In the history of cinema, few killers have been as passive as Robert De Niro's Frank Sheeran. Oddly enough, it's completely credible and at the heart of what makes The Irishman so good. Seeing director Martin Scorsese team with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci again, with the addition of Al Pacino, for a movie about gangsters, one might expect something like Goodfellas or Casino. In some ways it is--rhythm of the dialogue, the complexity of the characters. But while those other two films were analyses of the worlds of gangs and greed, The Irishman simply uses that world to tell another story. Scorsese couldn't really do otherwise in a world that now has The Sopranos. And the Irishman is a brilliant step in the evolution of the gangster film.
We meet Sheeran in a nursing home and he recounts his story apparently to thin air. The film was based on a non-fiction book called I Heard You Paint Houses consisting mainly of an interview with the real Sheeran. But the isolation of De Niro's Sheeran, the idea that he has to tell his story to an empty room, underlines his tragedy very well.
Working as a truck driver, the young Sheeran first meets Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a major figure in the Bufalino crime family. At that point, he's just a nice man who helps fix Frank's truck. Gradually, Frank falls into the sequence of reciprocal favours that makes him a hitman for the mob.
A flashback to World War II shows how he first became comfortable with killing, ordering two prisoners to dig their own grave, in retrospect only wondering why the prisoners did it since they must have known what would happen. No remorse, no horror. From obeying the orders of the U.S. government he goes to obeying orders of his friends.
It's sweet watching the relationship between Frank and Russ but Frank grows even closer to the man he's assigned to protect, union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa gradually starts to confide in him, they share hotel rooms, and their families get to know each other. But we all know what happened to Hoffa--well, we all don't know, exactly.
The break between Russ and Jimmy introduces the first real conflict in Frank's life. When he tries to explain himself to his daughter later he's reduced to helpless stutters, not simply because the subject deals with matter he can't reveal but because it deals with things he can't articulate, truths he'd followed instinctively all his life. He's not equipped to talk to people who don't feel the same way, which inevitably leads to isolation for this man for whom friendships are everything.
The much talked about de-aging in the film isn't perfect but it certainly does a good enough job. If I can accept Steven McQueen in The Blob, I can certainly accept Robert De Niro here. And these really were the best actors for the roles. With so many movies to-day where the dialogue is endlessly simple and explicit, it's refreshing to see a movie that knows how silences communicate. How we can watch, without anyone ever saying it, Frank informing Jimmy his life's in danger and Jimmy's reaction, showing just the right level of hubris to miss Frank's point about a basic sense of loyalty which Jimmy mistakenly sees as a system of blackmail. A lovely film and a lovely showcase for these actors.
The Irishman is available on NetFlix.