In the opening mere minutes of The Irishman the unmistakable voice of Martin Scorsese is established. In the opening shot the camera glides into the retirement home where wistful former Philadelphia hit-man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) begins a sprawling recollection of his glory days as right-hand man to Sicilian mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and corrupt union overlord Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). With Sheeran’s voiceover as a guide, the movie flashes back to a harmless road trip with Sheeran in the driver’s seat and Bufalino bickering with his wife about smoking in the car. The mood is at once taut and funny, capturing the essence of Scorsese’s ability to humanize the mob as prickly macho men just a few notes shy of loveable. It’s in that fundamental disconnect — between endearing people and the psychotic world they represent — where the movie presents a fascinating onramp to America’s obsession with organized crime. While also interrogating the flush of memories that comes along with this movie, shining a harsh spotlight on the nostalgia anyone might have for the movies it directly and indirectly echoes.
The Irishman is based on the 2004 quasi-memoir of Sheeran, I Heard You Paint Houses (an alternate title that Scorsese, interestingly, cues up at the beginning and end), it’s a decade-spanning story where the Philadelphia truck driver moonlighted as a killer for hire after being taken under the wing of the mob, it’s a story that found an ideal match of filmmakers to adapt it: Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian take Sheeran’s dubious word and it provides a definitive template for the best kind of a Scorsese character study (it’s possibly Zaillian’s most polished script to date). The book, written by former attorney Charles Brandt, was crafted as a first-person deathbed confession. As Sheeran confessed to a slew of things, most famously that he killed his longtime pal, Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran’s story and it’s daunting timeline may not exactly demand the three hour-and-a-half-hour runtime, but The Irishman makes it all count. And at first the film’s ambitious choice to CGI de-age De Niro, Pesci and Pacino to look like their younger selves might initially be jarring, you settle in pretty quickly with it, as it increasingly becomes the best de-aging work we’ve seen thus far in cinema.
The Irishman takes it time explaining the way Hoffa had any reason at all to notice Sheeran in the first place. The movie begins with an absorbing account of Sheeran’s relationship to Bufalino, as he gradually comes to understand the mafia ecosystem. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker work their usual montage magic, threading together jazzy breakdowns of Sheeran’s hit-man routine with expert comedic timing. Still, when Hoffa shows up around the one-hour mark, he instantly takes charge. (Sheeran, a military man, compares his new boss to General Patton.) Pacino’s appropriately outsized presence feels attuned to the larger-than-life shadow that Hoffa cast in his prime. At his best, the Teamster folk hero embodies the fury of his moment: He throws monstrous tantrums over tardiness and rages to his minions about Bobby Kennedy’s “Get Hoffa” squad, adores over his docile adopted son Chucky (a great as always Jesse Plemons), and makes aggressive attempts to keep Sheeran by his side. Sheeran and Hoffa’s hilarious odd-couple dynamic reaches a fever pitch when Hoffa loses it on a roomful of men, inadvertently hurting Sheeran’s feelings until he offers a frantic apology to win him back.
For a while, The Irishman stays focused on Sheeran’s divided allegiances to Hoffa and Bufalino, which soon force the henchman to a tough choice once Hoffa alienates his mob peers with a late-career attempt to retake the union. In the meantime, Sheeran undergoes a credible transition into a confident power broker himself, with guidance from savvy union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), who guides him through various courtroom snafus. But through all that, Sheeran never strays from his main gig, including a fast-paced recollection of his hit on “Crazy Joe” Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalo) in a famously bloody murder in Little Italy. But while Sheeran’s hits come time to time, its Hoffa’s constant need to dominate every conversation that almost steals the show. One simmering argument with rival Teamsters leader Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham) is practically a standalone short film defined by passive-aggressive ribbing that culminates in clumsy brawl.
The Irishman will, of course, be compared to a couple of Scorsese’s past gangster movies, Goodfellas and Casino likely. And yes, The Irishman isn’t quite as snappy as though two were, but that’s because this film is all its own. However entertaining it gets, this is a much more elegiac film than its celebrated predecessors; death hovering over every minute, more of a guarantee than a threat. Often when introducing a new player in the criminal empire, Scorsese flashes a quick obituary in white text, the when and how they’ll get taken out — as if they’re dead where they stand. Even those who survive the gangster life are eventually claimed by some thief in the night, by prostate cancer or the gentlest of killers, “natural causes.” By contrast with such looming death, Scorsese’s trademark style is alive and well. His third outing with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is possibly their showiest collaboration. One beautiful tracking shot captures a barbershop hit that begins at the center of the crime and ends up resting on a bouquet of flowers; while elsewhere, the camera swoops through courtroom proceedings and ballroom dances. With Schoonmaker’s hand deeply felt in it all: Scorsese’s longest narrative feature has an elegance that suggests every intention of keeping the sprawling tower of events from toppling over. The more meditative mood extends to the performances, especially Pesci’s; once Scorsese’s resident agent of chaos is miles away from the aggressive motormouth he played in Goodfellas and Casino; this is a portrait of real, frightening authority, a man who never needs to raise his voice to command a room.
Everything, though, seems to be leading to the film’s gripping, sobering final act. Overall, this is a remarkably brisk three-and-a-half hours — Scorsese, at the age of seventy-seven, still directs with the energy of a hungry young filmmaker, his command always present. But he also knows when to slow down, too, and when to make the minutes count. When things come together in the movie’s most masterful stretch of a disquieting buildup of Bressonian proportions, the encroaching dread is felt. A melancholic, soulful conclusion allows De Niro to deliver a masterclass on the loneliness of old age — it’s a subtle agony that many might have assumed De Niro could no longer summon. As Sheeran grows estranged from his grown daughter (Anna Paquin, who says little verbally but explains it all with her eyes) and shrinks into a nursing home, Sheeran’s entire journey becomes a dark joke: He’s spent the whole movie explaining how he became a legend in his own mind, and eventually, he’s trapped by it.
As much as they take special care to tell the audience that their characters are rotten to the core, Goodfellas and Casino and their spiritual relative, The Wolf Of Wall Street, have so commonly been misunderstood as glorifications; it’s an inevitable consequence, perhaps, of following ugly men with occasionally glamourous lives. But The Irishman is different. Here, Scorsese takes no such chances with The Irishman, an intimate crime epic that pushes further forward in time than most, to a truly ignoble end, a bookend where playing a losing game only ends with lonely regret. An end that eventually reminds us that we’re all just fitting ourselves for coffins. The Irishman finds Martin Scorsese at his most patient and contemplative as death seemingly looms over every minute of the runtime, all of it building to an elegy of mortality and regret, a eulogy to the gangster genre.
The Irishman will be released on Netflix on November 27