Part reunion, part continuation, and part something new and unexpected from arguably the greatest American filmmaker working today, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a sprawling, decades-spanning, true-life tale of organized crime in post-war America as seen through the eyes of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, one of the only non-Italians to rise up the ranks of the mob and live until a ripe old age (he died in 2003 at the age of 83). Portrayed by Robert De Niro, Frank was an unassuming man and proud teamster who learned to kill as a soldier in World War II (through the technological miracle of de-aging, De Niro is able to play Frank from his 20s on up; more traditional makeup is used to age him up), and used that skill, as well as his expertise as a truck driver, to carve out a nice living and gain the respect of his union.
And it’s as a driver that he gets caught doing something illegal and is almost sent to prison, if it wasn’t for the help of slick union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), who was impressed with Frank’s ability to keep his cool under pressure. Soon Bill is introducing Frank to Felix DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), and eventually relatives like Russell Bufalino (a phenomenal return to acting and form by Joe Pesci). Soon, Frank is an important man who gets things done for the teamsters and the mob, including a fair amount of killing. Before long, his reputation as a reliable man of action is noticed by Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and the two men form a friendship for years, until Hoffa vanished in 1975, at the age of 62.
De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino all benefit from de-aging special effects, and for the most part, it wasn’t something that removed me from the film or from reality. They all seem to share a similar skin tone as a result, but the wrinkles and scars all seem in place. The Irishman bounces back and forth in time, although never distractingly, from Frank in a senior living center in his last days, quietly telling us the story we’re watching, to the heyday of the gangster era, when, as one of them puts it, “they can knock off a president” (referring to the Kennedy assassination).
As Scorsese introduces us to various minor characters, the frame freezes and a title card comes up identifying the person and telling us in what horrible way they were killed. Death is just a part of this life, and it’s rarely treated as something worth discussing. That being said, this isn’t a particularly violent film. Scorsese has too much story to tell to get lost in soaking the screen red, as he did as a younger man.
In many ways, The Irishman is meant as an alternative look at American history in the back half of the 20th century. While the world outside was moving along, blissfully ignorant, the Bufalino crime family and many others just like it were finding ways to make money illegally and keeping things running so that normal folks wouldn’t even notice. But eventually, the government noticed and began enthusiastically going after Hoffa and organized crime.
There are some fascinating trends in The Irishman, including the way most of the veteran actors all play their roles with such wonderful reserve, especially Pesci, who does so much by saying so little and playing the man always trying to settle beefs between people but also having the sense to let the process do its job—if someone needs to get taken out, they get taken out. Meanwhile, the younger players (Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Sebastian Maniscalco) all play their roles as next-generation gangster as if they grew up watching gangster movies—they’re all flash and style, with no sense that calling attention to oneself is terrible for business.
Based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” (which is mob code for being a killer for hire) by Charles Brandt and adapted by Steven Zaillian, the movie also spends a great deal of time with the families of these men. As we begin to sense early in the movie, Frank’s daughter Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin) is meant to represent the price paid by many families who have a father that is a part of this world. They aren’t around much, they work strange hours, and they don’t really talk about their work around the dinner table. It’s a distancing and isolated existence, and as the film enters its third act, it opens up a part of the mob movie that I’ve never seen before—the aftermath.
After Hoffa disappears, we watch Frank get older. He goes to jail with some of his buddies for a little while, but comes out having been pushed out of the crime world, despite always keeping his mouth shut. So The Irishman asks, what happens to elderly gangsters who have no friends left alive and have pushed their family away, whether they meant to or not? De Niro’s performance in these final scenes is exquisite and taps into an aspect of this lifestyle that is so far removed from the shiny suits, the jewelry and the finer things in life. He is utterly alone, and it’s up to the audience to decide whether to feel sorry for him or not.
This is the life he chose, the life he prioritized over his family and the law, so maybe this is the existence he deserves. It’s as much an indictment of most of what we’ve seen from Scorsese—both in The Irishman and what has come before it—as any filmmaker has ever attempted. It’s that final shot of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II, but stretched out so that we feel the solitary person Frank has become. He reflects, contemplates, maybe even regrets, but in his heart, we don’t really think he would have changed anything. And while the entirety of The Irishman is brilliantly acted and executed, it’s this fresh take on one of the oldest genres in film history that make it a masterpiece.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, and debuts November 27 on Netflix.
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