Robert De Niro
3 Hrs., 30 Mins.
The Irishman December 13, 2019
ost mobsters don’t make it to old age. So if one manages to, should they consider themselves lucky? Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the blue-eyed antihero of Martin Scorsese’s new organized crime saga The Irishman (2019), is among the rare survivors. But it’s doubtful he’d call himself fortunate. Most of the movies composing Scorsese’s crime canon take place in flashback, with the main
characters speaking pragmatically and contemplatively through voiceover from the “fall” side of the rise-and-fall curve of their lives, never seen in the present. The Irishman maintains the emphasis on narration. But the difference here is that Sheeran is doing the talking from a nursing home in a wheelchair, appearing to be almost in a fugue state.
Sheeran, we’ll learn, was a hitman for the Bufalino crime family. (Or, as his superiors call him, a house-painter.) Over the course of the three-and-a-half-hour-long film, we come to understand how he got involved with organized crime (he was a meat delivery driver who took advantage of circumstance) and eventually how for several years he was simultaneously the bodyguard of the crooked labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). His two occupations intersect, finally tragically.
The Irishman spans decades (starting in the 1950s, when Sheeran has post-war blues), and is mostly set in Philadelphia. The film is predictably like Scorsese’s spiritual forebears GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995) in that it braids myriad narratives and juggles the plights of numerous characters with rhythm and aplomb. GoodFellas and Casino had a druggy sort of boundless energy. Both films at several points during their epic run times felt like trains speeding, without signs of stopping, to the edge of the Grand Canyon, with no one on board bothering to do anything about it. They didn’t romanticize crime, but because of the recklessness of the characters and the soiled decadence on which they built the “better” parts of their foredoomed lives, the features had a pull to them. We didn’t want to live like these people. But we could for the most part understand why they did what they did, and why despite the rampant danger the thrill of it all is what prevents them from total disillusionment, at least early on.
The Irishman, despite having a similar looking-back setup, steeps in melancholy. Here there isn’t a “thrilling” period in Sheeran’s life akin to the coming of age of Henry Hill or the improbable professional leap of Ace Rothstein. Sheeran almost always seems to be asking some new mutation of what am I doing here? but decides that, instead of trying to come up with a clear-headed answer, he’s going to keep on keeping on. Sheeran shares his story in The Irishman not with ill-judged fondness but matter-of-factness — with a looseness that shows us that, if a listening companion were to make clear their disbelief in his words, he might be surprised by it. This is just the way it was, he tacitly tells us under his remembrances. The Irishman would be effective if it were just a narratively fixated memory movie — more into presentation than emotion. Scorsese has a way of keeping us enmeshed in his crime worlds even if we have a hard time retaining all the information being curveballed our way or get a little lost in dialogue.
Then the last act slaps us silly. (Emotionally, I mean.) We’re left to finally, after dwelling in Sheeran’s eventful past, get a taste of his present — a place where his living family members don’t want anything to do with him and where he cannot so much as walk down a hallway without the threat of collapse. To varying degrees, Scorsese’s crime sagas show us that these characters figure we’re all going to hell anyway, so why not do everything you can to get to the top of a food chain when you’re still above the fiery strata? There’s a good chance you’ll die before you can think long and hard about anything — the burning out is probably going to smother the fading away.
But The Irishman curbs the bloody, too-soon finale, for Sheeran, that is. (A running joke in the movie involves freezing the frame when a new character is introduced and letting us know, through superimposed text, how and when they died.) The trade-off for survival, though, is that Sheeran is inexorably forced to wonder if this all was worth it. Judging by where the film ends, it wasn’t. And the fuck of it all is that the mob stuff in itself never exactly brought that much joy now that he’s looking at it all in hindsight. What is Sheeran left with? Nothing and no one, basically. On a car stereo, you can turn up the bass and/or treble really high if you’re wanting certain parts of the music to especially shake you. The Irishman is like GoodFellas with the regret cranked and the amoral thrills turned down into the negatives.
lamentations, it was more so about the dangerous injudiciousness that can come with being a young and rash criminal. It was additionally lined, I think, in hopefulness — something that could be believably afforded to its luckier and not-yet-weathered characters.
As Scorsese continued to make crime movies with the passing decades, they aged with him. They indicated, with the smallish tweaks which accompanied them, how he was evolving in how he viewed morality, death, more. The Irishman is based on I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, and is ripe for bug-eyed, conspiratorial theatrics, since these characters existed and since the film posits what happened to Hoffa. (The way it’s stood since around 1975 is that he “disappeared”; I Heard You Paint Houses and The Irishman tell us explicitly what they think happened.) But Scorsese isn’t as much interested in postulation. What he wants to show us about aging, familial dysfunction, and remorse is the coating on the morass of a narrative. The movie is more heavy-hearted than handed. Scorsese will be 80 in a few years, and the film shows it. This is somber Scorsese.
The performances from De Niro and Pesci are understated, particularly when thinking about what they’ve done in other Scorsese movies. (With him they typically, though not always, go for the big.) It tickles me to see Pesci, who plays the cool-headed captain of the Bufalino family, so subdued. A human flame in the movies which made him famous, he’s extinguished here — almost a revelation, since it isn’t often we see him in a movie visibly mulling over a situation. De Niro gives one of his best performances here — he’s powerfully taciturn and retrospective. Pacino, a delight, is the odd man out. His Jimmy Hoffa is a being of bluster. Even when he’s hurtling toward trouble you can sense that if he could turn that trouble into a steak he could swallow and digest the thing without chewing if he really tried.
The Irishman feels like something of a climax for the lead actors — like their professional lives have been leading to this moment. (This notion’s helped by the reality that as of late they haven’t been opposed to phoning it in in movies that don’t deserve them.) The same goes for Scorsese. Sometimes his movies of the same bent feel a tad like showing off — a magician spellbinding a game audience. Even the flaws turned us on. (GoodFellas and Casino, for instance, are I think plagued by single-dimensional characters; they know how to move and they have an aliveness to them, but it was hard to really know them.) But nothing in The Irishman has the same excusable emptiness. Even the worrying decision to digitally de-age the actors while they play younger versions of themselves turns out to be not all that bad an idea. (No matter how good the CGI is, though, the brain and eyes can sense when something is patently unreal and thus cannot totally accept it.)
It’s been a given for a long time that Scorsese is one of our great living filmmakers. But a movie like The Irishman — which seems to be just as much in dialogue with Scorsese himself and his body of work — reminds us not only of that but also that, in his late 70s, a point at which a lot of directors have begun to lose their verve and run on fumes, he still has plenty to say. A
t’s unlikely that Scorsese is going to stop making movies after The Irishman. But it seems likely that this is going to be the last of his trademark organized-crime sagas. If that’s the case, then The Irishman is a just-right denouement to a thematically linked series that began in 1973 with Mean Streets, that nail-tough but vulnerable street movie that also starred De Niro. While the latter feature was, like The Irishman, also edged out in