The Irishman: A Haunting but Wayward Gangster Saga
“You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there,” says an aging Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) to his nurse, late in The Irishman. When Martin Scorsese’s 209-minute epic gangster drama finally gets to the point, it slams into it, face-first, at full speed. After spending two and a half hours building up a head of steam with men of excess, men of greatness, men of...something, the brick wall of time comes at Frank, Scorsese, and their audience like a horror villain sneaking up from behind. Unexpected yet inevitable; tragic yet poetic.
The Irishman has a novel point: it turns out the life of a gangster – that oft-portrayed, blood-specked, diamond-studded life – is just like the life of any other Average Joe: it declines slowly, until one day you look back and realize it’s over. It’s just that most gangsters don’t make it to that end, and most gangster movies don’t have the bravery to show us the few who do.
Despite its marathon run-time,The Irishman doesn’t take too long to reach its powerfully anti-climactic final act. The film moves smoothly, confident enough in itself to sit with its characters, get to know them, and build tension and expectations so high that I was still on the edge of my seat long after an average movie would have been over – even if I couldn’t feel the part of me sitting there. No,The Irishman doesn’t feel long. Yet no matter how enjoyable it may have been to spend my Sunday afternoon with three legends of the screen – De Niro is joined by fellow Scorsese U Alum Joe Pesci and new student Al Pacino – Scorsese’s epic is so generically written that what should be three of the most nuanced, conflicted characters feel instead like run-of-the-mill gangsters and union men.
Although by the end, it seems as though that might have been the whole point: no matter how powerful or special we think we are, someday we’ll all just be footnotes to history with nothing but a foggy legacy and a place on the mantle.
The Irishman follows the life of De Niro’s Sheeran, a stone-faced hitman, union guy to-the-bone, and close confidante to the legendary Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Roped into work with the Bufalino crime family by the quietly intimidating Russell (Pesci), Sheeran embarks on a fraught, lifelong path of balancing sometimes overlapping, often conflicting needs: friendship versus business; legal versus illegal; mob versus union.
The movie, based on the real-life chronicle of Sheeran and his supposed confessions, I Heard You Paint Houses, uses a unique Russian nesting doll structure, jumping across time periods, unfolding deliberately. At its core, an aging Sheeran tells the story of his life from something resembling a retirement home, reflecting without emotion on his sordid past. Cut to a few decades earlier: as Sheeran and Bufalino lead a road-trip to Michigan with their wives, the two serendipitously pull-over near the same truck stop where they first met decades earlier, and the narrative jumps back once again.
All three actors play their characters across the span of decades, with the help of expensive, much-hyped, and much-worried-about de-aging (and at times, just aging) technology. The effect is slightly jarring at first – particularly in a brief sequence of a de-aged De Niro in his 20s during the Second World War – but for the most part it works, and is effectively justified. A movie so focused on the effects of time could not work by showing us how the decades turned, say, Alessandro Nivola into Al Pacino, or Adam Driver into Robert De Niro. Much as I would have loved to see it.
And it’s in that understanding of time – and how to use the tools of a filmmaker to emphasize its nature and passing – that the movie finds its most powerful moments. Scorsese, long-known for his passion for music and his unique incorporation of the medium into his films, shifts gears from his usual rock/pop-infused soundtracks to a more somber, reflective jazz. The opening and closing shots, traversing the long hall of the nursing home to the exact same notes, bring a nostalgia void of romanticism. And the third act strips down completely – one of the quietest hours in Scorsese’s career. As his characters sit with a lifetime of thoughts, pondering their legacies and the meaning of it all, the director forces the audience to join them. And we can be sure Scorsese himself has done the same – it's nearly impossible for viewers to miss the signal.The Irishman is an act of retrospection on the part of a great American filmmaker.
The performances carry a sort of painter’s magic – shifting in some moments, placid in others, but always with a great deal beneath the surface. Pesci’s Bufalino is menacing in all the ways that his loud-mouthed Tommy DeVito from Scorsese’s Goodfellas isn’t: deliberate, systematic, silent. Pacino necessarily invokes his over-the-top 90s performances, but it’s the occasional restraint he exercises to show Hoffa’s softer, more relationship-driven side that stood out. De Niro, on the other hand, has both the most and least to do, forced to somehow show a lifetime of remorseless cruelty and familial longing with just his face. He excels. Take your pick amongst the three, but it's their work playing off each other that transcends.
Casting three legendary screen actors at the tail-end of their careers wasn't just a marketing gimmick or a get-the-gang-together-for-the-big-finale move by Scorsese. Rather, their presences buttress the film’s obsessive focus on death, legacies, and the passage of time. The violence comes in fits and starts, but it often takes the form of quick-flash kill-shots, blood-spattered reminders that death is just around the corner. And Scorsese even takes a page from the book of John Landis, riffing on Animal House’s famous “where are they now” captions with a gruesome twist, splashing minor characters’ dates and causes of death as text read-outs on the screen upon their introduction.
Yet in a movie where the audience is constantly reminded of the fragility of life and the blazing glory in which so many gangsters leave it,The Irishman is ultimately a film about those who don’t. About those who stick around, for better and for worse. About how in one of the most glamorized, fetishized ‘professions,’ time has just as harsh an impact as it does on the rest of us. The film comes to a close with Sheeran and Bufalino in a nursing home, the 90-year-old mob boss permanently hunched in a wheelchair. It’s not that either man shows any clear regret for a career full of indiscretions driven by unrestrained id. But having lost their families and friends, this legacy is all they have to look back on. And the film considers: can any legacy ever really be enough?
If The Irishman succeeds in effectively slipping its grand ideas under your skin, it stumbles a bit in manifesting those ideas through its characters, choosing to spend large chunks of its nearly three-and-a-half hour run-time on broad, sweeping, political portraits rather than intimate ones. Clips of President John F. Kennedy’s rise and fall pepper the second act, the movie explicitly tying his fate to his father’s mob connections, including Bufalino, Hoffa, and Sheeran. Conspiracy theories are emphasized and presented as fact – from the mob’s interference in the nation's Cuba policy to Marilyn Monroe’s extra-marital affairs.
When this odd fixation with political scene-setting is combined with surprisingly bland dialogue between Bufalino, Sheeran, and Hoffa, it adds up to a disappointing failure to invest in its characters. Offering up rumor as fact – and accepting Sheeran’s dubious version of history, including the famous murder of Crazy Joe Gallo at Umberto’s Clam House – suggests to viewers that the reality of history isn’t important, that it’s the men (and women, though there are disappointingly few in the film) who lived during this time period that deserve our attention. Yet if that’s the case, the film could have put a bit more energy into the small moments that truly define a person – and a film. I enjoyed spending over 200 minutes with Pacino, Pesci, and De Niro – but I wish I’d enjoyed Hoffa, Bufalino, and Sheeran just as much.
Of course, maybe the mundanity of their interactions is the point. When standing at the threshold of death’s door, Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino are nothing more than run-of-the-mill gangsters. Just like when the world is far more literate in the world-building of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the Catholic guilt of Scorsese’s oeuvre, a one-time master is just an aging filmmaker. And when Tik Tok superstars dwarf the 70s and 80s fame of Michael Corleone and Jake and Joey LaMotta, four Academy awards become three over-the-hill actors.
Valorizing these men for three hours would have brought sadness and nostalgia for them. Instead, by painting a much broader, blanker canvas, Scorsese has forced us to reflect on what time may do to our own lives. And the sooner the better. After all, if a 209-minute movie can feel that short, who knows how quickly our lives will go by?