movie review

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman Is One of His Most Satisfying Films in Decades

Al Pacino in The Irishman. Photo: Netflix

Martin Scorsese ranges toward extremes, which is why he’ll be a manic showboater in one movie and practice rigorous self-abnegation in the next. But his gingerly paced, three-and-a-half-hour The Irishman is something new: a self-abnegation movie set in the place where he normally showboats — the gangster dens of New York and other urban-crime hubs, among bosses, lackeys, hitmen, and their families, real and “made.” Union halls, too, since the film is built around the 1975 killing (presumed, as no body was found) of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. By design, it’s an old man’s movie, and not just because it’s narrated by the elderly title character, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), from a wheelchair in a Catholic convalescent home. Scorsese has consciously put a cap on his adrenaline. Enriched beyond his dreams by the folks at Netflix and pressed to assemble a veritable Rat Pack — aging Scorsese vets De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, plus Al Pacino, a guest star from the other landmark gangster movie of his era, The Godfather — the director has made his most stylishly daring film: one that is pointedly sapped of style.

Consider the violence. The Irishman has no flashy set-piece killings, no whip-pans to carnage, no scenes of mayhem suitable for rewatching while playing air guitar. (No Rolling Stones!) For a hit in a barbershop, the camera follows the killers from behind and then comes to rest in front of some flowers — we only hear the shots. Sheeran fought in some of the grisliest, most protracted battles in World War II’s European theater (122 days in Anzio), and the detachment with which he came home to America seeps into all the film’s murders. It’s ugly, a waste, but it’s what it is. This is not De Niro the mythic executioner who vaulted over roofs in The Godfather Part II or embodied the dark soul of urban paranoia in Taxi Driver. He’s not agile or picturesque and certainly not courageous. Scorsese stages his kills as brusque, arrhythmic, ungainly — pop-pop-pop from behind and that’s it. Apart from his Judas Iscariot moment (betrayal being a lifelong Scorsese fixation), Sheeran does what he’s told to do with no evident emotion. It’s a job, like house-painting.

The Irishman is, in fact, closely based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa. It’s a good, messy book that further dispelled (for at least one reader) the conclusion that Kennedy was assassinated by a lone nut who was then spontaneously taken out by a grieving nightclub owner. The paint is blood, the patois representative of how gangsters talk in Steven Zaillian’s subtle, shapely screenplay. Even the most bloodcurdling figures like Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi) speak in euphemism and metaphor, not because they’re poets but because they’re disconnected from the horror they perpetrate. They’re thoroughly banal. Al Pacino’s Hoffa seems to earn the bosses’ wrath not only for threatening to take control of the Teamsters’ pension fund but for being blunt and unmannerly.

The movie is framed by Frank’s final days in a convalescent home, but it’s largely a flashback with its own flashbacks. The main thread is a long but mundane ’75 road trip with Frank at the wheel, his sometime boss and patron, Russell Bufalino (Pesci), in the passenger seat, and the men’s wives in the back. They’re headed to a wedding with stops to collect payments from business owners on the way, but the vibe is so flat that it’s eerie. Something bad is coming, which is why Frank can’t get it out of his head — but he also wants to tell us how he met Bufalino (cute, in a gas station), how he made his bones stealing sides of meat, and how he began to blow up cars and warehouses and finally people for the likes of Russ and Angelo Bruno (Keitel) and Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale). Most of these men are as colorless as they are powerful — apart, of course, from Hoffa, for whom Frank goes to work at Bufalino’s request as an aide and bodyguard.

The Irishman gives you no indication that this is the Teamsters’ last hurrah, that the future — sans Hoffa, under Ronald Reagan — would make strikebreaking respectably mainstream. In the early part of the film, their antagonist is President John F. Kennedy and his brother, the attorney general, who launches a campaign against organized crime that organized criminals find inexplicable given their help (in Illinois in particular) in securing Kennedy the presidency. The bosses and the unions will stick with Kennedy because he has promised to help them reclaim their precious Havana from Castro; but after Frank delivers a truckload of weapons to a motley group of soldiers in South Florida, things go, well, south.

The attorney general’s grilling of Hoffa is rich in period detail, but the movie is not designed as an epic, like The Aviator. It’s a film of faces. Odd faces, at times. Faces that — thanks to computer “de-aging” — don’t always match the voices and bodies. Grateful to relive the past with these beloved movie stars, I mostly pushed the dermal irregularities from my mind, though when Pesci’s Bufalino phones Hoffa to recommend “that kid I was talkin’ to you about,” it takes a moment to register it’s De Niro. The time machine can travel only so far back.

But it’s great to see De Niro back with Scorsese, who needed a break from Leo and all those kid actors. After years of doing anything and everything and not seeming fully invested (like Anjelica Huston, I’ve wondered, How big is his nut?), De Niro is once more inspired to test himself. His Frank is a man who feels nothing specific yet is in evident pain throughout — which sometimes manifests itself in a toothless grimace that recalls Bela Lugosi but more often translates into stammers that suggest inner panic. He is most of all befuddled by his own actions — a weird but fascinating quality in a protagonist. And who can resist seeing him across from Keitel and Pesci?

At the premiere New York Film Festival press screening, I heard all sorts of huzzahs about Pacino — and he is wonderful — but it’s Pesci who thrilled me to the core. A pop-top in Raging Bull and especially Goodfellas and Casino, he plays Bufalino as almost supernaturally focused and watchful, always hypersensitive to other peoples’ rhythms. Who could imagine Pesci triumphing as a man who looks for equilibrium, who seeks to modulate every encounter, who accepts that murder is inevitable but sadly, seeing in it a sign of failure? I thank the gods of acting that he came out of retirement to do this.

And Pacino? Scorsese nudges him out of his familiar rhythms, evidently refusing to let him do the kind of freestyle acting that he fancies as bebop but is more often ham. This is a “head” Pacino performance, not a cojones one. On the stump, Pacino’s shoulders go stiff and he jerks in the manner of Richard Nixon — but Nixon’s manner might well have rubbed off on the real Hoffa. It’s plausible. Zaillian’s firm dramatic beats keep Pacino in the moment, and it’s a joy to see him go eye to eye with the superb Stephen Graham as the febrile Anthony Provenzano (Tony Pro), each man staring daggers that they seem one moment away from materializing and flinging. Most of all, Pacino lets you feel Hoffa’s relish for the job, which is partly legitimate and partly based on patronage and bribes and occasional rough stuff. It merges with Pacino’s relish for these co-stars and this script.

It’s fun to see Welker White as Hoffa’s wily wife, Jo — White was the girl with the hat in the coked-up climax of Goodfellas — along with assorted not-de-aged faces of the actors playing mobsters and union men. But the subplot featuring Frank’s hyper-attentive daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a girl, Anna Paquin grown up), isn’t woven gracefully into the narrative and sticks out.

The Irishman (which will have a limited theatrical run beginning November 1 and head to Netflix on November 27) doesn’t fully earn its epic running time. But it’s overlong, it’s not over-scaled. When Scorsese sets out to make an epic — in, say, The Aviator or Gangs of New York — he often loses the pulse or goes to too flamboyant of lengths to speed it up. After Raging Bull, his adrenaline was a little suspect, much of it born of real filmmaking passion but some of it spurious, suggesting a chef who snorts a line of coke and dances around a kitchen yelling, “Can I cook!” There’s a faint suggestion here that he regrets some of his past pyrotechnics, that he sacrificed depth for momentum. For Scorsese, the slowing-down in The Irishman is radical, and it pays off in the long series of final scenes in which the characters are too old to move as they once did. They can’t hide inside motion, and so Scorsese doesn’t — and the upshot is one of his most satisfying films in decades.

The Irishman Is One of Scorsese’s Most Satisfying Films