Late in The Irishman, there is a scene where a character is flabbergasted. It is the late 1990s or the early aughts, maybe, and he cannot believe a young person does not recognize Jimmy Hoffa. Maybe folks recognize his name or remember that he disappeared, but you cannot overstate he was once one of the most important public figures in the country. Our sense of amnesia is important to The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s latest crime epic. It is similar to his best-known films, insofar that is about gangsters, corruption, sin, and politics. In crucial ways, however, Scorsese has made a different film than Goodfellas and Casino. This one has the wisdom that can only come with advanced age, and that wisdom coexists with heartache.
It is easy to like Frank Sheeran. He is quiet, smart, and doesn’t ask too many questions. He is indispensable. Robert De Niro plays Sheeran as an eager man, the sort who recognizes greatness and wants to be adjacent to it. After working as a truck driver in the Teamsters, Sheeran ingratiates himself with two men who come to define him. The first is Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a soft-spoken gangster who easily commands respect. The second is Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a loudmouth and head of the Teamsters who fights for respect he never fully earns. Steven Zaillian’s script shows how Bufalino and Hoffa come to depend on Sheeran, and crucially it never quite shows what Sheeran gets out of it. He is too quiet for that.
There is no getting around that The Irishman is three and a half hours long. Its runtime reminds me of the classic Roger Ebert adage: “No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough.” The runtime is crucial to the effect, as Sheeran passes through crucial moments of twentieth century American history. There is a strange, surreal sequence where he effectively supports the CIA in the Bay of Pigs invasion. There is a throwaway line where one character strongly implies who exactly is behind the Kennedy assassination. Throughout all this is Sheeran, stoic and sad, who likes that powerful men depend on him. Because this is a Scorsese film, the film can see the moral rot that comes with a willingness to be dependable.
Comedy is an underrated quality in Scorsese’s films. The Wolf of Wall Street is funny as hell, for example, and so are the rest of his crime films. The Irishman continues in that tradition, mostly in how De Niro contorts his face or Pacino is willing to be a showboat (Pesci hasn’t acted in a movie in fifteen years, and his portrayal of Bufalino (quiet, reserved) is an absolute delight). There are meaningless conversations about bullshit, like when characters argue about how a car smells. Of course, this bullshitting is meant as a form of character development. If something meaningless annoys these men, then their quiet acceptance of what is meaningful – including murder – demonstrates what kind of lives they lead.
Many Scorsese films have a unique sense of energy. Look at the sequence in Goodfellas that happens on May 11 1980, or the opening of The Wolf of Wall Street. Camera placement, editing, and voiceover create a kinetic feeling, leading to the more memorable sequences in cinema history. The Irishman is a rebuke of all that. It is borderline slow, but not without purpose. After all the familiar beats, with Sheeran caught between Bufalino and Hoffa, it practically grinds to a halt for its climax. The climax is the death of Jimmy Hoffa, and there is no soundtrack here. You don’t hear a tune like “Jump Into the Fire” or “Spoonful.” Instead, the film is quiet and deliberate. Sheeran’s betrayal is tragic because it so dumb and predictable. Men without moral courage fascinate Scorsese, and Sheeran just might be his biggest weakling.
Before anyone saw any footage of The Irishman, there was ample discussion over its use of de-aging technology. De Niro is in his seventies, and this film depicts Sheeran as a young man. Aside from two notable exceptions, the use of this technology is flawless. It is easy to accept De Niro as a middle aged man, or even a young man. Still, the two exceptions are when we see Sheeran in his twenties, and a scene where he moves slowly, like an old man. De Niro and Scorsese have worked together for decades, and those early performances are practically acrobatic. You cannot fake the physicality of youth. Scorsese and De Niro internalize that, so most of the performance is in his face. It’s his best performance in decades.
Although she only has one line, Anna Paquin is incredibly important to this film. She is always there, lingering in the background, with her eyes commenting on situations that she understands better than her father would want. When she finally does say something, it cuts through the bullshit of the gangster lifestyle and offers bracing clarity. That clarity lingers over the rest of the film, which represents another departure from Goodfellas and Casino. You may recall that those films end with the character looking at the camera, at a loss at how their lives came to this indignity. The Irishman lingers on that feeling: Sheeran spends his final days in an old folk’s home, wandering why his family abandoned him, although De Niro, Zaillian, and Scorsese understand perfectly well. For these men – men who lead corrupt, sinful lives – survival guarantees loneliness. If the hardened heroes of Scorsese’s earlier films could see The Irishman, they would burst into tears.