On the surface, The Irishman may seem like director Martin Scorsese’s retreat into well-worn territory. He reunites with GoodFellas and Casino stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for what appears to be the geriatric conclusion of their gangster trilogy. The film is far from a masterpiece, but it proves Scorsese still has some tricks up his sleeve with this familiar subject matter, and it provides an immersive experience that invites reflection on this age of cinema.
De Niro stars as Frank Sheeran, a blue-collar truck driver lured into a life of crime. After proving particularly deadly in World War II, he easily pivots into working for mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Following orders is easy for Frank, especially when they come from someone as soft-spoken and matter-of-fact as Russell.
Essentially playing the antithesis of his iconic loose-cannon characters, Pesci delivers a powerfully subdued performance. You can sense that when this guy calls for someone to be whacked, it’s a painful last resort for him. The weight of a whacking has never felt more palpable in a Scorsese picture than it does in this one.
The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, the title of which refers to the first words that labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) ever spoke to Sheeran. “Painting houses” is code for splattering walls with men’s blood. Once Hoffa knows how far Sheeran is willing to go, he takes him under his wing. Pacino is back at the peak of his powers with a poignant performance as a leader clinging to authority.
The second act of the film focuses largely on Sheeran’s friendship with Hoffa and the tension it brings to his work for Bufalino. Sheeran has to basically choose between the two men, and the film grinds to a masterful slow burn. We’ve seen rapid-fire wheeling and dealing in Scorsese’s other crime films, but we haven’t seen him explore the calm before the storm, the quiet between the gunshots. Not like this. You could have heard a pin drop as this passage of the film unfolded during the press screening. I’m not sure it will sweep viewers away like that when it streams on Netflix later this month.
The second act is a painfully intimate fly-on-the-wall look at the banality of evil and the practice of murder as a simple means to an end.
The final chapter of the film is an even darker reflection on death. As Sheeran shrivels away in a nursing home, we see that he was nothing more than a blind follower. When a priest asks him if he grieves for the families of the men he killed, he says, “I didn’t know the families.” Here, Scorsese exposes the crooked moral code of the mafia. Earlier in the film, Sheeran feels deeply conflicted about killing a friend, but other wise guys are faceless to him. Gangsters recognize the emotional consequences of murder, but they go along with it anyway.
This confounding idea seems to be the one that haunts Scorsese and keeps him coming back to the gangster genre. While his earlier mafia films perhaps steer uncomfortably close toward empathy, The Irishman is a more clinical examination of these murderous men. We get the sense that Scorsese is more like the priest here than GoodFellas’ Henry Hill, looking sorrowfully upon these largely remorseless guys rather than reveling in hanging out with them. GoodFellas captures the seductive whirlwind of criminal life, Casino lingers on the candy-colored excess, and The Irishman reveals the rotten foundation beneath it all. It’s the saddest of the three films.
When Sheeran goes to one of his daughters late in the film to see if there’s anything he can do to redeem himself, it’s a desperate, pitiful sight. Too little, too late. It feels like he’s going through the motions rather than making an earnest attempt to reconnect. If only Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zaillian gave Sheeran’s daughters (especially Academy Award-winner Anna Paquin) more time to give him a piece of their minds. Surely they could’ve made room for that in the 3 ½-hour epic.
The Scorsese vs. Marvel conversation has gone on long enough, but I just want to quickly point out the irony in Scorsese criticizing comic-book movies as “theme-park films” when The Irishman revolves around the amusement-park spectacle of a digitally de-aged De Niro and Pesci. It’s jarring at first, but it does grow less awkward as the film progresses. De Niro’s quietly implosive performance especially shines through the clunky computer-generated wizardry. But will this technology always keep us at a slight distance?
The Irishman isn’t a masterwork, but it’s a sturdy reminder of the magic left within a filmmaker in the golden years of his career.