by Jake Kring-Schreifels
Invoking his signature cinematic past, in the opening-night film of the 57th New York Film Festival, director Martin Scorsese opens The Irishman, his 209-minute mob-focused opus, with a long tracking shot. Instead of weaving through casino slots or dinner tables though, this visual tour slowly glides past the sterile, morose hallways of a nursing home to greet a solitary, white-haired old man, staring blankly into an empty room. The movie’s primary focus and sole storyteller, Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, looks into the camera and begins meditating on the unthinkable, unlikely atrocities and long gestating regrets that have consumed his life. If it’s fair to label this the conclusion to a trilogy, the bow wrapping together Scorsese’s mob-centric classics Goodfellas and Casino, then it’s also fair to consider it a technical and spiritual hard pivot.
It’s a distinction that elevates this movie to a masterpiece.
The movie, based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 novel I Heard You Paint Houses, which details Sheeran’s relationship with (and possible disposal of) Jimmy Hoffa and his memories as a Philadelphia mob hitman, doesn’t have the glimmering narration and nostalgic tone of its Mafioso predecessors. Perhaps Scorsese, now 76, has a much deeper awareness of mortality, a greater sense of time and better perspective on the glorified characters that have filled his filmmaking palette. Which is to say that death — with its requisite graphic and frantic nature — doesn’t enliven The Irishman and its crusty characters as much as it haunts them. It’s a distinction that elevates this movie to a masterpiece, bristling with the hope that atonement might still be possible even when sins can’t be forgotten.
Epic in scope, Frank’s memories and laments take him back to the middle of the century — to his World War II recollections and then his introduction to Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a Pennsylvania-based mob boss, whose cousin (Ray Romano) helps Frank with legal troubles making his way up as a union truck driver. To effectively recreate this time period, the movie implements digital wizardry to de-age De Niro and Pesci with younger facades, eliminating wrinkles and grayness with computer-generated effects. Aside from a few blurry moments, that doesn’t distract from the drama, which quickens when Frank becomes Russell’s trusted goon, willing to snuff out rivals, on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and take on directives that require stealth and quick-trigger smarts.
Eventually, Frank’s reputation makes its way to Hoffa (Al Pacino), the infamous Teamsters president, looking for a trusted liaison and enforcer. There the movie shifts into gear, thanks primarily to Pacino pushing the pedal to unhinged hilarity. His depiction as a paranoid and elusive honcho, described by Frank as the equivalent to Elvis and bigger than The Beatles, is filled with egocentric and comical details. Like at the podium, in front of laborers, when Pacino leans into his growling and hollering voice, shouting ”Solidarity” over and over, moving his shoulders up and down. Or the way he dines on his ice cream sundaes, at his local diner or behind bars.
a chronicle of old-man complaints and conversation
It’s when Robert F. Kennedy begins his pursuit to expose Hoffa’s dealings with the mob that Pacino lays into his charismatic loud mouthing past the most. Hoffa’s disdain for the Kennedy family even as he curries favor with Frank’s family further complicates his portrayal. He is obnoxious, powerful and petty, oblivious to the dangers and advice that surrounds him. For two decades — through the Bay of Pigs and Watergate — Frank must negotiate Hoffa’s neurotic whims with Russell’s quiet orders to regulate them.
Tragedy meets levity through other various structures, including a running gag in which each new ancillary character that’s introduced is supplied a caption detailing the precise time and manner of his eventual death. It’s a device that weakens the pomposity of their gregarious display but also highlights the inevitability that they will become erased from history just as quickly as they seemed to conquer it. Interjections like these help keep the pace moving, (the movie is cut together by Thelma Schoonmaker) even as the subject matter maintains dark.
The screenplay, written by Steven Zaillian, intermittently jumps ahead to 1975, for a road trip to Detroit that Frank and Russell take with their wives (Kate Arrington and Kathrine Narducci). They stop frequently along the way, allowing for smoke breaks, and the complexion of their relationship enhances as Scorsese paints in their final years working together with extended pauses and saddened sighs. For all its business of extortion and violent action, The Irishman (in theaters Nov. 1 before it arrives on Netflix on Nov. 27) is mostly a chronicle of old-man complaints and conversation. At one point, Hoffa, following his stint in prison, becomes incensed that a rival (a New Jersey boss Anthony Provenzano) shows up to a meeting 15 minutes late. Hoffa frequently undermines his larger than life reputation by his crotchetiness.
The movie’s emotional center though belongs to Frank, sharpened by De Niro’s scowl that seems etched into the bottoms of his cheek. It runs parallel to a softer, more somber arc in the form of his daughter Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin), who has observed her father’s shadowy work through newspaper headlines and photographs, through public and traumatic displays of toxic masculinity. She barely speaks in this movie, but her refusal to acknowledge her father later in life vibrates Frank’s insular world, and give this movie a necessary perspective.
What does it mean to outlive friends and stop existing to family? Scorsese wrestles with this existential question, reflecting on the wasted men whose burials nobody saw and whose legacies have evaporated. For men like Frank, who prefers to ultimately lie in a casket — to have some corporeal reign over earth even in death — the answer makes up the melancholy mood of this movie. He waits by a door slightly ajar that nobody ever passes.
Watch The Irishman trailer below: