The Irishman is much, much more than a Martin Scorsese mob epic
Turns out, this Martin Scorsese fellow knows a thing or two about making a pretty decent Mafia movie. Whodathunkit?
The odd thing is that if you were to gauge your appetite for the director’s latest underworld epic, The Irishman, based solely on its recent trailer and the iconic names that flash onscreen—De Niro! Pacino! Pesci!—then you might walk away with the impression that he’d somehow smooth-talked Netflix into whipping out its not-insignificant checkbook to bankroll nothing more than a guns-and-goombahs greatest hits collection. And, for the record, there wouldn’t be a damn thing wrong with that. After all, Scorsese spinning mob tales is like Van Gogh painting sunflowers in Arles. There can never be too many variations on the same theme.
But The Irishman, which had its world premiere today as the opening film of the 2019 New York Film Festival, is more than just the ultimate chapter of a wiseguy trilogy that began with 1990’s Goodfellas and picked back up again with 1995’s Casino. Much, much more. Spanning 50 years and clocking in at a bladder-busting 209 minutes, it’s nothing short of an encyclopedic history of American crime in the second half of the 20th century. The ascent of the Teamsters union, the patrician pugnacity of the Kennedys, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, the amateur-hour Watergate break-in, the rise and fall of the Cosa Nostra, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa…it’s all here, presented with the caffeinated energy and grand-statement sweep of a master auteur, who, at age 76, is still somehow operating at the peak of his powers. It’s as if Scorsese was out to prove, once and for all, that he’s the last member of the movie-brat generation who’s still got it. And got it, he does.
Adapted from Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses, by Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenwriter Steven Zaillian, The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran—the sort of bruised-knuckle Horatio Alger figure that Scorsese’s always been drawn to (if not unhealthily obsessed with). Played by Robert De Niro with the aid of some seamless visual-effects de-aging trickery (courtesy of ILM a.k.a. Industrial Light Magic) that’s a million miles from creepy uncanny valley confections of Robert Zemeckis, Sheeran starts off as a blue-collar Irish-American truck driver who gains favor with the mob (especially Joe Pesci’s Pennsylvania crime boss, Russell Bufalino) thanks to his willingness to do the organization’s dirty deeds without asking too many questions or suffering too many sleepless nights. In the crypto-slang of the Mafia, he becomes known as a man who “paints houses”–meaning, he colors walls in the crimson-red blood of whoever is unlucky enough to end up on the other end of his .38. Killing is Frank’s business…and business is good.
It’s Bufalino who first introduces Sheeran to the larger-than-life, pitbull leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa. Brilliantly played by Al Pacino, Hoffa is a man who wants to have it both ways: he depends on the mob for picket-line muscle and loans the crime families millions from the Teamsters’ pension fund to help build Las Vegas, but he also refuses to genuflect to them. As the decades go on, with Scorsese skittering around with the story’s chronology in a way that’s occasionally more than a little confusing, Sheeran gets increasingly pulled like a wishbone between his two masters until he’s tragically forced to choose which side his loyalty lays on. He’s not a heroic figure, to be sure. But then again, neither was Henry Hill or Ace Rothstein.
There are moments in The Irishman, especially in the middle third, when Scorsese’s epic reach seems to occasionally exceed his grasp. Supporting characters (most of whom are named “Tony”) come and go like a chorus line of blink-and-miss bent-nose bit players. Straight-to-camera nuggets of exposition and subjective voice-overs cribbed from the Goodfellas playbook do more of the plot’s heavy lifting than they probably should. Not to mention that Zaillian’s script doesn’t even attempt to hedge on who was behind Hoffa’s infamous vanishing act on the outskirts of Detroit in the summer of 1975.
Fortunately, Scorsese’s trio of heavyweight, Oscar-anointed stars seems to be rejuvenated by working with the director again (or, in Pacino’s case, for the first time). De Niro, who so often in recent years has seemed as if he can’t even be bothered to phone in his performances, makes you feel the tragic, torn loyalties of Sheeran in your marrow without even having to say a word. His face is a relief map of regret, especially in his character’s later years. Pacino, meanwhile, grabs you by the throat as the blustery, hubristic Hoffa. In his world, his power has been so absolute for so long that even he doesn’t seem to get what a dangerous game he’s playing until it’s too late. It’s a magnificent conjuring act. And Pesci, who hasn’t appeared on screen (at least in anything memorable) in over a decade, dials down his usual high-pitched, hair-trigger mayhem with his most subtle, soft-spoken, and effective turn since Raging Bull.
The Irishman isn’t a masterpiece. But it doesn’t miss by much. If Netflix’s ambition now and going forward is to become more than just a one-size-fits-all streaming superstore and to take its place as a serious annual player at the Academy Awards, then it was a canny move to lure Scorsese with its no-questions-asked, budget-be-damned largesse. What it got in return isn’t just any old mob movie or Goodfellas-lite, but rather a haunting, poignant, twilight-of-the-gods drama tinged with regret, driven by monumental ambition, and smothered in the red sauce of violence. And, in the end, what could be more American than that?
The Irishman will receive a limited theatrical release on November 1, followed by digital streaming on Netflix on November 27.