Much has been made about the technology director Martin Scorsese used in The Irishman to de-age stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino. Indeed, it is a marvel, if not a distraction at first, to see the decades digitally erased off of the stars, but it actually helps the idea of the film as a memory play. Based upon Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran’s hitman confessions in the book I Heard You Paint Houses written by Charles Brandt, it’s the story is an old man’s remembrances of his career as a mob enforcer. His was a life filled with excitement, power, and brotherhood. If anything, Sheeran’s memories seem more glamorized by the heightened sheen of the film’s digital effects. It’s a stark contrast to the lonely and feeble old man now telling his tale from a wheelchair in a nursing home.
Mob dramas are old hat for Scorsese, but this film feels very different from his past classics. Whereas Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed were all told with a kinetic, even restless, sense of bravura, The Irishman takes its time as the camera stays stationary a great deal. And time aplenty it takes to get all fo Sheeran’s story in, running an epic 209 minutes in length. That’s a lot of life of narrative for Sheeran to be telling from that nursing home in 2003. Is he talking to someone – his priest, the DA, or maybe a writer? Perhaps, but one of Scorsese’s coy moves is to not show the listener. Arguably, his audience is those of us watching the movie. Or maybe it’s all just supposed to be in Sheeran’s mind.
As Sheeran sets the stage, the first flashback finds him driving his longtime friend and mob mentor Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) from Philadelphia to Detroit to attend a family wedding. With wives in tow, their trip plays out innocuously with chit-chat and cigarette stops. A Stuckey’s diner along the highway reminds the two men of their meeting by chance there decades ago. From that point, more and more flashbacks play out, often flashbacks within flashbacks, from their first moments together through the thirty years they worked together in the Philly mob.
It doesn’t wholly matter that the digitally scrubbed De Niro doesn’t look he’s in his early 30s as he’s supposed to be in those early flashbacks. Everything in Sheeran’s telling of those earlier days is bathed in a sort of romanticized nostalgia anyway. His face looks as pristine as the cars and highways.
Soon enough, Sheeran becomes Bufalino’s top enforcer. Writer Steve Zaillian’s script draws a parallel to Sheeran’s WWII war crimes slaughtering defenseless German POW’s and how it numbed his conscience towards killing, but the way Scorsese directs De Niro to play it suggests otherwise. The actor always looks a bit exasperated by the extreme jobs he’s asked to carry out. His narration may dismiss all his bloodletting as part of the job, but De Niro’s physical stooping and wincing during the murders suggests a nagging regret about it all. It’s a mostly reactive performance and De Niro is terrific in it.
Nonetheless, Sheeran continues to play the unquestioning soldier, again and again, remaining reliably tight-lipped through all the chicanery. Such loyalty gets him in good with the paranoid Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) when he starts making deals with the Mob. Sheeran becomes the go-between for the two parties. Along the way, Sheeran’s relationship with Hoffa turns into a deep friendship.
Hoffa is everything Sheeran is not: loud, boisterous, delighted in being the center of attention at any gathering. Sheeran admires his boss, especially since he never seems to fear retribution from the Mafia. Pacino and De Niro play wonderfully off each other in the middle hour of the movie, as Sheeran becomes Hoffa’s right-hand man and he grows away from Bufalino.
The film becomes a sort of mini-history lesson in that second hour, dominated by Hoffa and his interactions with famed mobsters, the Kennedy Brothers in the White House, and the press that hung on his every word. Sheeran watches Hoffa grow more powerful and treat the Mob with increasing hostilities. The more Hoffa huffs and puffs, the more Sheeran’s loyalties are called into question by his crime bosses. Soon enough, Hoffa’s out of control, and even if you don’t know the history of the man, you know where the story is going.
Indeed, a lot of what Scorsese is doing here feels familiar. He shows the Mob to be both ruthless and ridiculous as he always has done in past films. The director ensures the period details come alive in their lush way too. And he directs all his players to deft performances once again, especially Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, and Bobby Cannavale. Pacino plays Hoffa large, but never over-the-top. You can see why Scorsese cast him to play such an outsized personality like Hoffa, even though the physical resemblance isn’t ideal. With every moment onscreen, Pacino reminds us why he’s such a star, and indeed, why Hoffa was in his day too.
Pesci, coming out of retirement for this film, gives an even better performance, holding the camera with his stillness. Bufalino stayed in power because he was one cool customer and even though he’s quietly moving the chess pieces around in the Mob’s deadly game, he remains the most admirable character amongst this den of thieves. Pesci’s performance, like De Niro’s, is mostly reactive. Bufalino watches and listens, and then after careful consideration, gives orders. Pesci ensures we see every wheel spinning in the kingmaker’s brain, even suggesting a similar distaste for all the killing, just like Sheeran’s.
In the final hour, the film does start to grow a bit redundant, suggesting the script could have been trimmed some. Hoffa oversteps his bounds – again and again. Sheeran fails to rein him in – again and again. Even so, the material is never less than compelling, and what makes it all so fascinating is the more mournful tone that Scorsese applies to the telling. It’s an affecting meditation on old age and regret, a film with more melancholy than Scorsese’s usual dark wit. The blackest comedy here comes when Scorsese introduces new characters with titles that tell us how violently they died as mobsters. It gets laughs every time, but there’s not much comedy elsewhere, especially in Sheeran’s strained relationship with his daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult.)
Would it have been more challenging for Scorsese to tell a story in a world that he hadn’t mined so often before, one where he still sympathizes avidly, even though most of the characters are stone-cold killers? Perhaps. But Scorsese should be able to tell the stories he wants to tell, and Hollywood should be willing to subsidize his vision. Even with his vaulted reputation, only Netflix would give the septuagenarian filmmaker the money needed to fund this sprawling tale. Is that a story of ageism unto itself? If so, I hope that those who turned Scorsese down live to regret it.
View the trailer for The Irishman below: