Martin Scorsese, whose body of work spans decades and genres with nary a misstep, is perhaps most widely known for his forays into the crime genre, from the up-and-coming verve of Mean Streets to the rock-star excess of Goodfellas and Casino. And now, the legendary filmmaker returns to the genre that made him such a popular name with The Irishman, only this time he has a different perspective. This is very much a film about how choosing the gangster life affects one’s soul, and what that means for them when they get out of that lifestyle.
Reuniting Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, while also bringing Al Pacino into the fold for his first collaboration with the director, The Irishman is a meditative crime epic, masterfully put together by a filmmaker who’s looking back on his earlier crime films and using that newfound perspective to create something more contemplative, but no less entertaining.
The Irishman follows the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro), as he recounts memories of his involvement with the Bufalino crime family and union leader Jimmy Hoffa, who’s famously mysterious disappearance in 1975 seems to be the only thing today’s generation knows about him. Narrated by a much older Sheeran from his nursing home, the film begins in media res, as Sheeran recalls a pivotal road trip with crime boss and friend Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and their two wives to attend a wedding. This road trip is used as a framing device, from which the film sprawls out to various time periods and locations, as nursing home Sheeran fills us in on the violent deeds he did for Russell, who took him under his wing and gave him a job. That job is to “paint houses” (with blood).
After proving his unfailing loyalty to Russell, the crime boss lets Frank know that a certain friend at the top is having a little trouble, and they need protection. That friend at the top is none other than Jimmy Hoffa, head of the Teamsters. Frank goes to work for Hoffa, and they form a unique friendship. But when Hoffa’s flagrant arrogance gets him into more trouble, Frank finds himself caught between two powerful colleagues with two different agendas. All the while, Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin as young and old, respectively) looks at her father with dismay and disapproval, knowing full well what her father does for a living.
With a script by Steven Zaillan, based on Charles Brandt’s biographical book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman gives us an expansive look at one man’s life as a mob hitman. The film takes its time to envelop you in Sheeran’s worldview and fully develop his relationships with both Russell and Hoffa. The moments of matter-of-fact violence are offset by moments of genuine humor and levity in the first two-and-a-half hours of its lengthy 209-minute runtime, before things take a turn for somberness. Zaillan’s screenplay is intricately layered, without being convoluted. And thanks to Scorsese’s longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, you never feel lost as the story jumps around in time and place. Her editorial prowess brings you into the story just as much as the writing does.
Even the smallest bits of dialogue in The Irishman end up proving significant as the story progresses. For instance, Sheeran informs us early on that when a mobster says that they are “a little concerned”, it means that they are very concerned. And when a mobster is very concerned, it usually doesn’t end well for the person causing the concern. The way this ever-so subtly plays back into the story at a particular pivotal moment is profoundly effective, without calling attention to itself. And Zaillan develops these characters so well that Pesci’s restrained order-giving says as much about Bufalino as Pacino’s verbose tirades say about Hoffa. And the seasoned actors breathe life into their characters like only they can.
De Niro is in top form as Frank, and he’s so good at letting Frank’s vulnerability and regret slowly emerge from underneath his ardent professionalism. Al Pacino gets the showiest role in his first collaboration with Scorsese, and he delivers exactly what you want from such a loud, foul-mouthed egotist as Hoffa. Whether he’s angrily barking at his enemies or stubbornly refusing his mobster colleague’s requests, Pacino’s expert ability at finding a cadence for his character and shifting facial expressions reminds you why he’s had such an intoxicating screen presence throughout his career.
And Pesci, who returns to acting after a long hiatus, plays against type as the restrained and formidable Russell. Far from the fast-talking vulgarity of his Goodfellas and Casino characters, Russell is a man of few words, but those words could mean the end of one’s life. And Pesci delivers those words with subdued authority, but without losing any sense of humanity. Through the way Pesci portrays Russell, you understand how Frank would be able to befriend him; but you also understand why Frank would never dare betray him. It’s an amazingly subtle performance for Pesci, and his energy nicely contrasts Pacino’s.
Boardwalk Empire alums Stephen Graham and Bobby Cannavale provide great supporting work, along with Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, and Jesse Plemons. And Anna Paquin conveys Peggy’s complicated emotions just with her eyes. Stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco even has a small cameo as loose cannon ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo. The entire supporting cast make an impression with their limited screen time, but The Irishman is really a showcase for the three all-time great actors at its center, who are every bit as compelling as they were in their younger days.
A scene about two-thirds of the way through The Irishman finds our three principal characters at a crossroads, and it’s obvious from this point on that there’s no turning back. De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino have multiple one-on-one conversations within this scene, and seeing each of them perform off each other at this peak dramatic moment in the story is nothing short of captivating. And from this scene on, the film reckons with the emotional consequences of living the life of a gangster, and it’s easily some of the best stuff Scorsese has ever done.
The consistent soundtrack that Scorsese usually opts for is replaced with heavy silences. This makes the moments between the dialogue carry immense weight, as we watch Frank Sheeran grapple with the position he has found himself in. There is nothing flashy about how the director approaches The Irishman’s final hour. What initially feels like a leisurely stroll through familiar genre territory becomes a much more melancholic experience, and it becomes clear what Scorsese’s wants to convey to his audience. He looks the ugly truth of a life of crime straight in the face, with the piercing matter-of-factness of a filmmaker who’s indulged in the crime genre before, and one who’s eager to present an older, wiser perspective on his usual themes. Only 76-year-old Martin Scorsese could make The Irishman.
I haven’t even mentioned the CGI de-aging used to allow De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci to play their characters across multiple decades. Maybe it’s because, soon after the impressive, but admittedly noticeable, effect is shown, I became immediately invested in the story and was able to accept the illusion. And once the characters get closer to the actors’ real ages, I couldn’t tell where the de-aging effect stopped being used, which is a testament to how well Scorsese and the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic were able to pull it off. It also helps, as far as emotional investment, for the actors to remain the same throughout the film. And if The Irishman ends up being the last time we see De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci sharing the screen together, I want all the screen time I can get.
The Irishman is the work of a masterful storyteller who still has stories to tell. And it’s thanks to Netflix that the film feels like exactly what Scorsese wanted to make, a creative vision unencumbered by studio notes or interference. And while I’m grateful that everyone who has a subscription will be able to watch this masterwork by month’s end, the film’s pace and cinematic grandeur really deserves (and rewards) your undivided attention in a movie theater, if it’s playing near you. This is one of Scorsese’s best, and I can only see it getting better on re-watch.
The Irishman is rated R, and it is currently playing in limited theaters, before it hits Netflix on November 27.
All images courtesy of Netflix.