The following article contains spoilers for The Irishman.
For a 77 year-old filmmaker, who has been consistently working since the 1960s, Martin Scorsese has seen something of a surge in public attention in recent weeks. After voicing his opinion that the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are “not cinema”, Scorsese was met with a flurry of contrary statements from virtually every actor, producer or director that has ever been a part of the biggest franchise in the history of everything ever. Rather than rehash every argument for and against the increasing monopolization of the greatest popular art form at the hands of one single company, I would recommend this article Scorsese wrote in defense of his claims. It touches on many things, including what exactly constitutes cinema for him, why he sees the MCU as a threat, and why his newest movie, The Irishman, is released directly to Netflix. After all, a 210-minute gangster epic starring Robert de Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci would strike you as the kind of film that is destined to play on the big screen, something for which even your dad would make his way to a movie theatre. In short, Scorsese explains that “[Netflix], and it alone, allowed us to make “The Irishman” the way we needed to” – simply put, cinema, the art form as understood and made by Scorsese, is no longer synonymous with cinema, the place.
All of this provides an interesting background for watching The Irishman in an actual cinema, as I did on one of the few dates when Hamburg’s Savoy screened the film. Similarly relevant are the multiple returns that the film constitutes for Scorsese: it is his first movie with de Niro and Pesci since 1995’s Casino and, more importantly, it is his latest in a long series of gangster films. While Scorsese’s work is often unfairly reduced to mobster movies (he has also made more movies on intense Catholic guilt than most other directors), it is true that the most prominent entries in his filmography – Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, the Oscar-winning The Departed – have centered around the intricacies of organized crime. So this is a master filmmaker demonstrating his version of “cinema”, returning to his most famous theme. Without further ado: how is the movie?
The Irishman begins with former mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (de Niro), wheelchair-bound and rambling to the audience in a nursing home, taking us along as he retraces his life. Flashing back and forth several times, never settling into any timeframe entirely comfortably, the movie provides an openly unreliable account of Sheeran’s rise through the ranks, befriending mob boss Russell Buffalino (Pesci) and union president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) along the way. Things go well before they eventually don’t, and it’s that second part that we will have to return to. Scorsese tells Sheeran’s story with the sort of energetic routine that is emblematic of a director with 50 years of experience under his belt. Hitting familiar beats (trust, betrayal, infidelity, violence) without ever playing it safe, The Irishman keeps a pace throughout every single one of its three and a half hours that makes you almost forget the extended runtime.
Sheeran and Buffalino initially meet as younger men, and their first encounter plunges you headfirst into the uncanny valley. Instead of casting different actors to portray the characters at various stages of their life, Scorsese decided to digitally de-age the film’s principal players. The technology is impressive, but still not fully formed – yes, de Niro and Pesci look a lot smoother than you would expect, but the effect is estranging, reminiscent more of a video game than a $160 million movie (the CGI anti-aging is rumored to have ballooned the budget). The men are too stocky, too slouched, too slow to ever really pass for the age they are supposed to have. Although you eventually settle into it, at no point is the effect entirely convincing.
Yet it is this disconnect that pays off in a major way the longer The Irishman goes on. Sheeran’s life is one dominated by violence that he commits against enemies of the mob, enemies of his family and eventually, even against close friends. Initially, the film takes an almost folksy tone to this – Sheeran’s calling card is that he “paints houses”, blowing people’s brains out, and a spot under a local bridge is so littered with discarded guns that “you could arm a whole militia” – but all illusions fade away as the film marches towards its bitter end. Increasingly caught up in power struggles and relegated to aimlessly driving people around, Sheeran becomes sadder and more passive as he ages. De Niro literally grows into the body he always had as the digital effects decrease, as if this was the role Sheeran was always meant to play. The younger appearance seems like self-mythologizing, an attempt at glorifying the past when reality is impossible to conceal.
Sheeran’s family is continually sidelined throughout his accounts, most prominently when it comes to his daughter Peggy. She plays an ostensibly large role in the story, witnessing her father violently assaulting a shopkeeper simply for pushing her, and media reports about Frank’s killings/bombings/shootings are underscored by her increasingly upset face. As both Frank and Peggy grow older, her role is taken over by Oscar winner Anna Paquin, a great actress whose portrayals of women going through emotional hell soar even in messy movies like Margaret. But Paquin only gets six words, one single line of dialogue, over the course of the entire movie. This lack of words has been controversial even before the film’s release, and while it makes a tad of narrative sense, especially with Peggy’s eventual cutting ties with her father, it does leave a sour taste in your mouth to see not only Paquin, but every other actress in the movie playing second fiddle. It is a male-dominated world that Sheeran and his friends occupy, but even in Scorsese’s gangster films, the main characters’ wives have always added well-needed contrast and reality checks: think of Margot Robbie trying to save her child and herself from Leo’s increasingly deranged antics in The Wolf of Wall Street, or Loraine Bracco’s coked-out scramble for safety near the end of Goodfellas. So while Paquin has some intensely emotional scenes without so much as a word, what makes her reduced role all the more sexist, all the more regrettable, is just how good the film’s central performances are.
De Niro’s stoic exterior, especially his trademark facial expression, has been parodied so often that you tend to forget just how good of an actor the man really is. Imbuing the young Sheeran with an almost workman-like diligence and naïvety, making use of his literally blue eyes, the increasing sadness of Frank’s life eventually seeps into every part of de Niro’s performance. He is bent over, stumbles, stammers even when he is asked to confess his crimes by a priest, with the actor leaning into his physical decline that catches you off-guard before breaking your heart. Al Pacino gives a great performance that makes use of his tendency to overact, giving Hoffa the larger-than-life quality and comedic charisma that makes the role breathe – and the eventual turn of events between him and Sheeran all the more upsetting. The biggest surprise of all, however, is Joe Pesci. Gone is his violent temperament, the dangerous volatility of the characters he played in Scorsese’s previous movies. No longer is a question like “How am I funny?” the most terrifying thing you’ve ever heard. Instead, Buffalino is calm, collected and always trying to offset other people’s missteps. That is easy when Sheeran errantly tries to attack mob boss Harvey Bruno (Harvey Keitel in an all too brief appearance), but harder when Hoffa, against all advice to the contrary, acts against the mafia’s wishes. Hoffa’s real-life disappearance is still not solved, but The Irishman and the book it’s based on make the claim that Frank was ordered to kill him. And this killing proves to be Sheeran’s breaking point, as well as the starting point for The Irishman‘s strongest part.
Having shot a close friend, Sheeran, already gray and old, is driven into retirement and eventually sentenced to a prison sentence along Buffalino and some old friends. Pesci really breaks your heart here, as Russell suffers from a stroke early on in their term and later dies in prison, having spent his last years too weak to eat his favorite meals. All former glory is gone. Sheeran survives prison, but his wife dies shortly after his release and his daughters refuse to stay in contact with him. And yet, he cannot bring himself to admit any guilt, see any wrongdoing in his life. When questioned by two FBI agents, Frank flippantly refers them to his lawyer, only to be told that “your lawyer is dead. Buffalino, too. There’s nobody left”. Wheelchair-bound and all alone, we leave Sheeran as he buys a coffin and spends his time in solitude. There is no glorious voice-over, no positive remnant of a life spent with violence, Frank has nothing. It dawns on you as the film draws to a close that Scorsese has just rebuked Goodfellas‘ famous “I always wanted to be a gangster” line, using The Irishman‘s seemingly excessive runtime to thoroughly dispel any myths there might be about crime paying in any way.
This is what Scorsese’s cinema is: violent, often funny, refusing to give us a clear compass of good and bad – but still deeply moralistic. Jordan Belfort is driven to his breaking point by his gluttonous taking advantage of capitalism in The Wolf of Wall Street. Henry Hill has to take refuge in witness protection after his mob organization dissolves in Goodfellas, still paranoid about possible retribution. Frank Sheeran ends up completely alone, left by friends and family, his former glory vanished without a trace. There’s nobody left.
The Irishman is streaming on Netflix starting Wednesday, November 27.