De Niro delivers seductive look into banality of evil in Scorsese's 'The Irishman'

  • Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), right, recalls his friendship with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) in "The Irishman."

    Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), right, recalls his friendship with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) in "The Irishman." Courtesy of Netflix

Updated 11/7/2019 11:30 AM

"The Irishman" -- ★ ★ ★

Yes, this movie runs 209 minutes (yikes!), but Martin Scorsese, for the most part, holds each one accountable for our time and interest.


The familiar mob subject matter in "The Irishman" may appear to be old Fedora for Scorsese. But the most fiercely Catholic of movie auteurs twists the narrative knife by seducing us with sympathy for a monstrous mobster, then forcing us to later ask ourselves, what have we done?

"The Irishman," an introspective study of a man incapable of introspection, packs a dense screenplay from former Washington Post film critic Steven Zaillian, based on Charles Brandt's book, "I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa."

It opens with elderly World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert De Niro in a soul-weary mode) relating his life to an unseen listener in scattered flashbacks.

Frank recalls a 1970s road trip he took with his pal, mob boss Russell Bufalino (an understated Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to do this perfectly modulated performance) and their wives.

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An old Texaco service station triggers memories for Frank from 20 to 30 years earlier, with Industrial Light & Magic giving the middle-aged cast members digital makeovers to look decades younger. (The effect seems jarring at first, but it works.)

We discover that Frank originally met Russell at that service station in the 1950s, back when Frank drove a truck for Philadelphia Teamsters 107.

A second run-in with Russell propels Frank into a higher orbit of illicit income.

He works as a bagman for crime boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Soon, Frank becomes a trusted enforcer, and a ruthless assassin.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), center right, develops a friendship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) in "The Irishman."
Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), center right, develops a friendship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) in "The Irishman." - Courtesy of Netflix

"The Irishman" whisks us through decades of Frank's underworld career, meeting mobsters (introduced by on-screen displays revealing the dates and methods of their violent demises) and showing why the mob might want President Kennedy killed.


More significant is the longtime friendship between Frank and hotheaded, egocentric Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa (an uncharacteristically restrained Al Pacino).

Frank's first wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) -- unceremoniously dumped in a quick voice-over -- and his second wife Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) prefer not to know how Frank brings home the bacon.

But Frank's young daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina), aghast at her father's propensity for violence, has carefully observed him and sees what her father has become.

Later in life, Peggy (Anna Paquin), suspecting Dad had something to do with Hoffa's disappearance, shuts him out.

"The Irishman" relegates its women to reactive roles, but that makes perfect sense in a movie reflecting men's viewpoints, not reality.

Far more sinister is how De Niro's empathetic performance -- we can read every emotion, every thought, every conflict, on his face -- sucks us into Frank's mindset as a regular guy trying to provide for his family.

How? By wiping out other people's families?

Frank personifies the banality of evil reinforced by a culture built not on a devotion to Catholic teachings, but on self-interest, killing and trading in wives like used cars.

If Peggy has no function beyond staring in judgment, it might be because she's not just a character. She is us.

She represents those who see the Franks of the world as they truly are, and reject them. This is why "The Irishman" qualifies as Scorsese's boldest work.

It slyly critiques the ethics of a genre he reinvented, and gives us a clear choice of characters for us to identify with: hypocritical sociopaths who allow societal norms to dictate their beliefs and behavior? Or, observant moralists with spines of steel?

A contemplative final shot bleeds with melancholy reflection on a life riddled with bad choices like so many bullets.

What else would you expect from the most fiercely Catholic of all film auteurs?

• • •

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Other: A Netflix release. Rated R for language, violence. 209 minutes

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