“THE IRISHMAN” PAINTS A PICTURE OF VIOLENT MOB DRAMA
A Film Review by Tim Riley
Let’s face the fact that director Martin Scorsese knows more than a little something about delivering mob-themed movies. After all, he was raised in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York City that inspired several of his films. Italian heritage is hardly the measure to explain Scorsese’s success with mob dramas. His talent was evident in “Mean Streets,” one of his earliest works about a small-time hood aspiring to work his way up the ranks of the local mob. Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” which starred Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as two gangsters ascending the hierarchy of the Mafia, depicted serious violence. “Casino” is another great gangster film that also starred De Niro and Pesci.
The point of revisiting the prolific director’s mob hits is not just that he has a proclivity for using the same actors in key roles, but to underscore that he’s the best candidate to adapt Charles Brandt’s “I Heard You Paint Houses” book about a Mafia player. The titular character of “The Irishman,” based on Brandt’s book, is Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, who began his career as a truck driver and worked his way up to being a confidante to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the powerful leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union.
Delivering meat products for a trucking company, Sheeran had a fortuitous encounter when he met mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) while having engine trouble at a Texaco gas station. One may ask, what exactly is the meaning of the title of Brandt’s book? In his first conversation with Sheeran, Hoffa says “I heard you paint houses,” to which Sheeran replies in the affirmative, adding that “I also do my own carpentry.”
Painting a house is when the hitman splatters the blood of his victim on the interior of a building. Doing one’s own carpentry refers to the disposal of a body. Think of the effort necessary to prepare a pine box for a funeral service.
Scorsese frames the film from the point of view of the titular character. Having outlived just about everyone connected to the mob, Sheeran reminisces in his old age at a Catholic retirement home, showing few regrets other than a failed relationship with one of his daughters. The criminal life comes easily to Sheeran as he soon starts selling meat products from the back of his truck to Philadelphia gangster Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), who facilitates an introduction to crime boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel).
Meanwhile, these mob connections also bring Sheeran back into contact with Bufalino, leading to new work collecting cash payoffs in shakedowns. Stationed in Italy during World War II, Sheeran’s ability to speak the language ingratiates him to his new mob associates.
Sheeran’s family life gets complicated, particularly when his young daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina) realizes something ominous about her father when he viciously beats up a grocery store owner who had mistreated her. Later in life, the adult Peggy (Anna Paquin), knowing her father’s volatile temper and suspecting the worse, can only blankly stare at him during family gatherings, and his attempt at reconciliation even at the end of his days is met with stone-cold silence.
Upon Bufalino’s recommendation, Sheeran advances into a position of trust within the Teamsters Union to intimidate those who might pose a risk to Hoffa’s leadership and the use of the pension fund to finance mob-owned hotels in Las Vegas. Unmistakably, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, Hoffa loomed large as one of the most powerful men in America, given that the Teamsters Union controlled the distribution of goods throughout the country with a tight grip on the trucking industry. The film targets the political scene during the 1960 presidential election, noting the mob support that factored into John F. Kennedy winning the White House with ballot tinkering in Illinois and other campaign activities.
Things get ugly when the newly-elected president appoints his brother Bobby (Jack Huston) as Attorney General, who without missing a beat charges hard against Hoffa’s union for corruption. Hoffa also has an enemy with the hotheaded union rival Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham), known by the moniker of “Tony Pro,” who disrespects the Teamster’s leader by showing up late to meetings dressed like he’s going to a pool party.
Scorsese has packed the film with so many hoods it is hard to keep track. Amusingly, the introduction of new characters is accompanied by captions such as “shot eight times in the head in a Chicago parking lot” and “shot three times in the face.” Death by natural causes is rare. Given that “The Irishman” is from the point of view of Sheeran, the historical accuracy of this mob tale is in question, particularly as it relates to the disappearance of Hoffa in 1975 without any apparent trace.
Watching “The Irishman,” which runs at three-and-one-half hours, is a serious time commitment, but the effort is worthwhile because this film ranks in the top tier of Scorsese’s work. “Netflix” offers the comfort of viewing this epic at home.