Perhaps director Martin Scorsese had to make five other mobster movies before he could make one as wise, reflective, and mournful as The Irishman.
The film is bookended with a steady, somber tracking shot in a nursing home, sort of the gray-haired version of the thrilling Copacabana scene in Goodfellas (with The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” replacing The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”). In between those shots, The Irishman unfolds with a ruminative sadness. It’s like an Irish wake for a genre—Scorsese’s personal type of guilt-soaked, blood-spattered, Catholic gangster films in particular. If his other mob movies—Goodfellas, as well as Mean Streets, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed—danced on the line between guilt and glory, crime and punishment, rock and roll, The Irishman lays down on that line in a gesture of supplication. There is violence here, to be sure, but the only real excitement to be had is in the possibility held, near the end, in a door being left ajar, despite all that had come before.
Robert De Niro, fittingly, is the film’s anchor and title character: Frank Sheeran. A union truck driver as a young family man (still De Niro, thanks to mostly convincing CGI trickery), Frank isn’t above shorting deliveries in order to make a few extra bucks. This—and his capacity for casual violence—attracts the attention and admiration of local crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who in turn recommends Frank for heavy tasks to union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The Irishman, adapted by Steven Zaillian from a nonfiction book by Charles Brandt, shifts among three timelines: Frank’s final days in that nursing home; his early work for Bufalino; and a road trip he takes with Bufalino in late middle age to help close the rift that had opened between Hoffa and the mob.
In some ways, the film is better regarded as a trio of towering performances. De Niro—whose eyes are a cloudy gray-blue, fitting for a man whose moral compass you can never quite read—takes the banality-of-evil approach. His Frank is a quiet, matter-of-fact guy, relaying information with the same ambivalent expression, whether he’s describing his favorite chili dogs or the best gun to use for a hit (De Niro is one of those rare actors who can make his mouth shrug). In a rare moment of loquacity, Frank suggests that fighting in World War II turned him into a killer. But given how eager he is to use that experience as a calling card, you wonder if it might also be an excuse.
Pesci is nothing less than shocking as the older Bufalino. Long gone is the motor-mouthed hothead of Casino and Goodfellas; while the cold-bloodedness remains, it’s now communicated with a quiet rasp and measured movements. Bufalino speaks softly and carries a lethal stick. Pacino, as Hoffa, goes the opposite direction, embracing the man’s legendary, outsized personality. At once erratic and commanding—and often very funny—it’s the perfect part for the post-“hoo-ah!” Pacino, a chance for him to be historically hammy while still serving the film at hand.
Pacino also raises the energy level for an otherwise morose production. Which isn’t to say the filmmaking is boring. Scorsese’s use of pre-existing music (such as The Five Satins) is as electrically incisive as ever, filled out by Robbie Robertson’s handsome score. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto gives the different time frames distinct palettes, with the color slowly seeping from the images as the years go by. And then there are the more viruoustic touches, as when the frame freezes on certain minor characters and onscreen text tells us when and how they will die. Some of these might be future victims of Frank’s, some might die in other hits, and some will die of natural causes. But the growing tally as the film goes on tells us one thing for sure: death will come for us all.
Perhaps Scorsese had to make five other mobster movies before he could make one as wise, reflective, and mournful as The Irishman.
Indeed, that’s the cloud that hangs over The Irishman, one that darkens with each passing scene. At one point, after various threats have been made against Hoffa’s family, his wife Jo (Welker White) gets in her car and pauses before turning the key, fearful that a bomb may be waiting for her. Just as she turns it, Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker slip in a quick shot from earlier in the film of a different car exploding, then cut back to Jo as her vehicle safely rumbles to life. It’s a gotcha moment, but also an ingenious way of capturing the shadow of death under which all of these people live.
I wish there had been more of Jo Hoffa, or any of the other wives we see in the background. That’s one of the reasons Goodfellas remains Scorsese’s crowning mob-movie achievement: the attention it gave to fiery moll Karen Hill, and Lorraine Bracco’s galvanic performance in the part (she even got her own voiceover). Frank’s daughter Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin) becomes a crucial element, but exclusively in service of Frank’s story. Suspicious of his “job” even as a small child (she stares at him at the breakfast table over a newspaper report of the murder he’s committed the night before), she becomes even more of a figure of conscience when she’s older. There’s a moment near the end, after she suspects Frank’s monstrousness has reached a new level, when Peggy stares at him and asks just one question: “Why?”
Taciturn as ever, Frank doesn’t seem to really consider that question until years later, when alone in that nursing home. Yet even then, while talking with a priest who knows something of his criminal past, Frank says he doesn’t feel anything about what he had done. Nevertheless, the movie shows us its toll. The last section of the film is a lengthy elegy, including a forlorn tracking shot past the once-powerful mob capos—including an emaciated Bufalino in a wheelchair—playing a sad game of bocce in prison. In the cafeteria, Frank and Bufalino share some bread, but the older man’s hand shakes as he holds it. Not that it matters; he no longer has enough teeth to chew.
Other Scorsese films followed their gangsters this far, capturing their final years behind bars, but it often felt like an ironic touch. When The Irishman sits with Frank Sheeran alone in that nursing home, his murky eyes downright fogged, it’s something more profound: a reckoning for both a genre and a singularly sordid soul.