Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’: A Bloody, Epic Masterpiece—and Al Pacino’s Greatest Performance in Years
The lingering weight of violence on a person’s conscience and soul, especially as they near death, is central to the auteur’s new mob movie—a triumphant culmination of his career.
Between its gargantuan runtime (209 minutes), its reunion of his signature stars (Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, alongside Al Pacino), and its reality-based gangster story—involving the mysterious 1975 disappearance of International Brotherhood of Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa—The Irishman feels like a culmination of sorts for director Martin Scorsese. At the same time, it’s a film that straddles the past and the present, a decades-spanning tale of treachery, regret and amorality that’s been designed for the big screen and yet will primarily be seen on Netflix (which produced it), and a rich, practically minded character study that employs breakthrough CGI to de-age its stars.
In every respect, it’s epic. And, also, a titanic triumph.
First, to answer the most pressing question on everyone’s mind: The Irishman’s special effects are largely successful at transforming its leads into their youthful selves. They’re almost imperceptible when used for Pacino and Pesci, and with De Niro, they’re only shaky when he’s at his youngest, and spied from a distance. During those moments, the actor’s appearance tips somewhat into video game-ish “uncanny valley” territory. But for the most part—especially once the protagonists move into middle age and beyond—one quickly acclimates to Scorsese’s computerized makeovers. In short, the technique works.
Debuting in theaters on Nov. 1 and on Netflix on Nov. 29 (following tonight’s New York Film Festival world premiere), The Irishman begins with a trademark Scorsese journey through a well-populated interior space—in this instance, a retirement home, where the director’s camera turns this way and that to take in elderly residents before settling on wheelchair-bound Frank Sheeran (De Niro). It’s from his reminiscing perspective that the ensuing narrative is told, although there are stratified layers of memories in Steven Zaillian’s script, which also uses as a recurring framing device the 1975 drive to Detroit undertaken by Sheeran and his mob-boss benefactor and staunch friend Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and their two wives. In both of these sequences, exhaustion and melancholy go hand in hand, epitomized by a hilarious scene in which Bufalino’s wife Carrie (Katherine Narducci) requests permission to smoke in the car, Bufalino explains (clearly for the umpteenth time) that he objects (“I made a vow”), and Carrie opts to take out a cigarette anyway. It’s a moment primed for a Goodfellas-esque Pesci explosion, and yet in response to this disobedience, all his Bufalino can do is sigh.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, Scorsese’s film concerns the harsher response to the far greater act of defiance perpetrated by Hoffa (Pacino), who became convinced that the vast power afforded by his position made him beyond reproach. That was fine so long as his relationship with his mobster bedfellows was strong. As most know, however, Hoffa vanished from the face of the Earth under famously unsolved circumstances, and The Irishman eventually details his downfall after his 1971 release from prison, when his ego prevented him from playing nice with rival Anthony Provenzano (a phenomenal Stephen Graham), as well as stomaching a reduced role in the organization he built. “I am the Teamsters!” he proclaims at one point, and later, “No one threatens Hoffa.” These declarations resound as self-rung death knells for the big shot, who understands the rules of the game he’s playing and yet thinks himself above them anyway, to his own fatal detriment.
Hewing to its source material, The Irishman contends that it was Sheeran—Hoffa’s friend and Teamsters compatriot—who was responsible for the bigwig’s demise, which makes the film, on the one hand, a piece of speculative historical crime fiction. Yet it’s far more than that. Charting Sheeran’s transition from lowly truck driver to Bufalino’s right-hand man to Hoffa’s trusted confidant and colleague, Scorsese’s story focuses heavily on the way in which a working-class stiff rose up the underworld ranks by doing what he was told. It’s an ethos Sheeran learned in WWII: in a flashback, we see him carry out his superiors’ implied instructions to kill two POWs after forcing them to dig their own graves. And it’s one he continued to embrace in his subsequent mafia role, where he became adept at “painting houses” (code for killing people) whenever ordered.
There are executions in The Irishman, including that of “Crazy” Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), and Scorsese shoots them with a swift, ferocious bluntness that neuters any traditional sense of “excitement”; they’re case studies in the banality of evil. Murder is depicted as punishment for insolently violating Cosa Nostra guidelines about respect and having loose lips, and Hoffa is thus merely the highest-profile example of what happens to anyone who doesn’t toe the company line. In this saga of 20th century American corruption, replete with subplots about Sheeran and company’s involvement in JFK’s election and assassination, there’s always someone higher up on the hierarchical ladder. And to test their tolerance for rebelliousness, much less power-hungry greed, is to tempt fate.
De Niro’s Sheeran understands this fundamental truth, and accepts it without reservation. This makes him a part of the “family,” despite his Irish heritage setting him apart from his Italian cohorts. His devotion to Bufalino, however, alienates him from daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as an adolescent; Anna Paquin as an adult), who as a kid watches her father brutally beat a shopkeeper for a minor infraction, and who spends the rest of her screen time flashing him accusatory stares. She’s the proceedings’ silent Greek chorus, her gaze a damning indictment of his failures as a father and a man—shortcomings directly brought about by his adherence to his chosen profession’s inflexible protocols.
As established by the nursing-home scenes, Sheeran survived to old age, thereby making him “lucky” when compared to so many associates. In a cheeky, pointed device that epitomizes the film’s surprising humor, Scorsese often freeze-frames on random Mafiosos in order to present textual information about their untimely demises. With both grimness and absurdity, The Irishman is upfront about the fact that unromantic, backstabbing doom awaits most of these wiseguys, either literally or figuratively (Hoffa’s chants of “Solidarity!” to union members consequently play as an ironic joke). It’s the latter that Sheeran is destined to suffer once commanded to handle Hoffa. Scorsese spends hours establishing the duo’s growing closeness and, more wrenching still, Hoffa’s fatherly bond with young Peggy—a relationship contrasted with her detachment from Bufalino, and one that makes Sheeran’s ultimate hit an even graver betrayal.
Aided by ace cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese stages his action with a reserve that’s anything but static or sluggish; his (relatively) unshowy camerawork perfectly suits a story drenched in despondency. That’s also true of Robbie Robertson’s soundtrack, punctuated not by Scorsese’s beloved Rolling Stones but, instead, The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” which is all the more haunting for being so thematically apt. As evoked by an initial cut from senior-citizen Sheeran to a gun firing and blood splattering a wall, the lingering weight of violence on a person’s conscience and soul, especially as they near death, is central to The Irishman, resulting in an oppressive, and devastating, elegiac atmosphere.
Sheeran’s late confession that he doesn’t feel anything about the horrors he’s perpetrated underscores Scorsese’s critique of his protagonist, and by extension, the illicit system to which he swore loyalty at the expense of family, friends and morality. De Niro does much by doing very little as Sheeran, using a placid, squint-and-scowl expression to convey his character’s empty coldness. No matter his affection for Hoffa or his offspring, he’s an individual who’s made himself into a receptive vessel for others’ commands, and De Niro is riveting in a performance that relies heavily on nuance. That goes double for Pesci, who never raises his voice and still manages to exude imposing menace and authority, all while simultaneously suggesting sensitivity around the edges of his sternness. In its cagey subtlety, it’s a powerhouse turn.
Nonetheless, in the first big-screen collaboration for its headlining trio (not to mention Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel, in a small early role), it’s Pacino who stands tallest. Obsessed with ice cream and punctuality, his Hoffa initially comes on like a hoo-ahing force of nature, riling up crowds (and his sense of self) and ranting at minions who can’t get his orders right. Like Pesci, though, he does his best work at the corners, as when he becomes so frustrated during a rant that he literally pauses and droops his head to catch his breath and compose himself—and then, when Sheeran takes hilarious umbrage with his insults, he segues on a dime from wide-eyed flamethrower to apologetic buddy. Pacino hasn’t been this magnetic in some time, and his tour de force culminates with a pleading conversation between Sheeran and Hoffa at the former’s awards ceremony that—marked by the fateful phrase, “It’s what it is”—is the stuff of tragedy.
Repeated shots of Sheeran’s gold watch underline that The Irishman is, at heart, about the passage of time, and its effect on one’s perception of themselves, their lives, and the things they’ve done. It’s not difficult to see that theme echoed in the film’s gathering together of these acclaimed actors for one last hurrah about a subject that—thanks to Goodfellas, Casino and even The Godfather—has greatly defined their careers. And it’s also, of course, easy to sense it in Scorsese’s return to the gangster milieu that has served as such fertile inspiration for his own oeuvre. It’s a place he continues to know better than almost anyone else. Although even more than the larger-than-life mobsters that inhabit his criminal sagas, it’s the director himself—a cinematic preservationist, champion, pioneer, artist—who, with The Irishman, once again proves to be the truly timeless legend.