joe pesci, robert de niro, and al pacino in The Irishman

Review: The Irishman

Scorsese’s most epic gangster picture is also his funniest and most thoughtful.

This is a spoiler-free review. To discuss spoilers, head over to The Irishman Spoil Sports.

In the opening shot of The Irishman, the camera advances from the shadows towards a square of warmly-lit hallway. It’s as if we are being pulled from the void of time and space to be placed inside this exact moment. For the next three-and-a-half hours the film completely immerses you in its world thanks to a collection of irresistible performances, captivating filmcraft, and a thoughtful, witty script. The Irishman marks an evolution in Martin Scorsese’s gangster oeuvre. While his earlier films revelled, however satirically, in the over-the-top violence and machismo of organized crime, The Irishman is a film by an older, wiser Scorsese. A director more interested in portraying violence as a meaningless, eternal cycle that ultimately leaves its participants dead or utterly alone. Yet for all its heavier themes, The Irishman manages to mine an abundance of absurdist humor from its subject matter and could be considered one of Scorsese’s funniest films. 

“I heard you paint houses.” The statement, which also serves as the film’s alternate title, is directed at Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) an up-and-coming Irish-American strongman in the Northeastern Pennsylvania crime syndicate. Frank does indeed paint houses — exclusively in red with a .38mm brush. After getting his start as a small-time crook he is brought to the attention of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), head of the Italian-American Bufalino crime family. Having insinuated himself in the syndicate by “painting houses,” Sheeran is loaned out by Bufalino to combative Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran is to serve as protection during Hoffa’s contentious tenure in Washington and eventually a close friendship develops between the two men. The story is told over three time periods: the early 90s where an elderly Sheeran narrates his story from a nursing home; the period in the 50s and 60s when Hoffa’s involvement in the Teamsters Union (and subsequent ties with organized crime) were at their peak; and the three days preceding the disappearance of Hoffa in July 1975. The story revolves around the personal and professional relationships between Sheeran, Bufalino, and Hoffa and the events leading up to Hoffa’s disappearance (no one ever confessed to his murder and his body was never found). 

The Irishman is a film about relationships: boss to underling, parent to child, friend to friend.  Sheeran keenly observes the emotions of others even as he is unwilling or unable to affect them. “When they say they’re ‘a little concerned’, that means they’re scared. When they say they’re ‘more than a little concerned’, that means they’re desperate.” The film largely focuses on Sheeran’s often futile attempts to navigate between his professional fealty to Bufalino and his personal affection for Hoffa. The role requires an immense amount of emotional heavy lifting from De Niro, and the actor takes up the task with extraordinary grace and sensitivity. Sheeran as a character feels deeply lived-in which comes across most noticeably in his vocal mannerisms. The authenticity of the character can be felt when his narration falters almost imperceptibly or when stress betrays a suppressed stutter. These choices add up to a complex and sympathetic performance that ranks among the actor’s finest. 

And what a thrill it is to see De Niro’s skills matched by a subtle and charismatic performance by Joe Pesci, freed from the histrionic hotheadedness that has until now typecast his career. Pesci imbues Bufalino with a fatherly yet threatening aura; a benevolent man who commands absolute loyalty yet will ensure control of his interests at any cost. Pesci and De Niro slip into the same easy rhythm that has made their previous on-screen relationships so irresistible, and the friendship between Bufalino and Sheeran feels just as natural.

Inasmuch as the pairing of Pesci and De Niro seems effortless, Al Pacino’s casting, in what should have been a home run in his first ever collaboration with Scorsese, fails to connect. Clumsily chewing on the “R”s of an Irish-Midwestern accent, Pacino portrays Hoffa with the same exaggerated braggadocio that has come to define his later career (and one could argue has held it back). Hoffa is as close as the film comes to an antagonist, so his unlikability is somewhat baked into the character. Yet attempts to humanize him come off as oily and insincere, and as a result Sheeran’s devotion to Hoffa feels less believable than his loyalty to Bufalino. One gets the sense that Pacino was cast not so much for his dramatic abilities, but in order to sell the film’s absurd rhetorical humor.

The Irishman is one of the funniest films Scorsese has ever released. Writer Steven Zaillian infuses the script with absurdist humor through the juxtaposition of seemingly dangerous and intimidating men who regularly become entangled in bickering, inane arguments. Men who murder with impunity engage in pointless debates such as exactly how many minutes is considered rude for being late to a meeting (twelve and a half) or whether or not one should transport fish in their car (they shouldn’t). This ridiculous, subversive humor rips away the seductive veil often associated with films about organized crime. The exposure of their fragile egos assures us that these are not men to be admired, but rather emotionally stunted boys who are only capable of communicating through sharp, brutal violence. Subtitles inform the viewer how each newly-introduced real-life character ultimately met an untimely end, as if to underscore the superfluousness of their actions.

The fallout of a life of violence is a central theme in The Irishman, and watching it one gets the impression of a more reflective and sober Scorsese than the director of Goodfellas and Casino. Gone is the over-the-top comical violence and hyper-masculinity of those films, replaced with the kinds of somber and contemplative themes more often associated with Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Here, violence is not depicted as a perverse symbol of status, but rather a wedge that drives one further and further from a functional life. The film frames this rift through Sheeran’s relationship with his oldest daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult. Throughout the film Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto focus the camera tightly on Peggy’s face and eyes as she bears witness, directly or indirectly, to the crimes of her father and his associates. Throughout the film Sheeran must endure the accusation in her gaze as the results of his handiwork are disseminated in the media. Even as he grows into an old man Sheeran fails to understand the connection between violence and his increasing isolation, and as the film wears on the justifications for his actions become less and less relevant. Eventually we all die and our names are forgotten, so what was the point of it all?

For all its somber themes there is still something strangely comforting about this type of old-fashioned gangster film that Scorsese and his team have crafted. The mid-century setting with its sleek Packard cars and richly realized costumes by Christopher Peterson and Sandy Powell (the neckties alone are Oscar-worthy) suggest a world of nightclubs and cigarette haze more reminiscent of a paperback novel than a historical tome. The gliding, omniscient cinematography — which at times even passes through panes of glass — and Thelma Schoonmaker’s deft editing create a truly immersive film experience. A few poor CGI choices as well as the still-not-quite-there digital de-aging technology do infrequently break the spell, but once the eye gets used to the occasional Madame Tussaud’s quality of the actors’ digital faces, the distraction is easier to ignore. 

Netflix will release The Irishman on streaming just before Thanksgiving. They know a nation of people will be trapped with their relatives for several days, desperately in need of ways to pass the time. If you and your Trump-loving uncle can’t agree on anything at the dinner table, Netflix is betting you’ll welcome the distraction of a three-and-a-half-hour film likely to please everyone. The Irishman uses the film language of the gangster genre in order to subvert it, and it can be enjoyed both as an old-fashioned romp or as a revisionist satire depending on the viewer. 

With a few exceptions, major directors who have partnered with streaming services have produced mostly lackluster additions to their filmographies. However, not only is The Irishman capable of standing proudly in the pantheon of Scorsese’s other works, it can very well be counted among the director’s best. The film may finally snag Netflix the best picture Oscar it has long coveted, and the cinematic landscape to which Scorsese is so passionately committed may never be the same again.