CRIME CULTURE: Director Martin Scorsese reunites with old buddies Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and an out-of-retirement Joe Pesci for one last hurrah making a masterpiece of a gangster film. Gary Johnston with this review of The Irishman.

Two blokes go into a pub. One is hard of hearing but nevertheless he goes to the bar and orders a couple of beers. The barman serves him and asks for $30. The bloke thinks that’s a bit steep and says so. The barman tells him it’s because it’s live music night. “Some Country and Western,” he says.

Back at the table, the slightly deaf fellow tells his mate about how much the drinks cost him. “It’s because there’s music on”.

“What kind of music?” asks his mate.

‘”Some cunt from Preston.”

A bloke on a train started talking to me once. In no time at all, he told me he was a retired Victorian Police Officer who now worked security on Manus Island, so the vibe was not altogether promising. For some reason, he started talking about movies, in particular, films he didn’t rate.
“I hate gangster movies,” he said. “The Godfather. Making heroes out of crooks and crims. Utter crap. A total waste of time”.

He got off at Preston.

Try the veal.

* * * * *

The Godfather isn’t a gangster movie. It’s a movie about America. Whose themes are immigration, aspiration and capitalism. The main leitmotif is a consideration of how poverty and desperation encourage greed and rapacity.

Because that’s how the free market works.

Similarly, the films of Martin Scorsese, the so-called ‘gangster movies’, Goodfellas and Casino, are also about America. The protagonists are not heroes, they’re victims. Victims of a system designed to protect power, engender avarice. They’re people – men – who did what they thought they had to do to survive, to thrive, take advantage of the opportunities, to exploit, abuse, kill whose ultimate ambition is to become ‘legitimate’, if only that level of genuine freedom was available to ‘people like them’.

In the meantime, circumstances and the real power wielded by the establishment ensure they must operate under the auspices of La Cosa Nostra, which literally translates to ‘this thing of ours’.

The Godfather is essentially a film about exploitation for profit.

Which brings us to The Irishman, the final piece in Scorsese’s ‘Gangster’ trilogy. Sure, there are gangsters, in it, button men, bosses and capos. There’s violence, lots of it, killings and cadavers.

And that’s the rub. The Irishman, is a film about death.

Or, more specifically, mortality. And how a life which prioritises profit over ethics, is essentially hollow and wasted.

Robert De Niro, who’s spent the last 10 years phoning in performances which could easily have destroyed his legacy, is Frank Sheehan, a hit man for the Philadelphia mob, recruited and mentored by Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino, a shrewd boss who doesn’t get his hands dirty, as bosses never do.
That’s Sheehan’s job. He’s an employee who paints houses. Paints them with blood. He does his own carpentry too. Gets rid of the body.

The sort of handyman you wouldn’t find in the Yellow Pages, not even under chick, chick, boom.

Sheehan is a WW2 veteran and his army experiences – he’s shown making German POW’s dig their own grave before summarily dispatching them – is the key to his apparent disregard for the sanctity of life. It’s not apathy though, for Frank Sheehan it’s business, survival. It’s what he does, who he is, his job, his means of survival, of prosperity, even.

Never is this ambiguity more explored than in the assignments Bufalino gives him, using the mob idiom of cipher and code.

‘It is what it is.’ That means death.

‘Sending someone to Australia’.

Down under. That also means death.

Some people consider The Irishman ponderous, slow and languid in its narrative. That it takes an age to make its points and the points it makes are essentially meaningless and cold.

Like, life. And death.

However, the overwhelming valedictory ambiance is deliberate, the main players, as well as the director are elderly now and even though the much talked about CGI is utilised to de-age them, it’s a generally unconvincing process.

In one scene, in which De Niro’s Sheehan beats up the owner of a grocery store for abusing his daughter, De Niro’s face is rendered artificially young, but his body, stiff and creaky, is heartrendingly, unmistakably, old.

Deliberately or unconsciously who knows, the scene exposes another, important layer, one that suggests that if maturity brings wisdom, it also brings with it the knowledge that the past is immutable, and all its weaknesses, faults and failures are forever fixed in time.


The acting, as you’d expect, is mighty. Al Pacino, as megalomaniac union boss Jimmy Hoffa, is purposely manic, Harvey Keitel underused but effective, De Niro vintage De Niro and Joe Pesci, lured out of a retirement in one final hurrah, simply immense as the devious, charismatic, quietly terrifying, Bufalino.

Away from the star-studded quartet, is Stephen Graham as ‘Tony Pro’, the reckless ‘Little Guy’, a Liverpudlian who’s come a long way since he played a somewhat unconvincing Billy Bremner in the Brian Clough bio-pic, ‘The Damned United’.

Critics have commented on the paucity of female roles and it’s true that this is film about men, but I thought Anna Paquin as Peggy, Sheeran’s daughter who, aware of his bloodied hands, washes her father out of her life to his eternal torment, lends an important and affecting, dignified presence.

Of course, it’s a Netflix production but having seen it in the cinema, I guess the lengthy running time is less easy to accept in a domestic setting; too many distractions.

No matter, it’s an important, arresting film which can’t help but make the uneasy viewer aware of the inevitable mortality of their future, whilst simultaneously reminding them of their past. The final scene, in which Sheehan, receiving confession from a priest in his aged person’s bedroom, refusing to recant but asking literally for the ‘door to be left open’ is quite simply a work of art.

Some people won’t get it. The bloke on the train didn’t, but that’s okay, not everyone can or will, see what’s in front of their eyes.

For some people, The Irishman is self-indulgent, ponderous and stagnant, unnecessary and over extended.

Like capitalism. Like life.

About Gary Johnston 79 Articles
Gary Johnston is an author, academic and former parole officer with decades of experience in the criminal justice system. He is True Crime News Weekly's Deputy Editor and Melbourne correspondent. His book 'No Previous Conviction' was published in May 2017 and is available on Amazon.

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