Martin Scorcese is one of our greatest living film directors. The partnership he’s forged with Robert de Niro – from Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, through to King of Comedy and Raging Bull, right up to Casino in 1995 – has produced some of the most unforgettable moments in cinema history. So it beggars belief to learn that the only studio with pockets deep enough to finance their latest based-on-real-events collaboration is TV streaming service, Netflix. Happily, Edinburgh’s Filmhouse has the rights to show it on the big screen, and it is no great surprise to see this Saturday afternoon showing jammed to the rafters.
The Irishman in question is Frank Sheeran (De Niro), World War II veteran turned hitman, mob player and influential labour union official. When we first meet him, a tracking camera finds him sitting in a care home, white haired and frail, talking about his experiences, perhaps to Charles Brandt, on whose book this is based. Sheeran explains how, as a younger man, he met up with powerful mobster, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and was taken under his wing; how he ‘painted houses’ for Bufalino (a code term for performing executions); how he was eventually handed a key role in the powerful Teamster’s Union, where he became a close friend and confidente of the union’s President, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Scorcese’s film is a study of the innocuous nature of evil, how truly heinous people exert their influence upon society, and how their bloodstained hands are in evidence upon the political landscape. It also demonstrates how, in this Machiavellian world, no one can truly trust anyone, because there will always come a time when that trusted person will be surplus to requirements. The film regularly features onscreen credits detailing the eventual demise of these players: shot in the head, shot in the back, knifed, bludgeoned and in some cases ‘disappeared.’ Very few manage to live to old age.
It’s a delight to see De Niro finally back in a role worthy of his talents. His Frank Sheeran is a stolid, strangely humble figure, who says little but shows so much through his troubled gaze. The acting throughout is totally naturalistic and there’s unexpected humour to be found in the deliberate clumsiness of the dialogue. The much discussed ‘de-aging’ technology is flawless; after the first transition from old De Niro to middle-aged De Niro, I forget it’s happening and am just happy believe that I’m watching a feature shot over decades. It’s also lovely to see De Niro and Pacino working together for the first time since Heat, and to see the great Joe Pesci exercising the kind of acting chops we haven’t seen since Good Fellas.
This is a man’s world. The female characters don’t get an awful lot to do here and it’s irksome to see Anna Paquin, as Sheeran’s troubled daughter, Peggy, reduced to seven words of dialogue. Maybe Scorcese’s point is that women were generally excluded from meaningful conversation in this era, but I wanted the catharisis of seeing her properly confront her father for what she’s witnessed over her childhood. It’s my only real criticism – but an important one, I think.
A word of warning. The film weighs in at a bladder-challenging three hours and thirty-five minutes and the problem is, there’s no obvious point to slip away to the loo. Could it be shorter? Yes, undoubtedly – but it’s to the film’s great credit that I manage to stay in my seat right to the final poignant frame. Those with a decent sized telly and a subscription to Netflix can watch it, with toilet breaks, from next week.
But if you can see it on the big screen, grab the opportunity. And all credit to Netflix for making this happen.