Not even to a sympathetic priest does the ailing, aging Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) approach rectitude with his actions. He describes his decades of contracts, quick pops, and double taps as “water under the dam” – a fitting alteration to the phrase that comes close to illustrating the carnage his sole contribution to the mafia effort has caused – but that’s all. Throughout the grueling sum of The Irishman, through war, through tragedy, through what feels like an endless number of jobs, Frank maintains a self-preserving distance from his deeds. It’s an icy, pensive, yet stoic position that De Niro has, for nearly 50 years, comfortably conquered.
Nearly every facet of Martin Scorsese’s sprawling epic is similarly suited. It’s a call to arms – perhaps even a celebration – for creators whose control over their craft has guided fertile, webbing careers, yet whose well-trotted genre work will always be at the forefront of their legacies. And so, this film brings with it long-awaited cinematic reunions – its historic cast includes CGI de-aged De Niro alongside Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, and Harvey Keitel, among others – and with them, the means to surpass their immense, instantaneous expectations.
Goodfellas, however, this is not. At a taxing 204 minutes, The Irishman is the product of a maturing, if evolved filmmaker, one whose drives are more methodic than the cocaine-laced chase or the strong-handed, spoken nothings; this film fuses sin with age, propelling the muted regret and agony that those two fixings create. Through decades-spanning flashbacks, this wiseguy’s life is dissected under a different blade: a knife which exposes the long-term, slow-burnt ripples of the streets Scorsese has been affixed his entire career – to others and to self.
The opening shot introduces Frank within the confinements of a nursing home. Bound to a wheelchair, he’s the rocklike object of Scorsese’s gliding camera. From behind, he looks as though he could be dead. But he’s not dead. He’s there to tell this story to an unknown someone; and gazing directly through the lens, it’s as if he’s laying down the foundation to a documentary.
Now, if we’re to believe Frank’s disconcertingly intimate narration, we’re to believe that he was directly involved in several of the 20th century’s most critical moments. From World War-torn Europe to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s assassination and finally docking at the new millennium, The Irishman’s central pillar concerns the infamous disappearance of longtime union boss, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), and Frank’s self-cited involvement.
The hit, however, hardly accounts for a fraction of Sheeran and Hoffa’s relationship, one which, Scorsese divulges, was actually filled with admiration and, as his smug mobsters have so often demanded, respect. The two crossed paths years earlier through a phone call moderated by Russell Bufalino (Pesci), the don of the Philadelphia mafia and Frank’s longtime sponsor. “I heard you paint houses,” Hoffa says over the line, referring to only one shade of color. “Would you like to be a part of history?” Neither could have anticipated what exactly that history would become.
Adapted by momentous screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) from Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses – which featured interviews with the real Sheeran himself – The Irishman weaves through Frank’s cherished friendship with Hoffa, his mobtastic affairs at Russell’s side, as well as the prolific guilt and stalling he exhibits as the two are steadily stitched together. Hoffa’s points, decorated by Pacino’s fiery, inspired, and hoarse voice, don’t sit well with everybody, nor do they stop for anybody. And it’s here that the three onscreen pillars of The Irishman joist.
Pesci, whose typically fearsome, hot-headed explosions have been reserved primarily for Pacino, takes a conversing, but all the more effective role. Reserved, still, Russell’s capstones sit atop malicious magma; his don status (whose plush silence can be traced back to Brando’s in The Godfather) and indirect proximity to the action may very well constitute his most frightening work to date. And De Niro, whose innate chemistry with both Pesci and Pacino has long tapped into the core of art, is planted in between the two bucking ends, injecting The Irishman with an unexpected combination of sorrow and humor.
The overwhelming nature of the story, which is, in every sense of the word, epic, is matched only by its threatening runtime. To his credit, Scorsese abolishes most of its related trepidations, only seeping interest in its epilogue, much like he did in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Netflix patrons – for which the film will be available to stream starting November 27th – will have the obvious advantage of passive pausing, but those who opt for the theatrical, nonstop experience will find that for a bountiful chunk of those 200 minutes, The Irishman is delicately handled by experienced, especially-inspired makers. It’s simply the kind of film that isn’t made too often anymore; and it’s one of the best this year has to offer.
Handled cautiously and confidently by a pioneering troupe of filmmakers whose legacies were all bred from such mafiusu affairs, The Irishman greets the screen like an old, longed-for friend.