'The Irishman' Review: Scorsese and De Niro Are Back With an Epic of American Rot
This review originally appeared during the New York Film Festival in September.
The opening shot of Netflix's The Irishman is quintessential Martin Scorsese. It's a tracking shot, curving around corners, while the sounds of Fred Parris and the Satins' "In the Still of the Night" plays. But instead of the landing on the virile gangsters you find in Casino or Goodfellas, the camera ends up settling on a broken old man sitting in a retirement home. That guy was once a virile young gangster named Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, and we'll see him as such thanks to the wizardry of de-aging. But the three-and-a-half hour movie is preoccupied with that end point and what happens when your deeds and fractured loyalties leave you all alone.
To be frank, there was a lot of trepidation going into the New York Film Festival press screening the morning before the film would be feted as the opening night selection. The length had people (namely, me) fretting about bathroom breaks, and there was still some skepticism humming in the air about Scorsese's decision to transform the likes of De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci into their younger selves digitally. A tweet earlier in the week didn't inspire confidence that the altered actors wouldn't look totally weird, but while there's still some iffiness to that technology -- more on that later -- there's ultimately no reason to fear. The Irishman is fully engrossing for all of its 209 minutes, a portrait of 20th-century America through the lens of the crooks who shaped it in ways both legitimate and illegitimate.
Based on Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses, the film, written expertly by Steven Zaillian, finds Frank narrating the story of his rise as a henchman for mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and subsequent association with Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the fabled leader of the Teamsters. De Niro's Frank is largely a passive player, a guy who realizes he can make a good living and find a solid stature by doing others' bidding, regardless of whether that entails whacking a couple of guys. But when the Mafiosos eventually find themselves as odds with Hoffa, who they'd long backed, Frank's allegiances are grimly pulled in two directions.
It's worth noting Pacino's Hoffa doesn't show up until about 45 minutes into the action, allowing the relationship between Frank and Russell to flourish. It's a treat to see De Niro abandoning his days of playing Dirty Grandpas and doddering dad-types, as well as to witness Pesci's return from a nearly 10-year break from on screen acting that finds him as wryly intimidating as ever. There's an energy that will be familiar to anyone familiar with Scorsese's work in this arena: Frank and Russell share a volatile brotherhood based on a secret language of murder and money. But the scope of this story starts to expand when Hoffa enters the frame.
As the dialogue notes: Hoffa's name doesn't carry the same weight it once did, but, in tandem, Scorsese and Pacino paint a picture of how large he loomed over the American identity as a man who both promised the workers of this country a fair shake while maintaining his influence by aligning himself with the underbelly of society. Pacino has become associated more of late with his bad performances than his good ones, but he is absolutely magnetic as the ice cream-devouring, cocksucker-uttering Hoffa. It's essentially the perfect Pacino part: Hoffa buttons up his misdeeds in a demure exterior that shuns alcohol, but every so often he explodes, mostly when railing against the Kennedys or his cigar-chomping nemesis Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham, one of the many Boardwalk Empire alums in the cast).
There will surely debates with regards to how the film adheres to Brandt's and Sheeran's account of Hoffa's death, but the filmmakers are largely interested in the details as a window to a character study rather than offering an official declaration on the mystery of Hoffa's murder. Zaillian's screenplay offers a sort of history of the U.S. through the prism of organized crime and organized labor from the '50s to Hoffa's disappearance in 1975. Frank is an avatar for deeper moral corruption, an everyman who unblinkingly follows orders for the promise of a little extra cash, thinking he's achieving a sort of skewed dream life based on honor. But as portentous as that all sounds The Irishman is also -- true to form for Scorsese's best mob sagas -- remarkably funny, with nearly everyone landing punchlines through the poetry of tough-guy language.
It's impossible to talk about The Irishman without mentioning the decision to have De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci play the same characters over the course of approximately 20 years, a technical feat accomplished by the minds at Industrial Light & Magic. To say that it's not distracting, especially in the early scenes, would be a lie. The initial image of a youth-kissed De Niro is disconcerting: His eyes are almost a little too bright and the age in his bones doesn't quite match the smoothness of his new skin. (Another issue: I'm not quite sure exactly how old he's supposed to be in any given moment, adding yet another layer of confusion to what's on display.) But your eyes do start to adjust, and slowly Frank's changing face becomes an effective tool in the narrative as decrepitude creeps into his body. Eventually we're left with the image that started the whole thing: an old man in a wheelchair with only his guilt to keep him company.