movie review

The Irishman Is Martin Scorsese’s Most Satisfying Film in Decades

Al Pacino in The Irishman. Photo: Netflix

A version of this review originally ran during the New York Film Festival earlier this year. It has since been updated.

Martin Scorsese ranges toward extremes, which is why he’ll be a manic showboater in one movie and practice scrupulous self-abnegation in the next. But his gingerly paced, three-and-a-half-hour The Irishman is something new: a work of self-abnegation set where Scorsese normally showboats — the gangster dens of various crime hubs, among bosses, lackeys, and their families real and “made.” Cast with aging Scorsese vets Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, plus a guest star from the other landmark gangster film of the director’s era, Al Pacino, this is an old man’s movie, narrated by the elderly title character, sometime hit man Frank Sheeran (De Niro), from a wheelchair in a Catholic convalescent home. It’s steeped in regret, not so much for things that were done as for things that were done but not felt. This is the first Scorsese movie in which the images don’t seem unified either by fever or by the kind of hard, rigorous focus that is fever’s opposite. It may be the 76-year-old director’s most stylishly daring work: one that’s pointedly sapped of style.

Consider the violence. Shaped around the 1975 killing of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), The Irishman has no flashy set-pieces, no whip-pans to carnage. Before a hit in a barbershop, the camera starts on the killers as they step from an elevator and follows them only as far as a flower stand, their gunshots heard but not seen. (What we see are flowers.) It’s strange to experience this kind of detachment in a Scorsese movie — first baffling, then stunning, as we come to realize that this lack of feeling precisely evokes Sheeran’s inner world. The “Irishman” fought in some of the grisliest, most protracted battles in World War II’s European theater (122 days in Anzio) and came home to America numb. We don’t get De Niro the mythic executioner who vaulted over rooftops in The Godfather: Part II or embodied the dark soul of urban paranoia in Taxi Driver. Scorsese stages Sheeran’s kills as arrhythmic, ungainly — pop-pop-pop from behind, and that’s it. It is what it is. 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 sprawling, messy book that further dispels (for at least one reader) the fantasy that JFK was assassinated by a lone nut who was then spontaneously taken out by a grieving nightclub owner. (I mean, really, folks.) The paint is blood, the patois representative of how gangsters talk in Steven Zaillian’s slyly garrulous 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. Pacino’s Hoffa earns the bosses’ wrath not only for taking control of the Teamsters’ pension fund but for being blunt, unmannerly — maybe even for caring too much. Hoffa’s passion is why he takes root in Sheeran’s mind.

The movie may be framed by Sheeran’s final days, but it’s largely a flashback with its own flashbacks. The main thread is a long but mundane 1975 road trip to a wedding with Sheeran at the wheel, his sometime boss and patron Russell Bufalino (Pesci) in the passenger seat, and the men’s wives in the back. The vibe is eerily flat. Why are we watching so uneventful a journey unless something terrible is coming? Along the way, Sheeran tells us how he first 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 (a brusque, chill Keitel) and Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale). Sheeran goes to work for Hoffa at Bufalino’s request, as an aide, a bodyguard, and a spy.

The union’s chief antagonist early on is President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, the attorney general, who launches a campaign against organized crime that organized criminals find inexplicable given their help in securing Kennedy the presidency. The scenes in which RFK grills Hoffa are rich in period detail, but the movie is not designed as a historical 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. When Bufalino phones Hoffa to recommend “that kid I was talkin’ to you about,” it takes a moment to register that the kid is De Niro — this CG time machine can travel only so far back. But a case could be made that the partial “de-aging” gives the film its poignancy. These actors are ghosts of their former selves.

After years of doing anything and everything and not seeming fully invested, De Niro is once more driven to test himself. His Sheeran feels nothing specific yet is in evident pain, which sometimes manifests itself in a toothless grimace (he looks like Bela Lugosi) but more often translates into stammers that signal inner panic. He has no stature until he attains tragic stature, another in the long line of Judases and Brutuses in Scorsese’s films, men who betray their friends actively (by turning them in) or passively (by not warning them of danger). The turncoat in GoodFellas, Henry Hill, misses only the rush — the fun — of being a gangster, but for Sheeran it’s age and aloneness that turn his gaze to his past.

In any case, who can resist seeing De Niro across from Keitel and Pesci? Pacino has gotten most of the raves for The Irishman, 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 supernaturally watchful, 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 murder as inevitable but, sadly, sees in it a sign of failure? I thank the gods of acting that he came out of retirement to do this.

As for Pacino, Scorsese nudges him out of his familiar rhythms, evidently refusing to let him do the kind of freestyle acting that he fancies is bebop but is more often ham. This is a “head” Pacino performance, not a cojones one. On the stump, this Hoffa’s shoulders go stiff, and he jerks in the manner of Richard Nixon — derivative but plausible, since Nixon’s manner might well have rubbed off on the real Hoffa. 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 seem an instant away from materializing. Most of all, Pacino lets you feel Hoffa’s relish for the job, which is partly legitimate, partly based on patronage and bribes and occasional rough stuff.

The Irishman doesn’t fully earn its epic running time, and a subplot featuring Sheeran’s attentive daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a girl, Anna Paquin grown up), isn’t woven gracefully into the narrative. She’s his conscience, and the device sticks out. But if the movie is overlong, it’s not overscaled. When Scorsese sets out to make an epic like The Aviator or Gangs of New York, he often loses the pulse or goes to too-flamboyant lengths to speed it up. His whoosh was sometimes a little suspect, much of it born of real filmmaking fervor but some of it spurious, suggesting a chef who snorts a line of coke and dances around a kitchen yelling, “Can I cook!” In Scorsese’s self-effacement here, there’s a suggestion that he regrets at least some of those pyrotechnics, that he knows he sacrificed depth for momentum. The slowing-down in The Irishman is radical, and it pays off in the long final section, in which the characters are too old to move as they once did. They can’t hide inside motion, so Scorsese won’t let himself, either. The upshot is his most satisfying film in decades.

*A version of this article appears in the October 28, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Irishman Is One of Scorsese’s Most Satisfying Films