‘The Irishman’ is a Contemplative Gangster Epic
Martin Scorsese’s latest project finds the director grappling with the past in a melancholy crime drama.
Martin Scorsese has dabbled in many different genres, but the films he’s mostly known for are his crime dramas. From Goodfellas to Casino to The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has made a name for himself through these violent, profanity-laden depictions of organized crime. While Marvel fans in recent months have attacked him for being a guy that just “makes mob movies,” that’s a gross oversimplification of one of the most prolific voices in cinema. Like him or not, Scorsese has changed the film industry. And his new film The Irishman finds the director grappling with that legacy.
Teaming up once again with Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, Scorsese has crafted what can only be described as a gangster epic, clocking in at three and a half hours. My screening — full of AARP carrying white-hairs — had a ten minute intermission just over an hour and a half into the film. It was the first time that I had ever experienced an intermission, and I stand by my views on them being unnecessary. As long as The Irishman is, it’s never anything less than engrossing, and the time, particularly in the last two hours, flew by.
In fact, the only reason I think it felt like the first ninety minutes had pacing issues was due to my anticipation of the intermission; I just wanted to get it over with. If the film had been uninterrupted for its gargantuan runtime, would I have even noticed? Maybe a little. This is Scorsese’s passion project, and as such, it feels like very little got left on the cutting room floor. Much like Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman is a great director at his most self-indulgent. Whether that’s detrimental to the film or not is entirely subjective; I personally enjoyed every minute, though it’s undeniably a long-winded film.
Adapted from the memoir I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman is the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), a mob hitman who claims to have killed Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975. Whether or not you believe his story — the case of Hoffa’s disappearance remains unsolved — it’s an engrossing one. It’s a sweeping tale that covers the entirety of Frank’s mafia career, and yet it feels very intimate.
Frank stumbles into his dealings with the Italian mafia, rather than seeking it out, and his opening line is in stark contrast to Ray Liotta’s opening line in Goodfellas. But he adapts to mob life fairly quickly. His time in World War II, in which he blindly followed orders to commit war crimes, hardened his heart. Frank is a violent man, chillingly business-like in his kills; he has no trouble taking care of anyone who crosses his bosses. It’s the type of character that DeNiro has made his name playing, and no one does it better than him. He brings manages to bring empathy to a character that doesn’t really deserve it.
Right by Frank’s side throughout the film is crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a soft-spoken man with a soft spot for Frank. Pesci has never been better, playing completely against type. The loud, brash characters he made popular in films such as Goodfellas, Casino, and the Lethal Weapon series are nowhere to be seen in his performance here. He emotes entirely through his eyes in a soulful performance that proves there was always more than one trick to this pony. If the Academy doesn’t at least nominate him, it will be a crime.
Of course, after we meet Russell, we also meet Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a union leader with immense popularity. He also takes a liking to Frank, and enlists him to be his security on the road as well as run one of the local chapters of the union. The two develop a friendship that is heartbreaking from the start, given the obvious route this film is going to take. Pacino is every bit the Pacino that we know, big and loud right out the gate, but he also gives Hoffa a vulnerability that, despite his crimes, makes you sympathize with him.
The turning point in the script is when Pacino goes to jail for fraud and loses control of the union. Angry and desperate to get back on top, Pacino launches a campaign that smears his successor, frustrating the mob. Frank, allegiant to both Russell and the mob, is caught in the middle as Russell tries to calm his colleagues down. Eventually, Frank is forced to make a decision, and anyone with a passing knowledge of Hoffa’s case can guess what that means.
What makes this film so different than Scorsese’s past crime films, though, is the tone of this film. Sure, Scorses’s trademark dark humor, long tracking shots, and larger than life characters are all present. But there’s a sadness that permeates The Irishman. Frank’s oldest daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina/Anna Paquin), wants nothing to do with him. Her knowing glare speaks more than any spoken line could. An early scene in the film, in which Frank curb-stomps a grocer in front of her, isn’t stylized in the slightest. In fact, it’s unflinchingly portraying a man who revels in violence. And it costs him his daughter.
Much like Clint Eastwood did with Unforgiven, Scorsese is bidding farewell to the gangster genre here. He freeze frames characters and gives them title cards, this time with a morbid addition: the year and nature of their death. Only a few of them are anything less than gruesome, and it’s a somber realization that a crime-filled life meets a grizzly end. Yet, for all of the horrible fates detailed in these moments, the worst is reserved for Frank, who died alone in 2003 of old age.
With the wide scope of this movie, it would have been easier and cheaper to cast young actors and age them up as opposed to older actors that were digitally de-aged. But who can blame Scorsese for wanting to work with a trio like DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino? The emotional performances speak for themselves, but the physical performance is where the film falters. Regardless of how great the digital makeup looks — and it does look great — there is no substitute for a young man’s movements. The characters, even when they’re supposed to be in their forties, move with stiff movements that compromise the illusion. This is a minor flaw in the grand scheme of the film, though it’s worth noting.
A thematically rich and melancholy tapestry of a life sacrificed to violence and crime, The Irishman is a journey well-worth taking. Pesci, who came back from retirement for this film, gives the performance of his career, with DeNiro and Pacino turning in performances that remind you why they’re household names. This is another Scorsese gangster film, sure, but it finds the director at his most contemplative. The ending moments are heartbreaking, soaking everything that came before it in a grim light. When the lights came up, my gut was on the floor. If this is truly Martin Scorsese stepping away from the genre he popularized, I couldn’t have asked for a better swan song.