Martin Scorsese’ The Irishman is the culmination of a life’s work defining the mobster genre, viewed through a lens of deep introspection. It’s meditative, sorrowful and mature in ways more profound than any of the legendary director’s previous works.
Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses (a much better title, by any standard), The Irishman charts the life of Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his career as a mob hitman. We meet Frank at the end of a long tracking shot through a nursing home, Five Satins’ ‘In the Still of the Night’ swelling as the camera closes in. The old man is sat in a wheelchair, his face deeply lined and eyes clouded, as he begins to speak to an unknown person. His life’s retelling becomes the guiding narrative for the film, its hindsight imbuing the events with a certain melancholy, and perhaps even regret.
This opening shot sets the tone for a feature that is both fully of Scorsese and fundamentally different from his past work. Frank is the last survivor of a bygone era in a film which, while in open conversation with Scorsese’s body of work, looks back with nostalgia on a life spent devoted to the mob. Frank Sheeran was a Philadelphia trucker who garnered favour with two prominent mafia bosses, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci in an unusually measured yet threatening performance) and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Eventually, he ends up working for and developing a friendship with union labour leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a powerful man with deep ties to the criminal underground.
The Irishman uses a frame narrative in which Frank’s retrospective storytelling not only recounts his life throughout numerous decades, but also repeatedly pulls the audience back to a 1975 road trip he took with Bufalino and their wives. These scenes, crackling with the veteran actors’ bone-deep chemistry, play in part for comedic relief – that is, until its final and devastating destination.
Scorsese’s film would fail to be so hefty were it not for its star-studded ensemble giving pitch-perfect performances. Al Pacino, in his first turn directed by Scorsese, shines like he hasn’t in a long time. Steering away from the near self-parodying that has defined his later career whilst still buzzing with energy and wild-eyed charisma, this is easily his best performance in years. Meanwhile, De Niro anchors this epic as a sturdy, quiet presence whose descent into emotional bankruptcy roils beneath a stony surface.
This is very much a male story. Despite Anna Paquin headlining, The Irishman is a film in which women are seen but their perspectives are deliberately sidelined, placed as they are as muted observers of men’s destructive instincts. They are witnesses to the fatal effects of toxic masculinity before such a condition had a name, and it is neither their responsibility nor their purpose to show these men how to escape their inevitable end. And the ‘end’ is something the film never loses sight of. For every character introduced, there also appears a title card informing the audience of their date and cause of death; it’s a life which has only one possible ending, and a lonely one at that.
Clocking in at three-and-a-half hours, it’s almost inevitable for there to be some looseness towards the middle of the film. The Irishman is weakest when it tries to provide a history lesson, drawing in snapshots of the Kennedy assassinations and the Nixon years in a way that never feels satisfactorily connected to the core story. Yet whenever Scorsese hones back in on character studies, the results are so excellent that all is easily forgiven.
And as for the much talked about de-ageing technology, far from being distracting, it actually contributes to the film’s feel as a true epic. It’s grand and ambitious, asking unanswerable questions about legacy, sorrow, and death. At times it feels like the director’s swan song, as though Scorsese is looking back upon his life and seeking answers to those questions for himself.
The Irishman releases on Netflix 27th November.