The Irishman could have been three and a half hours of Martin Scorsese winking and nodding to his past triumphs in the gangster genre and it still probably would have been the movie event of the year, but The Irishman marks for a reflective work for the giants of cinema. This is obviously territory that is familiar for Scorsese, as well as Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino (who shockingly has never worked with Scorsese before now), but it’s the scope of storytelling that is unprecedented as he humanizes these gangsters and looks at the personal tole that a life of crime takes on someone’s family. Since his glory days working on mob films, Scorsese has done many biopics about iconic American figures who’ve shaped the nature of democracy, and The Irishman is a synthesis of these two sides of the filmmaker.
Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a working class veteran and delivery truck driver who gets into trouble with law enforcement when he makes a deal with local gangsters. Frank is bailed out by his lawyer Bill Buffalino (Ray Romano), who introduces him to his cousin Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), the head of the Pennsylvania crime family. Frank and Russell become close and their families become interlinked as the two expand their operation. This expansion brings the two into the national fold as Frank is assigned to protect (Jimmy Hoffa), who has his own ties to the mob, but it also facing federal threats as the nation approaches the 1960 election.
This is a three and a half hour movie (the longest of Scorsese’s career), and it’s never dull because something is always happening. Every moment is in service to the theme that the mob has shaped everything about Frank’s being, and the little time he spends to develop as a father gets thrown aside. This isn’t a new theme, but Scorsese takes it further than you’d ever expect by showing how detrimental this process is when Frank is old, alone, and forgotten. Even in the last stages of his life, he’s still conducting himself with the same mob chivalry, and as a result he’s a man out of time.
But part of the reason the film is so long is the time it takes to establish the key relationships. Frank doesn’t become a top guy overnight, and it’s the meticulous process by which Frank gains the trust of the higher ups (matched with his slow failures as a father) that drive the first part of the film. This sort of cycle once he begins his partnership with Jimmy Hoffa, and while at first it seems like there are side missions and asides that are there for decoration, they do more than just flesh out the world. By the time the film ends and these characters are reflecting on the lives they’ve lived, it’s not an implied history that they’re referencing- we’ve seen in full detail the ways their paths have crossed over the years.
While often used as a gimmick, the digital de-aging is completely seamless here, and while at first the film is cutting back and forth between several different timelines, it’s never confusing as to what’s happening or what the dramatic intentions are. The demarkation lines between different decades aren’t drastic either, and the film uses historical context clues to signify when an event is happening, particularly when it comes to major milestones like the Kennedy assassination. It’s epic in scope, and there’s always a sense of the greater picture, but it never distracts from the story of the three leads.
For De Niro, this is his Unforgiven; it’s a role so similar to the ones he’s had before that it allows De Niro to become a more mature, more realized version of a gangster, and it’s a rare film that allows De Niro to create, live in, and reflect upon his legacy all at once. Framed with an older version of Frank recounting his life story, there’s a sense that this tale is Frank’s confession, or at least his way of justifying the way he lived his life. Unlike his character in say, Goodfellas or Mean Streets, Frank doesn’t seem to take pleasure in hurting others just for the sake of it, but he’s engrossed enough in this world that the only people he can truly talk to are his friends in the mob, and seeing them slip away packs an unexpectedly emotional punch.
This is everything you’d want from a Pacino performance. He does his signature over the top yelling and cursing, and while seeing Pacino scream incoherently about the Kennedys during a family sit down is uproarious, he’s also playing a larger than life figure with an uncompromising showmanship, and it’s Hoffa’s dedication to a specific moral code that makes him both tragic and endearing. However, it’s Pesci that nearly steals the movie; unlike many of his other Scorsese collaborations, Pesci’s role here is one that’s graceful and restrained, as he quietly acknowledges that this is just the way things are. Pesci plays a mob figure who is almost completely removed from the human experience, and it’s his subtle hints as to what he actually cares about (such as being included in Frank’s family) that become essential to The Irishman‘s message.
Again, this is Scorsese at his most restrained, and while there’s a lot of playfulness to be had in the ways the mob guys interact and take offense to each others’ comments, the hits themselves are carried out with realism. Frank’s final hit is one of the most suspenseful, gut wrenching sequences that Scorsese has ever pulled off; Frank has been in so deep for so long, but after his life’s work he’s still unable to save the people he cares about the most, and he begins to realize how lost his priorities have been.
More than just a nostalgic tour for fans of Scorsese’s highlight reel, The Irishman is a great filmmaker commenting on their own legacy and returning to material with an energized and mature sense of purpose. I sincerely hope that Scorsese will make many more films over many more years, but at the same time this feels like a perfect coda for one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. The Irishman is a culmination of a genre, but regardless of your familiarity with Scorsese’s history it stands on its own as a masterpiece about the American morality. As Russell says in the film, “it’s what it is.” Grade: A+