The Irishman movie review: Martin Scorsese is the king of gangster films and this masterpiece adds to his legacy
The Irishman is an emotionally brutal piece from one of our finest filmmakers, as he captures the corrosion of the human soul.
(This review may contain minor spoilers.)
Martin Scorsese is king of the gangster picture, but heavy lies the crown.
His latest, the Netflix-produced, de-aging-technology-heavy The Irishman enters a world all too familiar with Scorsesean clichés — his own, as well as those of his imitators. It strings together a quintessentially American gangster movie cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, and first-time collaborator Al Pacino, who returns to his days of scenery-chewing. It has a quintessentially American gangster movie soundtrack, and it tells a quintessentially American gangster story, one that begins during World War II and concludes somewhere in the early 2000s (while crossing through the 1970s “New Hollywood” period, which the aforementioned names all helped solidify). And while it trades on these familiar flourishes and genre tropes, it does so not as cheap nostalgia, but as a means of exploring legacy, mortality and lifelong regret.
This is digital Scorsese at his dingiest and most macabre, though in order for the gloominess to land, the director indulges his most familiar, most enjoyable impulses, nestling moments of charm, warmth and hilarity amidst what might be the most despondent stretch of cinema in his entire repertoire. The Irishman clocks in at nearly three and a half hours, but it earns each and every minute, acting as reflective post-script to a career’s worth of brutal iconography for all involved. The result is a masterwork on par with anything in their respective oeuvres.
The story, told through flashbacks-within-flashbacks, centers on Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro), the real-life criminal and labour union official connected to both mobster Russel Bufalino (Pesci) and political figurehead Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Sheeran was long suspected in Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance, to which he eventually confessed in the 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, on which the film is based (the screenplay was adapted by Steven Zaillian). Despite official title The Irishman, title cards a few minutes in refer to the film as I Heard You Paint Houses, a euphemism to make blowing someone’s brains all over their walls seem routine.
Like his 2016 film Silence (based on the 1966 book by Shūsaku Endō), The Irishman was one of Scorsese’s long-gestating passion projects. The director’s involvement dates as far back as 2007, and while the film bears passing resemblance to the current political moment, it’s certainly not a direct metaphor for the current zeitgeist. It is, however, a chronicle of the profound moral decay that led us here. The Sheeran of the early 2000s, shoved away in an old age home, narrates events from the ’70s, which in turn take him further back to the ’50s and ’60s; editor Thelma Schoonmaker snaps the story back and forth in time, unwrapping it like a memory half-recalled. The voiceover here is more erratic than in previous Scorsese films — more flustered, more discombobulated — and as events progress, they’re framed against the larger political backdrop of each era, though not without hinting at criminality’s hand in shaping American history. Sheeran, for instance, engages in arms deals implied to impact the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba; the film skips over the book’s theorizing about the mob assassinating JFK, but its echoes remain through innuendo.
The Irishman is a crime epic in size and scope, but it takes an intimate approach to history. The Kennedys, Nixon and so forth are necessary context, but the function of the film’s political backdrop is its impact on the characters. De Niro’s Sheeran works his way up as a trucker and a hitman for Pesci’s Bufalino; the two eventually become friends, and even grow friendly with Pacino’s erratic, dry-witted, wildly entertaining Jimmy Hoffa. The lead trio is joined by Bufalino’s slimy lawyer cousin Bill (Ray Romano), his enigmatic boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and a whole host of lively criminals played by Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham and other great performers. Over the decades, they find themselves thrust into a slow-burn Thunderdome of political ambitions, rife with moral codes and expectations that pull and push and knead them into their worst possible selves.
In two of his greatest works, Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Scorsese paints each protagonist’s world with a sense of allure; for Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), the life of a mobster is one of comfort and respect; for Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the excess of money and power is the American Dream. In both films, Scorsese steps outside each character’s perspective on occasion, usually amidst outbursts of anger and violence. Both films feature a moment, however brief, of the protagonist’s daughter witnessing her father’s moral descent; the horrified look on her face is what forces us to question the intoxicating nature of the rest of the film.
In The Irishman, this moment appears and re-appears over three and a half hours. Sheeran’s daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult) has only a handful of spoken lines in the film, but her face is its moral center. Any time we get sucked in by criminal goings on, Peggy’s eyes meet Sheeran’s — her fear and disappointment meet his regretful resignation — and the film replaces the ecstasy of Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street with the nauseating weight of guilt.
Guilt, specifically Catholic guilt, has been a hallmark of Scorsese’s explorations as far back as Who's That Knocking At My Door (1967).
In The Departed (2006), a film steeped in Catholic funeral traditions, the idea of Confession takes on the form of occasional conversations with a psychiatrist. In The Irishman however, Sheeran’s burdened conscience underscores the entire film in the form of troubled voiceover. He might talk like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, cheekily explaining mobster doublespeak for our information, but he’s far closer in spirit to Silence’s Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), who speaks out into the nothingness in the hopes of hearing back from God. You can tell from De Niro’s face, and his voice, that even though Sheeran loves this life, he remains in moral anguish.
However, to call The Irishman a stylistic follow-up to anything Scorsese has done — Goodfellas meets Silence? — is also reductive. He certainly borrows from his long career, but he repackages it in a unique way. I’m not talking about the digital de-aging effects (not yet, anyway), but rather, the way in which Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto capture familiar objects.
In a moment of coordinated mob violence — one that feels intentionally reminiscent of The Godfather’s baptism climax — Sheeran narrates the events leading up to an assassination. But as the actual killing takes place, the camera refuses to witness it, focusing instead on a nearby bouquet in a flower shop window (Whatever the bouquet’s original purpose, it now becomes a funeral arrangement). Until the guns go off, Scorsese’s snaking long-take is all too happy to float through space, as it always has, capturing the details of his world. However, in The Irishman, it turns away at a moment violence that might have felt exciting in any of his other films; it’s as if his camera has gained sentience, and with it, gained a sense of remorse. Like Sheeran, the camera wonders of all the carnage it has seen over the years: “What was it all for?”
In Gangs of New York, a Bible tossed over a bridge hits the shining water below in slow-motion. A similar shot re-appears in the 1950s segments of The Irishman, just as Sheeran is starting out as a hitman. However here, the Holy Book is replaced by a gun — itself an artifact of faith in the long American story, a relic tied to the country’s creation myth. Sheeran’s firearm, recently used in a mob hit, sinks to the bottom of the river and lands amongst dozens of other guns discarded in the wake of similar crimes. Several of these guns are Sheeran’s. As he revisits the site of this ritual over and over, often sneaking out in the middle of the night as his daughter watches him leave, the discarded firearms begin to feel like an emotional weight, hidden out of sight. Similarly, as Sheeran and Bufalino embark on a road trip in 1975, they make frequent stops to collect payments they’re owed (en route to a wedding, no less). The envelopes of cash begin to pile up in the glove compartment until there’s no more room to hold them. Guns and money, once mere tools and objects in Scorsese’s films, take on a greater significance now that we follow their journeys more closely. Where did they come from? Where do they go afterwards? What mark do they leave on a human being?
Sheeran’s unwavering dedication to his faith — that is, his criminal allegiance to Bufalino — is so central a tenet of his identity that he feels irredeemable, especially in the eyes of his daughter. Peggy fears both Sheeran and Bufalino. She’s right to. However, we as viewers have a personal insight into both characters, and into their friendship, that she does not. And so her justified revulsion begins to feel both cognitively dissonant. Pesci, finally a mob boss at the top of the pyramid, plays Bufalino with dignified, centered gravitas. He commands the respect and adoration of those who know him, but he reads as stone-hearted to outsiders like Peggy. On the other hand, Peggy adores Sheeran’s livelier, more personable friend Jimmy Hoffa — which makes Sheeran’s eventual violence against Hoffa all the more tragic. Killing Hoffa would mean Sheeran losing what’s left of his soul.
After years of trying to solve Bufalino and Hoffa’s disagreements, Sheeran is conscripted to solve the problem once and for all. Though while his acceptance feels like the end of a traditional story — the decision that pushes him over the edge of humanity — it comes a full hour before The Irishman actually ends. In this final hour, the torturous burden of Sheerin having to kill his confidant comes into focus. The film pivots away from its zippy, fast-talking gangster persona and transforms into a contemplative piece where Sheeran, and the audience, are forced to sit with this burden for lengthy car rides leading up to the act, and then for years afterward. The foreknowledge of what’s about to happen ought to be thrilling, even if perversely so, but we’ve spent so much time getting to know Sheeran and Hoffa that it becomes a sorrowful affair.
In the wake of Hoffa’s “disappearance,” Sheeran is forced to maintain an equilibrium, but its cracks constantly show. The stench of his sin seeps out like a deadly gas. One scene in particular, of Sheeran having to console Hoffa’s wife as guilt rankles his face, is amongst the most difficult to watch of De Niro’s career. He can barely keep his eyes open, even over the phone; it feels like he’s praying for a forgiveness that may never come.
Each performance is as impeccable as the last.
De Niro is appropriately stoic around his family, but his face lights up when he’s around his mobster pals. His specific laugh — the way his mouth and eyes tend to crease, so often imitated without its signature warmth and humanity — shines through even the imperfect digital de-aging. The de-aged portions of the film see him anywhere from twenty-two years old to maybe fifty-five (De Niro is seventy-six). Pacino and Pesci receive similar digital facelifts, though theirs are easier to settle into (they look damn near perfect). De Niro’s always feel uncanny since his brown eyes are digitally painted blue, but this also has the effect of drawing our attention straight to his eyes and what he’s saying with them, even when his mouth is doing the talking. His eye colour may be different, even otherworldly, but the nuances of his performance — the weary bags beneath his eyes, or moments when he wells up — remain intact.
The facial de-aging is appropriate for setting the time period, but Scorsese is hardly pretending to use men in their forties. Rather, he uses them as older actors in digital stage makeup. All three men are in their seventies, and even when their faces are young, their postures remain those of aged, more world-weary men hunched over by guilt; they lumber around like they’re on their way to their graves. The film features Scorsese’s signature freeze-frames and lively character introductions, though each time a new supporting player enters the fray, the film not only tells us their name via title text, but also the way in which they died. As much as The Irishman is a story of power, it’s also a series of obituaries.
Death looms large over all the characters, and as the film enters its final act, it has no qualms about the physical and emotional effects of aging. We see bodies twisted by years of regret. We see men who cannot unburden themselves. We see them face the reality of their own deaths, after causing the deaths of so many. The film pokes and prods at the outer limits of human morality — not the actions and decisions themselves, but their ripple effects across time and relationships.
Scorsese closes his film with a recreation of The Godfather’s final shot — only this time, the door remains open, welcoming inside a haunting, unrelenting loneliness amidst questions of faith and depravity. An emotionally brutal piece from one of our finest filmmakers, as he captures the corrosion of the human soul.
The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix.
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