last updated: 7 December 2019 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 1038 words)
The movie was adapted from the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt about Frank Sheeran. It has been in development since 2004, finally seeing a release in 2019 with financing from Netflix.
So now it’s here, was it worth the wait, and should you watch it?
Read on, but if you haven’t seen the movie, be aware that there are spoilers.
The movie tells Sheeran’s story, following from shortly after his return from World War II where he served with distinction. He marries and tries to earn enough money to support his growing family. Initially, he works as a truck driver, but increasingly he finds side activities to supplement his wages.
As his criminal activities increase, Sheeran comes within the orbit of Russell Bufalino, boss of the Bufalino crime family. For Bufalino, Sheeran becomes an increasingly valuable associate—Sheeran’s specialty is murder and he has no hesitation in carrying out Bufalino’s orders when he is dispatched to kill. For Sheeran, it is like being back in the military when an order is given, it is to be carried out without question.
The relationship between Sheeran and Bufalino is symbiotic, each helps the other and increasingly, the lives of each and the families of each become intertwined.
To further extend his influence, Bufalino introduces Sheeran to the Teamsters' boss, Jimmy Hoffa. The three way relationship benefits each man.
Hoffa understands Sheeran’s talents and takes him into his confidence. Slowly, Sheeran moves from acting as Hoffa’s protection to becoming a union official. As Sheeran becomes a high ranking Teamster official, we see the interaction between the union, the mob, and the politicians.
With mob and union help, Kennedy is elected. Nothing is written, but there is a clear understanding that Kennedy will act against Cuba so that the mob can return to their gambling interests. The support against Cuba fails and Bobby Kennedy (as Attorney General) seeks to break the union and the mob.
There are conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s murder. This movie does not repeat any of those theories. However, the key characters don’t seem overly concerned with Kennedy’s death and they are definitely pleased when Bobby ceases to be Attorney General.
As the story continues, the interests of the mob and Hoffa diverge to the point that Hoffa becomes a problem for the mob. A problem that needs to be addressed.
Bufalino charges Sheeran with the role of dispatching Hoffa. The mob then cremate the body. The on screen explanation for Hoffa’s disappearance fits with the known facts (such as there are).
For Sheeran, there is a clear dilemma—he is loyal to both men. However, he understands that the Hoffa problem will be addressed; the only question is whether he is involved. If he is not involved, then he will have shown disloyalty to Bufalino, the man who has supported him and enriched him, and the man who still wields influence.
There’s a certain getting the old gang back together feel with the weight of the movie being carried by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino (who plays Teamsters boss, Jimmy Hoffa), and Joe Pesci (playing Russell Bufalino).
The three performances are flawless. However, for me, the standout performance of the movie comes from Pesci. Pesci came out of retirement to make this movie and I’m glad he did. What he delivers is an understated stillness. A bigger, noisier performance would have diminished the horror of the barbaric acts that he is directing others to perform. By standing back, Pesci allows space for the audience to really see what is happening.
On the face of it, The Irishman is a movie about a murderer. On the flip side, this is a movie about family. For me, the gangster piece of the movie is fine—it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, but it’s quite watchable. Where the movie comes alive, for me, is in the story it tells about family.
There are three families:
- First, there is Sheeran’s biological family, his two wives and his children.
- Second, there is Sheeran’s “found family”, the mob and the Teamsters.
- Third, there are the families whose members were murdered by Sheeran.
In one of the earlier scenes, Sheeran attacks a local trader who has mistreated his (Sheeran’s) daughter, Peggy. The attack is brutal and ugly. It repulses the child who witnesses the act.
Sheeran’s motives are clear and are understandable—he is a man protecting his daughter. And by protecting her in such a public manner, he sends a clear message to anyone else who may consider mistreating any of his daughters.
While the attack sends out a clear message, it is the first step to putting a barrier between father and daughter. Now the children know the consequences, they cannot discuss any problems with their father.
As the children grow and they understand more fully what their father does for a living—especially when he is jailed—the rift grows, finally reaching the point where Peggy refuses all contact with her father.
As he works for his found family, Sheeran is more welcomed into that family. But each step closer to the found family, is a step farther from his biological family. In many ways, although he is alive, Sheeran is just as absent from his biological family’s life as the men he kills are then absent from their families.
At the end, Sheeran is alone. His found family are all dead or in jail and his biological family have built their own lives without him.
Should You Watch the Movie?
Of course you should watch the movie. Anything made by Scorsese featuring De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci, not to mention the rest of the cast who deliver uniformly great performances, is worth watching.
However, I feel it’s probably one you will watch because of the director and the cast, rather than one you will love. For me, I’m glad I’ve watched it, but it’s unlikely I’ll want to watch it again.