If any filmmaker has earned the right to grab $150 million to make a three and a half hour epic that ruminates on their own career, it’s Martin Scorsese. A leading light of director-driven movies and a tireless advocate of cinema from all over the world for 50 years, you can bear him no ill will for a little indulgence. Yet, incredibly, The Irishman is not an indulgence. It earns every minute of its runtime and pushes both Scorsese and the entire crime movie genre in a bleak and bold new direction, the kind of film that can only be made with decades of experience under one’s belt.
Yes, The Irishman is a mob movie, but this is a very different experience from Goodfellas or Casino. Running from 1944 to the early 2000s, it also tackles aging, loneliness, and death with a cold honesty and prickling fear. Our protagonist, Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) was a notorious mafia enforcer and hitman, but we don’t initially meet him in a glamorous club or on an assignment. Instead, our first introduction takes place in a care home, as we listen in on a Frank in his 80s describing a road trip he once took with his friend and gangster big boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).
It’s a road trip we return to time and again, often a light, comic relief sideshow against the main events, until it flips into perhaps the weightiest section of what is a very weighty film. Frank’s rise to power, and eventual working into the inner circle of Teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who mysteriously went missing in the ‘70s, coincides with seismic shifts in American history, like failures in Cuba, JFK’s assassination and the US’s changing relationship with business. There’s a considered gravity to everything in The Irishman, and yet it never runs slow.
With three hour masterpieces like Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street in their back catalogue, Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker have already proved themselves masters of pacing, and The Irishman is perhaps the pinnacle of this. It feels at least an hour shorter than it is, without ever feeling light of content or thematic richness, an outstanding balance of entertainment and contemplation. The CG-assisted young faces that are required for a story of this breadth take a bit of time to get used to – and there are some uncomfortably obvious green screen moments – but it’s a remarkable technological achievement that fades into the background quickly enough.
It’s also helpful to know that there really was no other way to tell this story. You need actors of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino’s calibre to sell this film, and you need authentically old men towards the end. All three are magisterially good and form a perfect synthesis together. Pacino goes absolutely wild as the colourful, hot-headed Hoffa while Pesci keeps things at a soft and steady simmer. In the middle ground, both in characterisation and performance style, sits De Niro’s Frank, a generally composed mediator who can lash out when his feelings occasionally get the better of him.
They chew over Steven Zaillian’s superb writing with relish, and it’s a joy to see three of the all time great screen actors at the best they’ve been since the ‘90s. Pesci, just about, is the standout, and what a gift it is that he came out of retirement for Scorsese – you can’t imagine anyone else bringing what he does to this story. More muted than a lot of Scorsese films, his signature styles (long tracking shots, swinging lenses, freeze frames, voiceovers) are still found here, but everything moves just a little slower, and the colours are just that little bit dimmer.
Violence erupts but is over in a flash, most ‘action’ scenes consisting of only a couple of shots fired and a shocked body slumping to the ground. Of course, Zaillian’s writing still makes a lot of time for laughs, and a recurring gag of minor characters’ violent causes of death being stamped onto the screen upon their first appearance is both very funny and a needling reminder of how hideously frightening these men’s lives truly were.
It’s in this final spirit that The Irishman enters its endgame. Having effectively told a brilliant saga of mob lore, American history, and wiseguys generally palling around, Scorsese pivots in his last 45 minutes to a gruelling look at old age. There’s loneliness, confusion, and regret, and where there might have been a thrilling denouement 25 years ago, instead there is now only a slow, emotionally devastating decline. For decades, frat boys and dull, moralising hand-wringers have misinterpreted, wilfully or not, Scorsese’s films as being about, basically, cool guys doing cool things that Scorsese endorses, and there could be no better riposte to that than these last scenes.
Long since abandoned by his family, Frank sits alone in cold rooms (De Niro and Pesci do sensational jobs of selling the biting chill of being elderly), trying to find people to listen to him. Even when they turn up, a lifetime of transactional relationships and emotionally stunted violence has left him unable to articulate anything of value. It’s brutal stuff, just as savage and profane as any of the murders or parties that Scorsese has done before, and the final shot is one for the ages. Though it might not quite electrify like the most energetic of his movies, The Irishman and all its mournful finality sit with you for a very long time after the credits roll.