Actor Spotlight: Joe Pesci in The Irishman

Joe Pesci in the Irishman is one of those transcendent moments in movie history where the career of an actor dove tails perfectly with the role you see played out on film.

I'll tell you what I mean... One of the hidden strengths of Unforgiven is the link that we subconsciously attach to Clint Eastwood's character William Munny. This cowboy bandit who is out of his prime, grapples with his violent past as he tries to justify the bounty he is trying to collect. We don't see any of this violent past in Unforgiven... but we know its there. Because it's Clint Eastwood's acting career, which is filled with cowboy outlaws, that plays right into this character and gives us a clear picture of what that violent past could have looked like.

Joe Pesci's career plays a similar role in backing up the quiet strength that American-Italian Mobster, Russel Bufalino, has on the screen in The Irishman.

Russell Bufalino is feared and respected inside and outside of his circle... But Joe Pesci does none of his usual antics that made him famous to establish that fear in the audience. His past roles are iconic, and include his role of Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas and Nicky Santoro in Casino.

A quote that perfectly describes the tenacity of his roles was Robert De Niro's character Ace in Casino talking about Nicky...

"No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on. You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And if you beat him with a gun, you better kill 'em, because he'll keep comin' back and back until one of you is dead."

So after all these years, that is the Joe Pesci we know....

So when he comes back into this mob world and plays the quiet and controlled, Russell Bufalino... you understand that he is feared. And you have no problem believing that he is, even though you rarely see him getting his hands dirty on the screen.

There is one powerful scene where he simply comes home, shirt bloody, and Russell's wife Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) just asks him to give her his clothes so she could get rid of them. Honestly such a quiet scene, but so much you can pull from it. First being that this was a normal occurrence for Russell in his younger years and second this was not the first time Carrie has gotten rid of blood soaked evidence for Russell.

I covered this in my Goodfellas Backstory, but what made Joe Pesci's character unique from Liotta and De Niro was that Tommy's heritage could be traced 100% back to the old country, which meant that he could be "made" and was essentially an heir to the empire.

Now in The Irishman, there is a scene at the beginning where Pesci and De Niro break bread and they are speaking Italian and Pesci talks about his heritage in the old country (see cover photo of this post). And in this scene we see a quiet demeanor where Pesci is kind of feeling out De Niro and if he wants to bring him in and give him some side jobs, like "Painting Houses" (which refers to killing for money).

There is so much sentiment for me when it comes to seeing Joe Pesci in this role. Because in some ways, if Tommy DeVito had a more controlled chaos like Russell in his younger years, this is who Tommy could have been! And he could have been a guy like Pauli from Goodfellas...

"Pauli might have moved slow... but that was just because Pauli didn't have to move for anybody." - Henry Hill (Ray Liotta - Goodfellas)

And it is that slow, quiet strength that is Joe Pesci in this movie. And it's history of being... to quote Martin Scorsese "explosive and volatile" that adds so much weight to his performance. And you buy right in!

To show you a few scenes that I think display this perfectly....

All Roads Lead Back to Russ: This scene perfectly encompasses that quote about Pauli from Goodfellas and how Russell Bufalino had that same quiet strength.

"Pauli might have moved slow... but that was just because Pauli didn't have to move for anybody." - Henry Hill (Ray Liotta - Goodfellas)

Either Way He's Going: This is a moment that just hangs there. And an example of the quiet strength that is Russell Bufalino. If you're with Russell you're safe...

There's too many to count, but the bottom line is that Joe Pesci broke the mold of his traditional gangster stereotype and at the same time used that stereotype to deliver the quiet strength he displayed as Russell Bufalino in The Irishman.

While this movie does not make it into my personal top 100 movies of all time or what I believe to be the 100 greatest movies of all time, follow the links to find the Martin Scorsese movies that I have ranked about The Irishman.