**** out of ****
(for pervasive language and strong violence)
Released: November 1 & 22, 2019 in select theaters; November 27 on Netflix
Runtime: 209 minutes
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Welker White, Sebastian Maniscalco, Domenick Lombardozzi, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Louis Cancelmi
Having made some of the most defining gangster pictures of the last fifty years, what else is there for Martin Scorsese to say through another one that he hasn’t already said? At the age of 77, he offers a resounding, convicting answer: The Irishman. Like a personal cinematic creed, it’s a mob movie with a spiritual reckoning.
Scorsese’s films have, in a sense, always taken stock of a life. Increasingly, however, as the end of his career draws nigh, he’s telling stories that take stock of a soul. The implications of that are intimately provocative and not easily shaken. The Wolf of Wall Street examined America’s soul, then in Silence he examined his own, and now with The Irishman he prods us to contemplate the state of ours.
He does this through the detailed confessional of Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran from Philadelphia whose loyal work as small-time muscle for a local mafioso led to him being the right-hand man of the infamous Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa.
With its parallels to Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, it’s no wonder that Scorsese has long been seduced by this true story. The Irishman expands on the similarities to that previous masterpiece by tracking far beyond where the usual mobster arc ends (i.e. in jail, six feet under, or both) to late in life, when you are forced to face the choices you’ve made. It’s a point we all hope to reach, yet the life we live now will dictate what we’re left to ponder when, God willing, we get there.
Scorsese makes it easy to get lost in those dense weeds of existential concern, but make no mistake: The Irishman is a gripping mob epic, even in its sober tone. Grander still, with its broad scope of dramatizing arguably the most notorious organized crime operation in U.S. history — and with an artistic precision, set across decades — it has all the hallmarks of a Great American Film.
To nutshell the recent Scorsese vs. Marvel debate, this is cinema.
It’s such a thrill to dive so deep back into the mafia world through Scorsese’s lens, immersed in a whole milieu of aesthetic trademarks that he established (ones distinctly more kinetic than Coppola’s Godfather mise-en-scène) and have continued to define the genre’s entire cinematic language to this day — not just in the look and style but especially the rhythms — most notably emulated by The Sopranos but also elsewhere, if to lesser-yet-still effective degrees. Now we get to experience it again as Scorsese unites, no less, the wise guy trinity of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. It’s everything you’d hope it would be, and maybe more.
Indeed, The Irishman actually opens with an homage to the iconic one-take shot from Goodfellas except now, instead of tracking into a famous nightclub, the Steadicam glides through an old folks retirement home. It lands on the elderly Sheeran (played by De Niro at all ages, thanks to seamless makeup and pricey de-aging technology) as he begins to tell his story. De Niro delivers the most poignant, burdened performance of his career as a man who abides a deceptive integrity that ultimately leads to tormented regret.
What unfolds is a fascinating exegetic of the mafia’s machinations, scripted brilliantly by Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian, with Sheeran guiding us through it in fascinating (and often comic) detail. As the first ninety minutes lay the groundwork of this three-and-a-half hour saga, we learn how the mafia works (and doesn’t) as Sheeran does, which leads to sequences of simmering tension.
Sheeran’s entry comes through Russell Bufalino, one of the most respected lieutenants of the top Philly family. He’s played by Joe Pesci (who Scorsese coaxed out of retirement) in a turn that is, in its own way, an unexpected revelation. Russell is the opposite of Pesci’s famously hot-tempered wild card image. Careful with words and measured in tone, Russell is a practical sage, ruthless in calculation but not temperament. What a gift this Pesci performance is, especially as contrast to what defined his career.
Frank and Russ’s dynamic drives the initial forty-five minutes, but then things shift to another level when Sheeran is introduced to Jimmy Hoffa, a bigger-than-life persona immortalized by another, Al Pacino. To the degree that Pesci surprises, Pacino magnetically delivers. He mines rich layers beneath his own volcanic “Hoo-Ah!” caricature, painting a compelling portrait of a man who kept the Teamsters union honest and clean, dishonestly. His corruptions were for the greater good, for the people, and Pacino makes that convincing. Rarely does a role provide an actor the opportunity to showcase his entire range but Hoffa does — and Pacino does.
Colorful characters pack the ensemble in this all-star cast, but it’s the quietest one that matters most: Frank’s daughter Peggy. She is the moral through-line of The Irishman. Of Sheeran’s three girls she is the most reticent, especially towards him. Quiet and withdrawn, she stays at a distance despite Frank’s sincere efforts to connect with her. Intuitively at a young age, Peggy has a keen sense of who her dad is and what he does. Even long before she knows, she “knows”, no matter how carefully Frank tries to shelter his daughters.
It’s Peggy that Scorsese returns to time and again, subtly, as a righteous lodestar. Anna Paquin plays her as an adult, and much has been made by woke knee-jerk critics of her minimal dialogue (it’s almost a silent performance), claiming it’s a sign of how Scorsese devalues women. That’s patently absurd, as if a word quota is somehow more important than being a film’s moral conscience.
And that’s what Peggy is: Frank’s conscience, incarnated. In the purest sense, our conscience doesn’t speak to us. Rather, it’s an undeniable spiritual presence, all seeing and knowing, and one we can’t evade or deceive. It exists, confronting us with the power of its sheer truth, especially as we try to appease it with our own justifications. It sees us and knows us without saying a word.
In her silence, this is what Peggy is. She is the gauge for her dad’s contrition. Throughout his life, Frank looks to her — instinctively, as if also looking within himself — yearning for her icy barrier to thaw. But her silence is his judgment, and Frank’s absolution can only come with their reconciliation. Even as he seeks the pastoral counsel of a priest, his repentance can only be realized if she acknowledges and accepts it.
Much has been made of two things: the film’s length (209 minutes without intermission) and the expensive de-aging technology Scorsese employs to enable De Niro and Pacino (and, to a lesser degree, Pesci) to play Sheeran and Hoffa through nearly a half century. Both aspects were feared to be liabilities, but they end up being strengths.
The de-aging of De Niro is groundbreaking, even early on when it’s quasi-incredulous. The flaws are minor at best and most noticeable when Frank’s at his youngest, but after that it’s as seamless as any de-aging that’s ever been done before.
The de-aging empowers De Niro to craft the entire arc for Frank (rather than jointly with a younger actor) and that more than makes up for any dubious digital artifice. The same benefit applies to Hoffa and Pacino as well. And while three-and-a-half hours is a gauntlet, it’s worth it. There’s no padding here, it never slogs. Everything informs and builds on what follows, and Scorsese’s mastery keeps it mesmerizing.
The historically accuracy of Hoffa’s demise is portrayed here has never been confirmed, and some Hoffa experts have contested Sheeran’s claims. But accuracy is not the point here; Sheeran’s journey is, and how it compels us to examine our own, It also causes us to consider the notions of loyalty and solidarity, how those virtues can become liabilities in the face of greed and corruption, and how that sly amoral culture can distort how a man perceives and defines masculinity.
There’s a sad irony that Paramount Pictures, the studio of the Godfather trilogy and home to Scorsese’s recent films, didn’t finance The Irishman. Every other studio passed as well, due to the visual effects budget, and shame on them all. This is a legacy work of a great American auteur; there should’ve been a bidding war by studios to have this be a part of their own legacies.
Netflix came through, and it will stream there beginning on November 27 but, for a movie that should absolutely be experienced in a theater, Netflix’s theatrical play will remain limited and brief. It’s a sad irony for cinephiles that the very studios who fight to preserve the theatrical experience we cherish won’t invest in something this ambitious from a proven legend, yet the one studio that will is the streaming giant still looking to marginalize and undercut the theatrical platform into obsolescence.
If you are one of those cinephiles, see The Irishman in a theater at all costs. Experience how Scorsese continues to defy the Tarantino Rule, the belief that great auteurs work far past their peaks and become shadows of their former genius. Martin Scorsese is a virtuoso exception, matching the best work of career by also reflecting on it, and on himself. The Irishman is not mere Scorsese fan service. It’s art, rumination, and penance all in one.