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The Irishman—an unsettling and melancholy film about age and regret

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The Irishman has everything you’d want from a Scorsese gangster film, writes Simon Basketter, but there’s humour and sadness amid the violence
Issue 2681
Action against a big historical backdrop
Action against a big historical backdrop

Martin Scorsese is back doing gangsters with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since Casino in 1995.

The movie delivers mafia “hits”, Italian restaurants, vintage suits and cars, wise guy patter and a compelling guide to the workings of the Mob.

But something feels different. The movie is an alternately sad, violent, and dryly funny biography of Frank Sheeran, a Mafia hitman and union bureaucrat.

The actors’ faces have been rejuvenated by digital tricks, but time hangs over everything else.

It’s about age, loss, sin, regret, and how you can feel like a passive object swept along by history even if you played a role in shaping it.

The film opens slowly, revealing the anonymous corridor not of a bar but of a Philadelphia nursing home.

Sheeran is old, crippled by arthritis and dying of cancer. Struggling with guilt and sadness he remains slightly self-righteous.

Both an elegy for the gangster genre and a last hurrah for acting legends, Scorsese’s 25th film has the magnificence of a funeral and the humour of a wake.

At its centre is a road trip taken in 1975 by mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and his favoured hitman, Frank Sheeran (De Niro), to a wedding.

They make a few stops along the way for petrol, so their wives can smoke, and to collect money. And for some business involving their friend union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Pacino’s shouty but tender-hearted portrayal contrasts nicely with Pesci underplaying gloriously, with eyes that mix ruthlessness and a twinkle.

De Niro and Pesci determine a man’s fate merely with an exchange of looks. One beat. Two beats.


It is all masterfully acted and edited. Some of it is a gangland “Who’s on first?” routine. But the overall effect is more unsettling and melancholic than you might expect.

The backdrop is big in historical terms—the Bay of Pigs and JFK’s assassination scroll past—but the foreground is unfailingly intimate.

Friends are the only ones who can get close enough to take one another out.

Drained of all excitement, Sheeran’s hits are abrupt.

Freeze-frames, once a way for Scorsese to replay the lusciousness of his portrayal of violence, are now a way of flashing forward with captions. “Allen Dorfman, shot eight times in the head in a Chicago parking lot, 1983”. But the film is oppressively male, perhaps deliberately so.

As Russell’s wife Carrie, Kathrine Narducci has some brilliant seconds early on, but little after that.

Stephanie Kurtzuba as Frank’s wife Mary, and Anna Paquin as the daughter Peggy who sees things she shouldn’t have, are largely mute.

The final 20 minutes, in which a man approaches the end of his life and gains clarity on what was important is moving and powerful.

Sometimes what makes a good movie is that it makes you think about it and the things it raised afterwards. The Irishman is a good movie.

On Netflix from Wed 27 November

The real-life story of the unions and the mafia

As president of the powerful but corrupt and gangster-linked Teamsters Union, Jimmy Hoffa was the US’s best-known labour leader in the 1950s and 1960s.

Hoffa used the union’s billion-dollar pension fund as a piggy bank to help the Mob build Las Vegas.

The government hounded him for a decade and finally sent him to prison in 1967. President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence in 1971 probably after being bribed.

Hoffa was seeking to regain control of his union when he mysteriously vanished. Frank Sheeran is just one of 14 people who have claimed responsibility for Hoffa’s death.

The union links with the Mob were real. Gangsters used the unions to do sweetheart deals to keep conditions bad and wages low for the bosses, and bureaucrats went along to have power and cash.

Sheeran was investigated for organising the murder of two rivals in the union. It was for stealing the members’ money that Sheeran finally served time in jail.

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