In Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited gangster epic The Irishman, time flows across decades in the way we expect from the filmmaker who visualizes it better than anybody. Music of the era slips in and out, the scenery changes, the crimes grow bolder and bigger, but the people don’t change. Not inside where it counts, anyway. That seems to be one of the conclusions drawn by Scorsese here, as he peers into the soul of prolific mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who at the tail end of his life is savaged by memories of the many people he’s killed and friends betrayed.
That Scorsese is spinning a reflective, soulful gangster narrative is a sign of the director’s continued growth, even at this latter stage of his career. It’s usually been the case that Scorsese relishes in the wildly exciting, glamorous, and dangerous criminal lifestyle. There’s very little glitz and glam to The Irishman; the similarities to Goodfellas and Casino are purely aesthetic. When we really dive into Sheeran’s story, he’s just union truck driver delivering frozen meat, doing whatever it takes to put food on the table for his growing family. A chance encounter with Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci, damn it’s good having him back!), head of the Buffalino crime family, would change Frank’s life forever. Soon, Frank is doing little jobs for Russell and other members of the mob, such as Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), including murder.
Based on the mostly-debunked book “I Heard You Paint Houses”, the film recounts Sheeran’s mob activities but also his close relationship with outspoken Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Played by Al Pacino, somehow in his first Scorsese film, Hoffa is loud, confrontational, and dangerously egotistical. It’s a role Pacino is perfect for and he attacks it with gusto, snatching the film away from De Niro whose performance calls for something a bit more somber. As someone who has always been fascinated by Hoffa, that The Irishman nearly becomes a movie about the doomed union leader was a welcome surprise. It’s still Sheeran’s story, though, as he finds himself trapped between Hoffa and Buffalino who have become more than friends, but surrogate fathers. When Hoffa runs afoul of the Mafia who have backed his efforts for years, it puts Sheeran in a position where he must choose where his loyalties are.
You might think a movie about a mob assassin would be thick with violence but Scorsese uses it sparingly and only to make a point or to make a joke. Sheeran talks about pulling a hit, and making sure you go to the bathroom first so you’re not uncomfortable while pulling the trigger. In another, he talks about the favorite seaside spot for dumping weapons, with Scorsese’s camera panning down to reveal an underwater stockpile big enough to arm a small country. Moments like this help keep The Irishman entertaining for much of its epic 3 1/2-hour runtime, but not totally. Large chunks of the film, most of it centered around Teamsters business (when they start talking about Frank Fitzsimmons, commence zoning out) are slow and indulgent to a fault. Netflix has allowed Scorsese that level of freedom and it’s a benefit to streamers they’ll be able to hit pause, step away, and come back to it. Almost as if he’s playing to exactly this idea, Scorsese frames The Irishman around a road trip in which Buffalino and Sheeran’s wives are repeatedly making them stop for cigarette breaks.
A lot has been made of the de-aging technology Scorsese is employing for the first time. Expensive, complicated, and largely responsible for the film’s extended post-production, it’s not something you really pay attention to beyond the initial glimpses. The young-ish De Niro (he’s never actually young, just younger) isn’t a distraction and fits seamlessly, a credit to the director as he takes on a technological challenge few have conquered with the same success. The Irishman is Scorsese’s best crime film in years, and feels like a product of a different era. That it arrives thanks to the pioneering efforts of Netflix should be an indictment of major studios who have apparently soured on the director of late. But given the recent outrage over Scorsese’s recent comments, with many calling him old and out-of-touch, The Irishman is proof he’s as vital and in touch than ever.