Remember when VHS was a thing and epic films like Titanic, Lord Of The Rings and Doctor Zhivago took up two tapes, twice the shelf space and therefore further branded their larger than life perch in cinema by doing so? Well, Martin Scorsese’s I heard You Paint Houses aka The Irishman would have likely taken up three tapes and thrice the shelf space, and will surely go on to leave a similar mark as aforementioned films. We will of course never see a VHS let alone a DVD as it’s a Netflix original film but none of that diminishes the monolithic power of this brilliant, vast and mesmerizing piece of work. It’s not just a mob epic, historical treatise, characters study or interpersonal drama, although it is all those things in top form. Scorsese is 77 years old, his actors in similar range. They are all on the far side of the hill in terms of their careers and with that comes a certain rumination on everything, a parting of the clouds, quietening of thought and deep introspection on one’s own life, and what it all means at the end. It’s a powerful yet fiercely inward look at a man throughout most of his life and then, seemingly snuck up on him as I imagine it does to us all, nearing its end.
Robert DeNiro is stoic, guarded Frank Sheeran, a man who learned loyalty and brutality in the military and has brought it home with him to implement in a fearsome career as a mafia hitman, union boss and confidante to Al Pacino’s gregarious Jimmy Hoffa, a man synonymous with American history. Joe Pesci is Russell Bufalino, the entrepreneurial crime boss who takes Frank under his wing and eventually forges a lifelong yet often stormy friendship with him that is eventually upended by Hoffa. The tapestry of American lore and incident flows fluidly with Scorsese’s talent for music, montage, beautiful sound design and always reliable editing from the great Thelma Schoonmaker. De Niro plays Frank as a guy whose loyalty goes seemingly beyond his own understanding sometimes and when he reaches that final bend in the road and observes the choices behind him and what little light he has before him, is somehow bewildered how it all went down, like he was on autopilot or didn’t see the big hits coming. Pacino is a fucking tornado of scene stealing gusto as Hoffa, the only actor here to really let it rip and shoot for the moon. Pesci disarms is by being quiet, calm, observant and showing none of the piss n’ vinegar, coked up squirrel mannerisms he is infamous for, it’s a brilliantly counterintuitive piece of work and it was so worth the wait for him to come out of retirement. Harvey Keitel is superb in a cameo as crime boss Angelo Bruno and the supporting cast is densely seasoned with excellent performances from Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Katherine Narducci, Dominick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Paul Ben Victor and more. Anna Paquin gives a brief but devastating turn as Frank’s daughter Peggy, his anchor point and one of the key ways we see his actions affect his environment over time.
I won’t pretend to be a Scorsese completist as I’ve still not seen some of his best regarded films and tend to gravitate towards the ones that hardcore fans place lower in his canon, but this has to be one of the finest by anyone’s count. It feels like a goodbye, even if all involved go on to make some work here and there before the end, this is the last ‘getting the gang back together’ picture for them, and they make the most out of it. DeNiro’s Frank candidly and occasionally wistfully recalls the story from a humdrum retirement home common room, speaking pretty much directly to the audience. Scorsese too, although always unseen behind the camera, speaks out to his audience and gifts us this beautifully crafted package with all the tricks, talent, passion and devotion to filmmaking he has in store. This can almost be seen as a companion piece of sorts to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood; both are late career magnum opuses heavily stocked with a rogues gallery of their friends and cinematic family, both are sprawling epics that take place in our world but speculate heavily and rearrange history to bring a vivid, enthralling and important story to life. Whether or not you believe that what went down here with Hoffa, Sheeran et al is true or not is irrelevant to this film. It’s a story set in an America of yore and one that isn’t necessarily always about the apparent events on display, but what they will lead to and how they will be looked back upon by these characters decades later. A masterpiece.