WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS!
“And that’s that.”
When Joe Pesci’s character gets whacked in GoodFellas, it’s so shocking you have to laugh. He thinks he’s about to get made, to get a mafia promotion that will turn him untouchable. The minute he enters the empty room, though, he knows he’s done for. He doesn’t even get to the “no” in “oh, no!” out before the big blam to the back of the head.
“And that’s that.”
Martin Scorsese’s newest gangster picture, The Irishman, features a situation that is eerily similar, but it plays out in a very different way. The conversation between these two movies is part of what makes it so special.
This time it isn’t Pesci (who is great in the new movie as the big Philadelphia-based boss Russell Bufalino) who meets his doom. It’s Al Pacino (in one of his most charismatic, off-the-wall roles ever) as former President of the Teamsters Union, Jimmy Hoffa.
Everyone knows that Hoffa disappeared in the mid 1970s. Well into the late 1980s you’d see “Where’s Jimmy Hoffa?” bumper stickers in union-connected areas. The Irishman, based off the (allegedly) true crime book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa tells the (alleged) story of what actually happened.
Sheeran, played with tenderness and depth by Robert De Niro, was a mob enforcer who kept his head down, did what he was told, and rose through the ranks. Devoid of any conscience (but who wished everyone would keep a level head) Sheeran ends up as Hoffa’s right arm. The arm that ultimately has to kill him.
In GoodFellas, Pesci gets blasted away in about 10 seconds. But The Irishman is told from the assassin’s point of view. De Niro’s Sheeran loves Hoffa. He’s protected him for years. But he can’t protect him from himself. Hoffa’s enormous ego and big mouth angers all the top guys in organized crime and, well, “it is what it is.” He’s got to make him go away.
The journey to get Hoffa into one of those empty rooms is long and excruciating. Pesci drives De Niro three hours to an airfield. He gets on a small plane to Detroit. A car is waiting with a map and a gun in the glove box. He has an address scribbled on his palm. When he arrives at the safe house, there’s someone putting down new linoleum in the foyer. That’s where he’s gonna do the thing. But first he’s gotta retrieve Hoffa from the motel where he thinks he’s meeting some other guys and drive him here.
Hoffa’s boy Chuckie is there. That’s good, he’ll trust Chuckie. There’s another guy, one of Tony Pro’s guys, and Hoffa won’t like that, so Sheeran sits the in back seat, patting the spot next to him. He’ll get in the car if Frank is there. He gives him a hug. There’s been a lot of tension with the bosses, but this is all gonna’ work out. During the drive they all bust balls about how to transport a frozen fish. Chuckie just put one down on the back seat and it’s a little wet and kinda smells. Never just put a fish in your car, Hoffa says.
By now you are watching this sequence and your heart is just pounding. Is Frank really going to do this? We know he’s a killer, but can he kill his best pal?
They get in the house. It’s empty. Just like in GoodFellas, Pacino’s Hoffa knows something’s up. He turns to say “let’s go” and makes for the door. He turns his back on Frank because he knows he can always trust Frank. But Frank’s already got his gun out. It’s going to happen right there, perfectly framed, a grand blaze of emotional violence.
But … not quite. Frank hesitates. Hoffa is nearly out. Then – almost out of frame – pop, pop. The biggest and most important mafia hit job in history (well, unless you count JFK) and Martin Scorsese doesn’t even really show it. It’s panicky and messy (blood all over the wall) and inelegant, and there aren’t any last words. Pacino flops over, De Niro lays the gun on him, and he leaves.
So much of what makes Scorsese a master is his choreography and the editing. Think of all those montages from GoodFellas and Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. That isn’t this movie. The Irishman, while about these same types of people (well, maybe not murderers in Wolf, but surely bad men) is a much more somber affair. It strips away allure and the fun. The ending, while brilliant, is nothing but a downer; the realization of a man that he’s lived a life of pure evil.
It’s this scene where all the energy comes crashing down. It’s atypical from Scorsese, but maybe the best scene in a movie this year.