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Scorsese’s “The Irishman” offers a riveting take on Jimmy Hoffa mystery

The movie poster for "The Irishman," which is showing regionally in a handful of theatres until Nov. 27, when it moves to Netflix. - Photo courtesy of Netflix

Director adds Pacino to stable of favorite actors, including DeNiro and Pesci

By Jim Bloch

Spoiler Alert: The following article contains mild spoilers in a synopsis of the film. Read on at your own risk.

If Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is accurate, Jimmy Hoffa’s body will not be found under Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands or under the driveway of a Roseville home or a under a barn in Milford or under Hoffa’s own swimming pool in Hampton Township or even under the north wing of the St. Clair Inn.

Hoffa, angling to reclaim the presidency of International Brotherhood of Teamsters, vanished outside of Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township at Telegraph and 15 Mile Road — now an Andiamo restaurant — on July 30, 1975.

His body will not be found because there is no body.

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In Scorsese’s telling, Hoffa was killed by former bodyguard and confidante Frank Sheeran in a mob-ordered hit. A couple of low-rung thugs then hauled Hoffa’s body to a crematorium and incinerated him.

The movie is based on “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran & the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters & the Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa” by Charles Brandt.

Sheeran’s deathbed claim of capping Hoffa, as told to Brandt, has come under attack by a number of Hoffa experts, most recently by Dan Moldea, who told the Detroit Free Press on Nov. 22 that Hoffa’s body is buried in a 55-gallon drum in a chemical waste dump in Jersey City, NJ.

Regardless of the truth, Scorsese’s movie stands as a darkly majestic rumination on his half-century cinematic preoccupation with the mob and the fate of mobsters generally.

The picture could have been called “No Country for Old Men,” the name of the novel by Cormac McCarthy and the movie directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen.

Scorsese is 77. Robert DeNiro, who stars as Frank Sheeran, is 76. Joe Pesci, who exited retirement to play Sheeran’s mob protector Russell Bufalino, is 76. Al Pacino, directed by Scorsese for the first time but a veteran of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” movies, plays Hoffa; Pacino is 79. Harvey Keitel, who plays Angelo Bruno, is 80.

None of them has forgotten how to act.

Granted Scorsese may continue to direct movies until he’s 89, like Clint Eastwood, and the others may follow Eastwood’s long leading man career. But time is running out. Everyone seems to be looking backward — in a good way. Where does it all lead and what did it all mean?

For the mobsters, their violent lives appear to have led to fractured families, lives lived under the skitter of paranoia and the extreme narcissism that both feeds and flows from power.

Hoffa may have stood at the pinnacle of one of the most powerful unions in 20th Century America, one that won middle-class lifestyles for working-class families. But he is driven by obsessions. After being pardoned by President Richard Nixon, Hoffa is obsessed with returning to Teamster power. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, it also puts seemingly trivial fixations — ice cream sundaes, wearing suits to meetings, extreme punctuality — on par the union control. Not getting one or the other equally drives Hoffa to fury.

The world Scorsese portrays is a world you don’t want. There are stacks of money to be had, but what can you buy with them? Italian food in restaurants so dark that you could mistakenly eat your napkin? Giant Lincoln Continentals that get 14 miles to the gallon and belch exhaust? Chain-smoking wives who don’t respect you? Kids who won’t come to you with a problem for fear of what your solution will be?

The story shifts back and forth in time. Scorsese employs digital de-aging techniques that make it seem like we’re watching DeNiro and his associates in a film shot in 1990: It’s fantastic, if a little unnerving.

There are a number of terrific scenes —  dozen yellow cabs bob in the black water as union toughs push one after the other of the non-union taxis into a nighttime river — and plenty of grim humor.

Reflecting on loyalty and paranoia, Frank observes: “Normally three people can’t keep a secret unless two them are dead.”

The movie offers a Mafia history of politics in the early 1960s. Kennedy’s invasion of Cuba is undertaken as a favor to the mob, which arranged his electoral victory in Chicago, allowing him narrowly to beat Nixon; the mob, of course, wants its casinos back from Castro.

The glitziness of some of Scorsese’s earlier Mafia movies is missing here. The continuous tracking shot in “Goodfellas” that allows viewers to follow Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco from the street through back corridors and the kitchen and into the hyper-swank Copacabana here is replaced by a long tracking shot into a drab Catholic nursing home where we find DeNiro, wrinkled and wheelchair-bound, who will tell his story of Hoffa. The movie will end in the same nursing home.

In between, we see mobsters who start out with big families and circles of friends and American dreams. As their mob involvement deepens, they betray their families, kill their friends and corrupt their dreams. They’re left with nothing.

Everyone fears Sheeran, even his daughters. Daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina as a child and then Anna Paquin, hates Pesci’s character Russell, spurning his presents and barely uttering a word to him. In a twist that’s hard to grasp, the girl loves Hoffa. When Hoffa disappears, Peggy seems to intuit her father’s role in the event.

“She stopped talking to me after that,” Sheeran laments.

In a Scorsese movie, no one stops talking until it’s too late.

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