By Roger Paradiso
Martin Scorsese has made four great goodfellas films in Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino and now The Irishman. In a way they work together as a series. Is this Scorsese’s final film on his mean streets full of goodfellas?
The Irishman, is a contemplative film about goodfellas and their families and the world around them. And like a master filmmaker, Scorsese has brought back many of his favorite actors plus one newcomer. This epic film stars Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel from the earlier works mentioned above. The new star to the ensemble is Al Pacino. Together they, and over 100 other members of the company, give terrifically understated performances in the best film of the year.
Netflix took a chance on the project, which was rejected by Hollywood because of its cost rumored to be about 150 million. That kind of money in Hollywood only goes to superhero action movies these days.
The film opens with the classic Scorsese steadicam shot. We are in a place that looks like a nursing home. The camera comes around to the face of an older man, Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) sitting in a wheelchair and he sets the tone of the film as both narrator and star of the film.
Skillfully we are being told several stories in time shifting scenes framed around a trip to a wedding in Detroit in 1975 and the more chronological rise and fall of a man, Sheeran, who paints houses and does his own carpentry. That is code in mob talk for a solo assassin who shoots his victims in cold blood and splatters the walls with red blood. Sounds gruesome doesn’t it? But for Sheeran it’s a job he does well.
We hear him tell us about being in the army in World War Two and told to take two Germans into the woods and take care of them. We see Frank overseeing the German soldiers quickly digging their graves. When they finish, there is a moment of hope in their faces that they were doing this for someone else. Without emotion Frank then shoots them down and they fall into their own grave. It seems he was a natural born killer who obeyed his superior’s orders. In certain situations, in our society he is a respected man.
Being a respected veteran Frank returns home to drive a meat truck in Philadelphia. He is introduced to Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) a crime boss for the family in Philadelphia. Joe takes a liking to Frank and becomes his mentor in the mob business. As their relationship builds, we see the families get together for all the ritual christenings, birthdays and holidays. Russell and his wife cannot have children. Frank’s younger daughter never feels comfortable around Russell and it becomes a foreshadowing of a bad relationship.
As we move on in the story, Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) who is looking for some protection as he is getting more and more involved in the teamsters union he helped found. Hoffa, of German ancestry, was an organizer for the truck drivers of America who were exploited as many workers were in the 1930’s. We come into the story when Hoffa is teamster president and feels the heat from our new president JFK and his Attorney General Bobby Kennedy on one side and the mob bosses who are helping Hoffa unionize the teamster drivers. He is especially angry over Bobby and a mob boss named Tony Pro. >Over several years, Hoffa and Frank become inseparable with Frank always protecting him. There are many sit downs and attempts to smooth things over with Jimmy’s enemies. Hoffa is a larger than life person and he is a volatile man who nonetheless loves his family and his rank and file teamsters. And they love him. Pacino is able to find the right balance between his rages to make his character sympathetic.
There are many scenes with Pesci who plays such an understated gangster as Russell that you wonder is this is really Joe Pesci. He becomes a father figure for Frank. Unfortunately, whenever there is a need for a house painter, Russell sends Frank out to do the dirty work. His youngest daughter notices her father leaving the house in one scene and demands to know where he is going. Frank doesn’t answer and goes out the door with his tool bag.
There is a political connection made with the Kennedys, Nixon and the mob. Seems Joe Kennedy and Sam Giancana were friendly and there was some voting fraud in Chicago, with the help of Mayor Daley, that helped throw the election to the Kennedy’s. The payback was supposed to be the overthrow of Castro so the mob could retake the Casino’s and other businesses they had in Havana. When the Kennedy boys come after Hoffa and the mob, the mob asks Old Man Joe Kennedy to straighten out the kids. The film cleverly inserts scenes on television of important political events of the 1960’s to 1970’s. A scene that is shocking is, of course, the assassination in Dallas. Frank and Hoffa’s lawyer watch the black and white TV over the bar. When the newscaster announces that JFK is dead, we watch a detached Hoffa sitting at his table with an unconvincing look of concern.
Later, we see scenes of Watergate, which somehow mirror the hearings with the Mafia that we saw earlier. A striking irony is the fact that the teamsters donated lots of money to Nixon in 1968 stiffing the democrats. Of course, before Nixon leaves office he pardons Hoffa who is back out of jail and ready to resume his role as president of the teamsters. Politics makes strange goodfella’s as the Teamsters support Nixon.
The final act shows the trip continuing to Detroit for a wedding and frequent car stops along the way as Joe sends Frank on errands to collect money. In one poignant scene, Russell tells Frank that they are going to stop in to see Jimmy.
Frank listens carefully as Russell detaches himself so effortlessly from the grisly task at hand. The visit to Jimmy will not be a friendly visit. And Frank will do his job because he always listens to his superior officers.
After Hoffa is brutally murdered, all hell breaks loose as other mobsters are gunned down and those lucky not to be knocked off are arrested and sent to prison including Russell and Frank. When they all die off, including Frank’s wife from natural causes, Frank is left alone. When his time in prison is up, he heads to an empty house. His children have moved out and they don’t really spend much time with him. He tries to visit his youngest daughter now an adult and played by Anna Paquin. Standing on a line in a bank holding onto a cane, the older Frank starts moving towards a bank teller who is cleverly revealed to be his youngest daughter (Paquin). She puts a closed sign up and leaves her station.
Frank ends up in a nursing home with no friends or family. He is visited by FBI men who try to get information from him. Like a true solider he reveals only rank, name and serial number. Nearing the end, a priest is trying to pray with him. Frank mumbles along not sure of the words. The priest asks him if he wants to seek forgiveness from God. The answer is tragic.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Steven Zaillian, based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” by Charles Brandt. Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Anna Paquin
Rating: R, for pervasive language and strong violence
Running time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Playing: Currently at the IFC Center on 6th Avenue.
On Netflix November 27.