Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Over the past fifty years, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro have made nine films together and have been credited for creating some of the greatest films of the 21st century (along with some of its most indelible lines and imagery; “You talking to me?”). * During their historic run, they have also largely defined the American mafia on the silver screen. From the slice-of-life origins of Mean Streets (1973) to the ultra-stylized Goodfellas (1990) ** to the outsize ambition of Casino (1995) no one else has done more for the cinematic language of gangsters on film. With The Irishman (2019) their latest (and likely final) mob picture, what they have done is nothing short of a masterpiece, one that acts as both the summation and culmination to their acclaimed body of work.
Adapted by Steven Zaillian from the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the film opens with an aging Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) now wheelchair bound and relegated to a retirement home, recalling a Rust Belt road trip with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) head of the crime family in the Northeast. From there, the film goes even further back, tracing Sheeran’s rise from scamming meat-trucks in Philly to contract killing, eventually becoming entangled with infamous teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). With narration by Sheeran, the film relies on extensive flashbacks to tell his story. Much has been made of the effects used to make the principal actors look decades younger, and audiences seem split on whether it is successful or distracting. For what it is worth, this viewer was well aware the CGI was in play (making it not entirely seamless) but became so swept up in the story so immediately that it was never even a slight distraction. With its single-take opening shot, Scorsese makes his unmistakable presence felt, and the first third of the film is as muscular and effortlessly funny as any of his best work. For a filmmaker who is not thought of as a comedic type, the auteur does not get nearly enough credit for how funny his films often are. In this case, it is even more effective because of the way it lulls its audience into a sense of familiar territory before tearing the rug out from under. While it lacks the cocaine-fueled zip of Goodfellas, the 77-year old makes it all look effortless as he plays his greatest hits, from stylistic trademarks to the pitch-perfect needle drops one expects from a Scorsese picture.
It is nearly an hour into the film before Jimmy Hoffa makes his first appearance, and Pacino immediately makes his presence felt. While he has spent much of the last several decades hamming it up early and often, the larger-than-life union President is the kind of role that is perfectly tailored to his strengths. We may never see the Pacino of the early 70s again, but here it is a lot easier to recall what he was like. While he finds plenty of room to go big, it feels organic, and on the whole, it remains his most nuanced work in ages. Pesci (who was coaxed out of unofficial retirement by De Niro for one last job) is an incredibly welcome presence, as time seems to have simultaneously mellowed him without stripping any of his venom. It is a much more subtle and subdued role than Nicky Santoro or Tommy DeVito; he does not raise his voice once in the entire film, but he hardly needs to. Bufalino is the closest thing there is to an elder Mafia statesmen in the film, and Pesci brings pathos and minimalism to a role that might be the very best work of his long career. As good as both men are, the film belongs to De Niro. Sheeran is the linchpin that ties the whole thing together, bouncing between his two surrogate father-figures as they increasingly find themselves at odds. While Scorsese might seem to be taking a victory lap, De Niro has internalized decades worth of tough-guy icons to create a role that is both utterly familiar and entirely new, and it is far and away the greatest role he has had since the last time he paired with Marty. If the material is familiar at times, watching three all-time performers come alive with it renders the point moot, as they are each so flawlessly attuned to one another that it hardly matters that you have seen it before. These are the guys who re-invented (and essentially perfected) the genre, and the sheer joy of seeing them together for what might be the last time is as pure of a pleasure one can hope to get out of the movies.
While the big three are the major selling point, the remaining cast is an embarrassment of riches, with faces as familiar as Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, and Ray Romano to a number of “that guy” character actors from HBO hits and crime films of old. There is a pointed lack of female perspective in the film, which is noteworthy largely because of the considerable presence of women in Scorsese’s previous gangster epics; there is no equivalent to Karen or Ginger in The Irishman, though this seems less a failing on the part of the film than a product of its characters limited scope. Frank Sheeran was a family man who was never really there for his family, and this is demonstrated succinctly but devastatingly through his relationship with his daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin). There has been some controversy about Paquin’s lack of dialogue, but similarly to accusations about Tarantino’s 2019 masterpiece, there is nothing substantive to explore, as Paquin turns in heartbreaking, haunting work without needing to speak.
With a three and a half hour run-time (which truly flies right by) that spans several decades and covers major events in American history (including the JFK assassination, and more centrally, the reign and eventual disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa) The Irishman is truly epic in every sense of the word. After Paramount stepped aside (thanks to a budget that ballooned to over $150 million, due largely to de-aging effects) Netflix came to the rescue, footing the bill and even managing to get the film a limited theatrical run. It is both a blessing and a curse, as the film might very well not exist without the streaming service, but most viewers will not be persuaded from leaving the comfort of their couch, which is a damn shame. This is a film that practically demands to be seen on the big screen, if for no other reason than both the sheer sweep and intimacy of full-immersion.
Ultimately, the heart of the film is the relationship between Sheeran and Hoffa, a friendship which ultimately ends in tragedy. It would be impossible not to bring years of baggage to the relationship between the two icons, but rather than act as a hindrance, it deeply humanizes the dynamic. De Niro has always been the more internalized performer, seemingly uncomfortable with displays of verbosity, whereas Pacino is the loud expressive hot-head, and the two men playing characters who embody those qualities so well makes them perfect foils. There have been a number of questions about the veracity of the events depicted, and much of the book upon which it is adapted has been credibly debunked, but to get hung up on the facts would be to miss the point entirely. To borrow a line from another famous film *** When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. In the film, Sheeran’s involvement in his friend’s disappearance is the hinge on which the whole film turns. If the first half of the film plays out like their greatest hits, it shifts into another gear with Hoffa’s arrival toward something more grand and operatic, before finally arriving at an elegiac and contemplative conclusion during its final hour.
One of the things that has separated Scorsese’s crime films from his lesser imitators is the unbiased way he is able to humanize monsters. From the casual infliction of violence, to the constant presence of humor, to the glamour associated with a life of crime, his critics have often posited that the depiction in his films are akin to endorsement. What those critics have always misunderstood is the filmmaker’s lack of willingness to judge; instead, he trusts the audience to draw their own conclusions. While The Irishman does not suddenly provide any easy answers, it ought to put this tired argument to bed, once and for all. The aftermath of Hoffa’s disappearance is the beginning of the end, as all of the major players (save for Sheeran) are claimed by prison, aging and illness, and inevitably, death. The way time cruelly ravages these men does more to strip away any glamour or dignity than any blatant condemnation ever could. The brilliance of the script is owed to its lack of didacticism, and in trusting the audience to understand what they are seeing on their own. Scorsese has long been obsessed with notions of guilt vs salvation, and whether there is any forgiveness powerful enough to absolve sin. There is a case to be made that it is these obsessions that have drawn him back time and again to the examination of amoral men. The final thirty minutes see Sheeran preparing for his inevitable death, ruminating over the finality of it, and seeking absolution despite his continued lack of remorse. These scenes rest squarely on De Niro’s shoulders, and it feels like some of the greatest work he has ever done on screen. It is difficult not to imagine Scorsese and his most frequent collaborator examining their own work through a similar lens, interrogating what a lifetime spent exploring themes of violence and redemption might mean now that things are nearer to the end than the beginning.
The Irishman is both the ultimate exclamation mark to mob films and a total refutation of them, and it manages to be wholly convincing at both. With its haunting final image, the film strips free all of the myths and fascination perpetrated by the duo’s previous work, until all that is left is the bitter emptiness and regret. The Irishman is the last word.
* Taxi Driver (1976)
** Arguably, the greatest mob film ever made.
*** The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)