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Ageing bulls

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, now in their 70s, reunite for the first time in more than 20 years for The Irishman. This time, the tenor is different.

The on-screen collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro began, much like the universe, with a big bang, but their friendship was forged over food. The pair were on nodding terms around New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1960s, though it was at a Christmas dinner in the early 1970s that they were formally introduced by the director Brian De Palma. De Niro had admired Scorsese’s 1967 debut, Who’s That Knocking At My Door, finding it to be an authentic representation of life in their neighbourhood, and when the director returned to that territory in 1973 with Mean Streets, he cast De Niro as the impish troublemaker Johnny Boy. The actor is first seen wearing a mud-coloured leather jacket, a short-brimmed fedora and the scallywag grin of the Artful Dodger. He strolls past a mailbox, drops something into it, scampers toward the camera then ducks into a doorway as an explosion fills the street behind him. He is 30 but could pass for 20, and looks capable of outrunning anything. The Grim Reaper? Fuggedaboutit.

In The Irishman, death has finally caught up with him. That much is clear from the film’s opening shot. Nearly 30 years ago in Goodfellas, the camera weaved breathlessly through the bustling kitchens of the Copacabana club but now it glides, almost sedated, along the corridor of a nursing home before coming to rest on a white-haired old coot in a wheelchair. This is Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a former killer for the Bufalino crime family in Pennsylvania. Finding himself with time as well as blood on his hands, he narrates his life story. And though its stark violence and the themes of loyalty and betrayal will be familiar from much of Scorsese’s work with De Niro, the tenor is newly mournful and tinged with remorse. Call it Oldfellas.

The title we see at the start of the movie is not The Irishman, but I Heard You Paint Houses: the book by Charles Brandt (based on interviews with the real Sheeran, who died 16 years ago) from which Steven Zaillian has adapted the screenplay. Much of the dialogue is evasive or euphemistic – “It is what it is” serves as a refrain – and it all starts with that title. To paint houses is to be a hitman. When Frank receives a call from the charismatic, powerful Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who is enquiring about his house-painting, he points out proudly that he also does his own carpentry – which is to say he disposes of the mess afterwards.

Zaillian has structured the film as an extended flashback to a road trip which Frank took in 1975 with his boss and mentor Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their respective wives. Smaller flashbacks are secreted within that larger one; in an extraordinary move, someone else even has a flashback within Frank’s flashback, which rivals for boldness the moment in Casino when a character’s narration is interrupted – silenced forever, in fact – by his own murder on-screen.

By 1975, Frank has been a bodyguard and confidante of Jimmy Hoffa’s for around 15 years, and is trying to ameliorate relations between him and the mob, who have grown impatient with the union boss’s grandstanding. The friendship between the two men grows out of the broiling brew of crime and politics in the 1950s and 1960s. The mob, with its deep Teamsters connections, works to get Kennedy elected only for the president’s brother Bobby to crack down as attorney general on those same gangsters. The patient analysis of the relationship between ballot box and bullet lends the film a topicality that transcends its period setting.

Much has been made of the reunion in The Irishman between Scorsese and De Niro: this is their ninth movie together and their first since Casino in 1995. But there are two other Scorsese veterans here whose presence is even more notable. Harvey Keitel, now 80, was Scorsese’s De Niro before De Niro came along – they made four pictures together in quick succession, with Keitel playing Scorsese’s alter ego in Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets – but then nothing until The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 (Keitel was Judas) and now The Irishman, in which he is the boss of bosses, seated motionless at a restaurant table.

Completing the Gangsters Reunited effect is Pesci, tempted out of retirement to play Russell. His performances for Scorsese have without exception been vicious thugs, so we can only fear for Russell’s wife when she lights up a cigarette in the car after he has warned her not to. Had she known that her husband is played by the man who stabbed an enemy in the neck with a pen in Casino, she might have chewed a stick of gum instead. The only shock, though, is the cut to the next image: Frank and Russell kicking their heels at the roadside while the women finish their smokes. Pesci’s casting turns out to be brilliantly counterintuitive, rechannelling his volatility into stillness, and that restraint is mirrored in an approach to violence which denies us the hysterical identification Scorsese has encouraged in the past. During a barber-shop massacre, the camera gazes into the window of a florist’s shop as though fast-forwarding straight to the funeral.

Russell’s most chilling scene shows him preparing a salad while ordering a man’s murder. The ritual of food has always been important to Scorsese, who included his mother’s recipe for spaghetti with meatballs in the 1974 documentary Italianamerican and depicted lovingly the slicing of garlic with razorblades in Goodfellas. The crime of overcooking steak in Raging Bull even leads to violence, but then so do most things in that film. 

No food matters to Jimmy Hoffa more than ice cream. There’s a flamboyance to his predilection for the cold stuff, and it feeds into Pacino’s performance, which is as colourful as a knickerbocker glory. It needs to be: everything around him is so sombre, the visual palette running from autumnal to wintry, that without him the movie might be gripped by trigger mortis.

The other life-force is Frank’s daughter Peggy, who provides a solitary reproach to Frank, and runs joyfully into Jimmy’s arms while recoiling from Russell and her father. Played as a child by Lucy Gallina and in adulthood by Anna Paquin, she is not so much a character as a compendium of appalled reaction shots. Paquin made her name at the age of 11 in The Piano as the daughter of a mute woman but now it’s she who is wordless, or almost: she gets just one line, but does what she can to suggest an interior life to which Frank has no access. Scorsese has hinted at the limitations of violent men before, showing adversaries scrambling pitifully in the dirt at the end of Gangs of New York, but this is his first film to make that impoverishment its defining theme.

It’s about time: De Niro is 76, while Scorsese will turn 77 while The Irishman is still in cinemas, before it sees out the rest of its days on Netflix from late November. The streaming service was the only entity with pockets deep enough to finance the digital de-ageing technology required to shave decades off the principal actors during flashback scenes. Technology can’t do everything, and the pixel face-scrub turns out to be less effective than the old-fashioned make-up used on De Niro when he was 39 but playing much older as another gangster looking back on a misspent life in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. The physicality in The Irishman is problematic (those artificially smoothed faces attached to stodgy, creaking bodies) but less so than the grey mist in the actors’ eyes which makes them resemble patients at a cataracts clinic.

The picture’s virtues, and its affectingly plangent mood, outweigh any not-so-special effects. Informed at the nursing home that a former associate is dead, Frank demands to know who did it, not realising that it was an assassin with a higher strike-rate even than him: cancer. Reflecting on the old days, he says it is “water under the dam”, his linguistic slip revealing what we have already suspected: that his barrier to emotion is not an impregnable one. The film’s most eloquent image turns out also to be its simplest – a wrist-watch placed next to a pistol on a bedside table; time and mortality side by side, ticking down to that last inevitable bang. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 06 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong