With The Irishman, Martin Scorsese has seemingly made a crime film immune to the bad-faith readings his previous forays into the genre have faced. It’s difficult to picture anyone coming away from this movie under the impression that it’s glamorizing its characters’ actions. While easily as profane and violent as Casino or The Departed, there’s a markedly different energy here, elegiac and full of consternation. Like in Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, the main character (Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro) narrates the action, but from the vantage point of the end of his life, in an elder care facility. He speaks not as if the viewers are confidants or admirers, but in an addled, mumbling ramble, which could just as easily be to himself as to an audience.
The film is based on the somewhat dubious biography I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Sheeran claims that he worked as a Mafia hitman, was involved in running guns used in the Bay of Pigs Invasion, participated in the Kennedy assassination, did dirty work for Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, and finally, was the one to kill Hoffa in 1975. The movie is disinterested in overtly interrogating the validity of any of these allegations, instead following Frank through these various escapades as he tells (and sees) them.
Running an epic three and a half hours, The Irishman is in no hurry to get anywhere. It luxuriates in large and small detours, indulging flashbacks within flashbacks which transition to tall tales within flashbacks or anecdotes within flashbacks, and so on. While it meanders at times, like the stories of many absentminded old men, it’s rarely boring. Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker — a huge influence on the rhythms of his films — remains a titan. More than anything else this is a hangout movie; it just so happens that for these characters, hanging out means breaking the law and occasionally murdering people. It’s a frequently quite funny movie. Al Pacino in particular is having a blast hamming it up as Hoffa, exhorting the virtues of ice cream just as exuberantly as he curses Kennedy’s investigations into his union. That humor is often laced with poison, though, with the most frequent recurring “gag” being the introduction of each new mobster with a freeze frame and name card which reveals when and how they’ll end up dying (“car bomb,” “execution,” “cancer in prison”).
That memento mori strain gets less funny and more disquieting as the film bears on. Spoilers ahead (for those unfamiliar with crime history): Eventually, as Hoffa gets to be too much of a liability for the mob to tolerate any longer, Frank realizes that he’ll soon be dispatched to eliminate his friend. It’s in sections like these where the film’s duration serves it best; an entire, lengthy set piece trudges through every beat of his mission to assassinate Hoffa, the inexorability of his position weighing heavier on him with every step. Frank’s violent life is not a subject of admiration but merely his means to an end, a way of making a living. An early flashback to his days in World War II establish his time as a hitman as merely an extension of being conditioned to kill in combat. But his steadfast commitment severs every meaningful tie he has, whether through his own violence or cold estrangement (as seen in a subplot with his daughter Peggy, played by Anna Paquin). When I looked at my watch and saw that Hoffa was dead with another 40-ish minutes left to go, I felt restless, but that final stretch, devoted entirely to an elderly Frank alone and unloved, proves to contain the whole point. The most chilling part is that Frank could just as easily not be a prolific murderer, but any normal old man who never recognized what was actually important in life.
The Irishman unfolds over decades but features septuagenarian actors De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci (playing Frank’s Mafia boss Russell Bufalino) in central roles. To pull off this feat, it enlists digital de-aging technology, much more extensively than any other film to do so to date — a crucial reason the movie reportedly cost a staggering $160 million. The results are wildly haphazard from one scene to another. Sometimes the effect is convincing; you might not be tricked into thinking that De Niro or Pacino are 30 years younger than they really are, but you aren’t conscious of the notable differences between their on and offscreen appearances either. At other points, though (particularly in close-ups), it looks like a PS4 game. While easy fodder for mockery, it’s strangely easy to roll with this technique, if not excuse its wonkiness. Given that this is essentially a memory play, you can almost view it as an elderly Frank putting on an ill-fitting younger skin to act out his own past — the uncanny valley effect a visual manifestation of the ambiguities of remembering. In the end, Scorsese’s brutal man is left with nothing but digital ghosts around him.
The Irishman opens in limited release November 1 and will be available to stream on Netflix starting November 27.