After the film The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese devoted himself to the project he had been planning for 25 years and presented us with Silence, something totally different from what we are used to from him. This historical drama is a light philosophical journey, a melancholic and meditative experience and there were chances of this filmmaker taking a well-deserved retirement. However, to the great joy of the film world, Scorsese decided to gather the old guard and present us with a film from the genre that made him famous, a film he talked about for almost ten years. The big production companies were not too understanding about Scorsese’s demands, which amounted to almost 140 million dollars, because, according to them, the investment could easily represent a big risk.
That’s when the streaming service Netflix stepped in, which had no problem paying whatever it took to add a new Scorsese to its empire of original content. Their war with other production companies is well-known because they do not release their films in cinemas, except in limited numbers to meet the requirement for the film awards season. Last year’s film Roma proved that they can really swim in those waters, so now they are targeting the Best Picture award again. And so came The Irishman, an epic crime drama, with a proven cast of actors including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and others.
The main protagonist of the film is Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who at the beginning of the film drives a meat truck in Philadelphia. Through his actions and services, he comes under the protection of the head of the local mafia Rasel Bafalin (Pesci) and over time becomes a prolific killer in his organization. He advances in business and is assigned to help Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the president of the Teamsters, the strongest union in the US, in his affairs. Teamster is a cover for a large amount of organized crime, Hoffa uses the union pension fund for its schemes and projects, and Frank becomes one of the representatives of the union. After losing his leadership position, Hoffa begins to behave almost like a mobster, and Frank tries to bring him back from the path of self-destruction…
Steven Zeilien’s screenplay, based on Charles Brent’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, which deals with historical figures, has a plot that spans several decades, with a lot of burning issues and themes related to crime and politics. Frank is in a nursing home and recounts the events of his life to a priest who listens carefully to him (and to us). Frank is a veteran of the Second World War and one of the first stories is a reminder of the orders from the war when prisoners were forced to dig their own graves. This procedure was not clear to him – he was of the opinion that they were digging so that maybe during that time their killer would change his mind.
That story is irrelevant to the plot itself, but we soon realize that all the important characters in Frank’s story, as well as Frank himself, are exactly those soldiers who dug their own graves. This impression is further strengthened by the appearances of several passing mobsters, when Scorsese coolly informs us who that man is, when he was killed and in what way, and those ways are usually very violent. Like most of the characters in the film, Frank himself has no problem with killing (painting the house), and in the mafia world, one suggestion or one nod is enough for every deal or murder.
It can be said that the screenplay consists of three narrative themes. The first is Frank’s rise in the gangster world, his friendship with Jimmy and his various political and criminal maneuvers. Frank is the archetypal movie gangster faced with long and dark nights, alone and forgotten. The main theme of his stories is certainly the relationship with Jimmy Hoffa, who borrows money from the union fund for various mafia jobs. Frank becomes his right-hand man, a loyal bodyguard, and they become part of each other’s family. After losing the union, Jimmy increasingly mentions mobsters and confronts them, regardless of Frank’s worried hints – Jimmy has begun the process of digging his own grave.
The second theme follows Frank and Russell, who are now elderly, traveling with their wives to a wedding in Detroit. The journey is filled with comical details, Russell takes money along the way and it’s as if we are witnessing the journey of people who are totally different from those before or people who could have been if they had retired earlier. Instead, the journey only confirms Frank’s nature and his destiny. The third theme represents the core of the film, when Frank tells his story in the nursing home. At first I thought that the talking was a narration like in other Scorsese films, but this time it is not. The story serves us to, among other things, understand Frank, who tries to escape death with his philosophies, unaware that his grave has already been dug and there is no going back.