the pleasure of watching a movie in a theatre but no other film studio would have allowed this much creative license to a filmmaker not particularly known for blockbuster movies. For that alone, streaming services may need to be forgiven for the disruption of a time-honoured way of watching movies. After all, they are willing to put money into movies that are definitively not reminiscent of “theme parks.”

PUBLISHED ON Dec 14,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1024]

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