The Irishman (2019)
His story changed history.
The wages of sin have never been more apparent than in this, legendary director Martin Scorsese’s conclusion to the thematic trilogy that began with 1990’s Goodfellas and continued with 1995’s Casino. Not just death, mind you; fans of crime cinema in general and Scorsese’s investigations of Italian organized crime in particular know full well how many of these goombahs and wiseguys are destined for an early grave. Indeed, the film often stops the action when introducing a new, based-on-real-life character to give us a quick look at their eventual epitaph, a bit of gallows humor to leaven this funeral march through the secret history of the late 20th century U.S. labor movement.
No, death is always on the cards for these boys; it’s life that is much more terrifying, and the prospect of eking out your last interminable years alone, enfeebled, telling your tales of murder and malfeasance to whoever will listen regardless of whether they care or not. That’s the fate that has befallen mob hitman and union heavy Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran (Robert De Niro, awake and engaged after some rough years) when we meet him, and it’s his voice that guides us through his decades-long career as pitbull and pistoleer to mafia boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci returning to the screen after too long an absence) and right-hand man to — and eventual assassin of — Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (an ever-so-slightly subdued Al Pacino, unbelievably working with Scorsese for the first time).
Old Scorsese hands know what to expect to at least some degree, and The Irishman does not disappoint; indeed, as a prowling camera leads us down a hospice corridor past a statue of the Virgin Mary while The Five Shadows’ ‘In the Still of the Night’ plays on the soundtrack and De Niro’s voiceover begins to draw us in, the problem initially seems to be that Marty may have drawn water from this particular well once too often. And yes, there are commonalities to his mob movies, stylistic tics, and tendencies that mark them as Scorsese flicks (that’s called having an authorial voice), but it quickly becomes apparent that Marty is not simply spinning his wheels to let the team have one last bat before they inevitably begin to face their own mortality.
Based on the — somewhat controversial and contradicted, it must be said — non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman is a leisurely, rambling stroll (three and a half hours!) through the territory simultaneously occupied by the mob and the labor unions. It’s a stylish, audacious account of larceny, looting, assassinations, assignations, culminating dramatically in the murder of the compromised Hoffa and thematically, quite some time later, in several old villains left to count their sins and contemplate their souls.
It’s this that sets the film apart as a more accomplished work than its predecessors; while the grimy glamour of the mob life is still on display to some degree, this is a far more downbeat and meditative affair than the electrifying Goodfellas and the dazzling Casino. The Irishman is mostly concerned with the banality of evil, the sheer workaday wearing away of self that doing evil entails. De Niro’s Sheeran is no erudite assassin or Machiavellian power player; he’s an ordinary schmoe who learned to kill in World War II and basically goes back to it after a chance encounter with Pesci’s Buffalino because whacking guys is easier and more lucrative than driving trucks. Sheeran kind of drifts into mob life, and while he has a certain ambition and cunning, you get the sense that there’s not a lot of executive control happening in regard to his decision to rob and kill for a living.
Similarly, the cost of that choice is only revealed gradually, largely illustrated through his deteriorating relationship with his daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin), who twigs early on that her ‘uncle’ Russell is bad news and that her father’s business is less than kosher. Peggy’s retreat into distant silence is more painful and damning than a bullet to the back of the head could ever be, her knowing gaze holding Sheeran to account when the entire legal apparatus of the U.S. government fails to. She’s his guilt personified, and Paquin’s subdued, almost dialogue-free performance as such is incredible.
And this is a film packed with incredible performances. Is it a bit of a victory lap for the Martin Scorsese players? Well, yeah, fair cop, but it also serves to remind us how great these performers are. De Niro is remarkable in the title role, but the real standout is Pesci, whose dramatic achievements are often overshadowed by his comedic turns in the Lethal Weapon and Home Alone flicks. The supporting roster is an all-timer: Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Ray Romano, and more — and Scorsese good luck charm Welker White turns up as Hoffa’s wife. Many show up for only a scene or two — blink and you’ll miss Keitel, for example — but all seem energized, the older crew to a degree we haven’t seen in some time. It’s easy to wonder if perhaps the modern industry doesn’t quite know what to do with guys like Keitel; Scorsese, it is clear, still has an idea or two.
There’s an elegiac tone to The Irishman that goes beyond the actual material of the film — the age and status of the principal players, both in front of and behind the camera, work in concert with the narrative as presented, bolstering its impact. Will we see a crew like this again? Maybe not, but we’re harder on the up and comers than we are on the living legends, and there’s plenty of talent — perhaps even of comparable quality! — populating Hollywood’s younger ranks, so never say never. Will we see this lot together again, with material this fine, under a director of this caliber? Well, no, and we won’t be getting new Scorsese films at all before too long, which is a hell of a thing to contemplate. Still, the contemplation of mortality, of human brevity and fallibility, is The Irishman’s raison d’etre.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson