Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
Towards the end of Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour gangster epic The Irishman, an assisted living priest (Jonathan Morris) listens to the confession of convalescent home resident and sometime-hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). The priest is stunned by his confessor’s reticence over the horrible things he’s done; all he can splutter is, “We can be sorry for what we’re done, even if we don’t feel sorry.” And we, who have been watching Frank confess to us over the intervening three hours as he looks directly into the camera, are likewise stunned to realize that this is the thesis of Scorsese’s sprawling yet oddly affectless take on gangster life. In this reckoning of one man’s life in crime, there is not so much regret over what was done, but regret over what was done but not felt deeply.
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Based on Charles Brandt’s true-life account I Heard You Paint Houses (the titles of which are displayed in big, block letters over three frames near the beginning), The Irishman is structured around Frank’s recollections of a 1975 road trip he took with his longtime sponsor Russell Bufalino (a brilliantly understated Joe Pesci), a powerful figure in Philadelphia’s gangster underworld, and their wives to a wedding in Detroit. While his memories of the trip come with their own flashbacks—in a bold gambit of shifting structure from veteran screenwriter Steven Zaillian—not much happens, and the overall feel is eerily quotidian. There is no pizzazz to how the flashbacks are staged—no whip pans, no jazzy soundtrack, no trademark Scorsese flourishes—and you wonder to yourself: Why am I watching four middle-aged geezers on a road trip where the most exciting event that occurs is the debate over where to stop for a smoke?
Like an old man’s rambling storytelling, The Irishman takes many detours. Along the way, Frank tells us about doing despicable deeds as a World War II soldier fighting for 122 days in Anzio (where he insists he learned how to speak fluent Italian); ingratiating himself to crime boss Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Canavale) by stealing cuts of steak from his job delivering sides of beef; getting defended by Russell’s lawyer cousin Bill (Ray Romano) for refusing to give up the names that allowed him to continue with his petty thievery; parlaying his loyalty into a lifetime friendship with Russell; and from there, assignments for bosses higher up the ladder, blowing up cars and warehouses and, eventually, murdering problematic targets.
Scorsese stages the diciest portions of Frank’s recollections with an astonishing lack of showboating. Where previous films like 1990’s Goodfellas (another gangster memoir adapted into film where Ray Liotta’s narrator expressed a wistful nostalgia for the good times of his hoodlum heyday) and 1995’s Casino (the last film that Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci worked on before this) tended to portray the glamour of criminal life, The Irishman features a notable restraint on the director’s part. One sequence shows the target of a hit relaxing for a shave at a barber shop, at which point the camera glides out and focuses on two hitmen bearing down on their mark with firearms concealed beneath a bouquet of flowers. But Scorsese refuses to show us the ensuing carnage, instead almost decorously settling on a flower arrangement at the window of the florist’s next door. Elsewhere, the approach to violence is either clinical (where certain characters’ ultimate fates are written in supers under their names as they are introduced) or abrupt and clumsy (where marks are dispatched with a bullet to the head with a nondescript pop-pop sound). It is almost as if Scorsese is duplicating his narrator’s numb, matter-of-fact storytelling in his aesthetic.
Eventually, the terminus of Frank’s road trip—the point of collision between Frank’s murderous calling and his convoluted relationships within the gangster underworld—is upon us, and his destination is the fateful day of one of the most fabled vanishings in modern American history: the killing and disappearance of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank came to work as Hoffa’s bodyguard at the behest of Russell, and the two strike up a close friendship where Jimmy would even have Frank sleep in the same hotel suites as him. Ostensibly, the same-room bookings were to erase any proof of the hitman’s synchronized movements with the union leader, who had a reputation to protect, but it is obvious that the two have an old married couple dynamic between them. They complement each other seamlessly: Frank with his watchful reticence, Hoffa with his fiery charisma.
If Frank’s story is to be believed, it was Hoffa’s passion for his position—how he came to advocate for his constituents’ pension over the mob’s interests, despite his own obvious corruption—that led to Hoffa’s doom. It’s telling that the one hit which Frank feels deeply about had for its mark the one man who cared too much. It’s no wonder, then, that Scorsese would cast Pacino in the role. (Amazingly, The Irishman is the first time both has worked together.) Even though at this point in Pacino’s career, his bluster veers dangerously close to acting tic, the actor’s booming presence works as the perfect foil to De Niro, who gets to demonstrate a long-withheld skill at concentration. Pacino stands out so colorfully precisely because the entire film takes its cues from De Niro’s subtlety. Even a monstrous gang boss like “Fat Tony” Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi) doesn’t so much order hits as speak in roundabout metaphors. When Frank and Russell discuss a recalcitrant operative, and Frank gingerly trails off—the ellipse in conversation an unspoken question about murder—Pesci does a split-second double-take and delivers a firm “No. Not that.”
Ultimately, The Irishman is an old man’s tale: the story of a man benumbed, how that made him perfect for his homicidal calling, and how it cost him what really mattered. (And being an old man’s tale, there has been a lot of ink spilled about the film’s digital de-aging tricks. All I will say about that is: Apart from the jarring sight of De Niro’s dark brown eyes transformed into blinding blue, the obliteration of wrinkles is mostly unobtrusive. Now, if only they could erase the stiffness of septuagenarian joints.) Are there points of weakness? Certainly. Since one-half of the equation has to do with what Frank’s job cost him, it would have behooved Scorsese to devote a few more minutes of The Irishman’s 209 running time to Frank’s daughter Peggy (portrayed with vigilant wariness by Lucy Gallina as a little girl, and Anna Paquin as a suspicious adult), because the watchfulness she inherited from her father stands in for the film’s conscience. In fact, it would behoove Scorsese to do more of what Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell—filmmakers he so obviously influenced—have been doing in their work, and be more attentive to the women in his films. (Each time he really tried to understand a female character, Ellen Burstyn won an Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Sharon Stone scored an Academy Award nomination for Casino.)
The Irishman also finds Scorsese—still the questing, passionate student of film—introspective at 76, reckoning with his love affair with the gangster picture, how that passion made him the master that he is, and what that passion cost the culture and its queasy relationship with violence. Both entertaining and melancholic, relentless yet strangely stationary, The Irishman is Scorsese at his late-career best. And unlike a wheelchair-bound Frank imprisoned in the room of his convalescent home, The Irishman is proof that Scorsese refuses to fade into that blood-soaked, bullet-riddled night.