A mob hitman recalls his possible involvement with the slaying of Jimmy Hoffa.
Martin Scorsese’s latest film since Silence tells the story of World War II vet Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who becomes a hit man for Italian mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) in 1950s Philadelphia. Recounted through flashbacks as Sheeran sits in a retirement home, the film follows Sheeran’s gradual rise.
Sometimes funny, but mostly serious, the clever film shows Scorsese’s reach in terms of direction and Hollywood connections, as evidenced by the star-studded cast. Based on the non-fiction work by former investigator Charles Brandt called I Hear You Paint Houses, the film touches on notable historical figures like Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Bobby Kennedy (Jack Huston). But the focus never strays far from Sheeran’s story, sometimes on the fringes and sometimes centrally located.
Even on his ascent, when it might seem like this is a “success” story, Sheeran’s mob time isn’t glamorous. He gets divorced, intimidates his daughter (watching your dad curb stomp another adult will do that), and constantly finds the demands of Bufalino and Hoffa increasing. Against the backdrop of the changing world (Castro! Political intrigue! Hoffa’s machinations!), Sheeran provides the audience with a viewpoint into the 1950s to 1990s culturally, as well as specifically in the criminal underground operating in broad daylight.
From a production level, the film is fantastic, sprawling and well shot, with wardrobe, automobiles, and locations primed to reflect the film’s eras. Even the de-aging process used on each of the veteran actors used here isn’t too distracting (although, occasionally, “younger“ Sheeran’s eyebrows are clearly off.) And, story wise, this is an interesting look back into the unglamorous life of crime, and probably Scorsese’s filmography, too.
The director behind Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed certainly knows how to spin a mobster yarn, but there is nothing ostensibly pro-violence here. Instead, it’s a look at where a violent life can take a person like Sheeran—to isolation, to great personal loss, to a questioning of what values he has chosen to make his own. In the end, Sheeran is a broken old man who chased the life he thought he needed to, but in the end, he sacrificed everything, including relationships with friends and family, in pursuit of his job.
That alone should be a warning to everyone in the audience, mobster or not.