Time pervades and eludes The Irishman: from brisk manipulation to a mumbled prayer. A good man; a good life—the sum total of full-steps and half measures. Martin Scorsese long ago became the humanizing angel of gangsters and violent men—enforcers and bread winners thrown into a whirlwind of bullets and silent codes. The Irishman matches those previous chapters: Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, etc. —concerned with the corrupt life of Frank Sheeran, yet shifts from a litany of familiar Scorsese tropes to a poetic introspection of mortality and morality.
Robert De Niro reunites with his longtime auteur to play Frank—a once truck driver shipping frozen meat who rises to confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, in his first pairing with Scorsese) to union boss. Based upon his memoir penned by Charles Brandt I Heard You Paint Houses, we find Frank living in a retirement home. With placid voice, he recounts his life through fourth-wall breaking narration and sometimes voiceovers. Like any former mobster, he’s not a completely reliable storyteller. In fact, he routinely encapsulates the role of silent collaborator, spinning the greasy wheel of organized labor and crime.
Without giving away The Irishman‘s 209-minute plot—and not a second too soon—Scorsese’s epic initially marks its time as a road trip buddy movie. Frank flashes back to driving his old friend Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) to a wedding in Detroit, making a few stops along the way. For the most part, the gangster flick follows the familiar beats of Scorsese’s films: immersing us into an outsider’s story who’s taken under the wing of a full-blooded Italian associate and becomes a level-headed fixer and later success. The editing through the first act arrives briskly—elegantly world building the distant era of the late-50’s to a younger audience, informing a vernacular that becomes essential during later events. What does it mean when someone says they’re “a little concerned”? Apparently, very concerned—matching an urgency felt by Frank in the present day.
Nevertheless, The Irishman doesn’t fully engage until its second act—when the former meat shipper becomes bodyguard and enforcer for Hoffa. “[People] don’t know who Hoffa is today,” recounts Frank. He’s right. The powerful impact of the late-Teamsters boss remains at a loss to a younger generation. But while we treat today’s political parties with religious fealty, unions once occupied the same importance. Hoffa, for all purposes, was the second most powerful man in the country—only behind the president. He also counted mobsters as his closest friends. Now, he’s just the guy who disappeared, the center of a nostalgic elderly man’s daydreams.
Under those auspices, Frank and the Teamsters leader become close friends. Shifting from prototypical mobster flick and road trip journey, The Irishman becomes two separate buddy films: Frank and Hoffa and Frank and Russell. While Pesci plays against type, usually the hot head, here he’s reserved: a lever puller. Conversely, De Niro doesn’t stray too far from his past Sam “Ace” Rothstein persona in Casino: trusted explainer of rough situations to impulsive partners. However, Pacino shines among an incredible cast. His best display of rampant emotion and thoughtful characterization since Heat, he is Hoffa. And he is hilarious—consuming every scene to unforgettable heights, actualizing a forgotten ghost to physical belief in posture, voice, and malignant faults.
Between the immaculate production design: vintage cars and excellent locations, sharp suits spanning the decades from costume designers Christopher Peterson and Sandy Powell, deceptively lyrical uses of archival newscasts, dodgy uses of de-aging technology during the film’s first act, and bursts of violence—exists a surprisingly comedic movie. Pacino and De Niro in particular are a tremendous double act. Often the conversations within The Irishman mirror those between Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—devolving to opinions on acceptable tardiness and a spat over the origins of a fish Hoffa’s son Chuckie (Jesse Plemons) picked up for a friend. The comedic bits all hit with incredible accuracy, making mundane viewpoints into creative characterizations. We learn the codes these men live and survive by on an individual level: their “heroic” flaws and realities in the smallest of acts.
While 209 minutes feels like an enormous undertaking, here they mostly fly by in a well-paced but slow film. However, if one fault could be found with Scorsese’s latest work, it’s the waste of intriguing women characters like Frank and Hoffa’s wives Irene (Aleksa Palladino) and Josephine (Welker White) respectively, and especially Frank’s daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin). While afforded screen time, Scorsese doesn’t give an extraordinary talent like Paquin much to do other than disagreeingly scowl at De Niro.
Nevertheless, in the best possible of ways, The Irishman is totally an old man movie. Like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a reverent tone adorns every shot of Scorsese’s latest work—especially the contemplative final act. An elegy, Frank’s reminiscences aren’t just flashbacks. They’re a treasuring of a lost passage, a narrow strait of regret: like the smokey residue of a gun’s bloody act. In fact, where does the bullet go when it exits the wound? The same as the smoke, as us? Into the thin air, accompanied by a melancholic cello score. That ambiguous fear leads to a complete humanizing of a ruthless man afraid of the dark silence of death. While one would never compare Scorsese’s life to Frank’s, the wonder of what the surviving was for marks an auteur who’s still fighting to create vibrant films. At 76 years of age, Scorsese might not so subtly be pondering the final shots of his lifetime: in a film that excavates his most well-known tropes, but he’s also confronting a theme he’s rarely conversed with: mortality. That aspect may not completely make The Irishman one of his masterworks, but it does add a personal vulnerability to an incredible film, maybe the most heartfelt of Scorsese’s career.