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Oscars 2019 Best Picture Review: The Irishman

Irishman

Robert de Niro (second from left)  plays Frank Sheeran and Al Pacino (second from right) plays Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. A story about loyalty and betrayal.

Just when you think Martin Scorsese has done everything he could in film, along comes The Irishman. This film may not be his best, but it adds to his stack of films one can call great works.

Martin Scorsese is undoubtedly the master of gangster films or Mafia films. We have sensed there would be successors in the likes of Quentin Tarantino, but that has not yet come to be. Tarantino has his own gangster style, but Scorsese films are the Mona Lisa’s of gangster movies, if you can truly call a gangster movie a Mona Lisa! Scorsese has shown his versatility in film making since the beginning of this century. His films since the new century began have taken a wide range of genres from epic to fantasy to a family film to business-scam drama to dark comedies to religious biopics. However when watching The Irishman, his first gangster movie since The Departed, it only seems natural that gangster movies were what Scorsese was born to do. Although films in the other genres he tackled are very good, it just seems natural that way. Even the excitement of having Scorsese ‘all-stars’ like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel adds to the excitement. Additions like Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Anna Paquin also add to the excitement.

Now the film has a lot of common elements you’ll expect from a Scorsese gangster movie. It tells of a man and his involvement with the mafia and of his daily duties. It also goes back to his past in how he developed the right type of insensitivity to become as consistent hitman. It also tells of some of his more legendary kills. The film also adds something different. It adds in the story of the ‘vacation of a lifetime.’ It’s not something you’d expect to be in a Scorsese film, but it’s done in a fashion you’d expect to see from Scorsese.

However it’s the aftermath that one would not expect to see in a Scorsese film. It’s like it almost shifts to a completely different film for the last half-hour. That’s what hit me about the film. It not only tells the story of a man who committed a lot of murders and also allegedly committed the murder of the man behind the most intriguing missing person case in the past half-century. It tells of the aftermath of how he would come to regret his actions over the years. Even of how he appeared to have it all and win it with fear during his lifetime, but would be doomed to die alone. You can pinpoint exactly where in the scene where Peggy ask Frank about Jo and Frank calls a distraught Jo up trying to comfort her, but knowing he’s the one who killed her husband. That’s a change of pace from Goodfellas about a mobster who lived the mob life, was imprisoned for it and regrets nothing. Even before the scene of the killing of Hoffa, there are freeze-frame montages that mention of the aftermaths of others involved in the Philly mob Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino were a part of, including those shot dead or imprisoned for life.  I think the whole theme of the movie wasn’t just mob life, but how everyone involved pays in the end.

Now one thing we should remember is that we should not completely embrace this story as a true story, even though it’s very accurate. The film is based off the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Brandt is a former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defense attorney and he’s the man who interviewed Frank Sheeran shortly before his death. During the interview, Sheeran told of his life as a hitman and of his own involvement with Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran confessed it all to Brandt months earlier and saw a priest the last few months of his lives so he could die with a clear conscience in December of 2003. The case of Jimmy Hoffa is still unsolved and his body has never been found. The FBI have had a lot of stories and sources, but it’s Sheeran’s story that’s the one they’re most going with. However there are still some naysayers that are claiming that Sheeran lied in the interview. Whatever the situation, this missing case is still unclosed. I won’t completely call Sheeran’s story the whole truth, but I believe he makes a strong case and it’s hard for me to sense him lying.

Once again, Martin Scorsese proves himself to the be master of gangster movies. Quentin Tarantino may take ruthless killers to a new level, but Martin is still the master. This film that he directs with a script written by Steve Zaillian is a complex film to pack into 3 hours and 20 minutes. Usually if a film is that long, I would expect the director to justify it. Martin has delivered a lot of three-hour films in the past, but I’m convinced he has justified the time here. If you yourself are one of the people that has been fascinated by Jimmy Hoffa and his missing story, this will be a film that will intrigue you.

It’s not just the story that will intrigue you, but how the Scorsese/Zaillian creates it and arranges it from beginning to end. It starts as the audience visits a nursing home, tours around seeing family after family and comes across a lonely man: Frank Sheeran. Then it jumps into 1975 and the story of how Frank, his wife, his mob boss Russell Bufalino and Russ’ wife Carrie were going on a ‘trip of a lifetime’ from Philadelphia to Detroit. Then it paves on how it led to all this from Frank’s days of truck driving to introduction to the mob to being a hitman for hire to a close friend of Jimmy Hoffa. The story shows of Hoffa’s rise, downfall and attempted comeback. It also shows Frank’s struggle of who should he be loyal to: Hoffa or the mob? It slows the moment of the ‘big day’ down and it delivers the aftermath with feeling that cuts deep. Also it treats the film as if Sheeran is giving us an interview. Almost like we’re Charles Brandt! I have to say the format of the film works and will keep one intrigued whether they’re a fan of Scorsese films, fan of mob films, or just have an interest in Jimmy Hoffa. It’s interesting how the film begins with “In The Still Of The Night” and it’s nice to hear and is replayed at the end, but it sounds haunting at the end. The film and its layout of the story makes it work.

Big credit to Robert de Niro for playing the role of Frank Sheeran. To do Frank, he has to cut deep into the man and how he went from a fearless killer who was able to adopt the coldness of killing to being the man with regrets in the end and wants to die with a clear conscience. Robert does an excellent job of it. Also excellent is Joe Pesci playing the mob boss who wants to call the shots of Sheeran and Hoffa. Pesci really knew how to steal the scenes in the film. Al Pacino was also great as Hoffa. He did an excellent job in delivering a multi-dimensional and complex performance of a man in history who was just as complicated as he was a legend. There were a lot of good supporting performances from Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Harvey Keitel. However one of the biggest standout performances came from one with little dialogue: that of Anna Paquin. Her role of Peggy Sheeran required her to say with her physical actions and facial expressions and she did an excellent job. Even one of the few spoken lines she had in the film “Why haven’t you called Jo?” would pave the way to where the film changed from a story of mob work to the story of regret.

The film should also be admired for its technical merits too. There’s the visual effects team that did the top-notch CGI effects to take the ages of de Niro, Pesci and Pacino back 30 years without them needing heavy make-up. It’s not just the actors acting younger than their ages but the CGI too! There’s also the costuming of Sandy Powell and the set designs by Bob Shaw and Regina Graves to take the film back to the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s. There’s also the inclusion of music into the film that takes the film back to its set times. The score from Robbie Robertson also ads to the film.

The Irishman may be a true story, or it may be one big lie. However you put it, it’s a very telling story that paints a vivid but dark picture of what might have happened in one of the most intriguing missing cases ever. It’s also another film Scorsese directs and puts together in excellent fashion. It’s easy to see why it’s another contender for this year’s Oscars.