Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ is mature and melancholy
There is no question that three hours and 28 minutes qualifies as a long movie. And in a landscape where some films can make two hours seem bloated and overindulgent, it’s at least understandable why one might be wary. But Scorsese has earned the benefit of the doubt and “The Irishman” keeps you rapt from the first winding tracking shot through a staid retirement home — a flashy cinematic show in the most un-cinematic of places — through the melancholic end.
The whole film in fact is something of a knowing contradiction: A small epic with a superhero budget, using technology like the oft-discussed de-aging process not for vulgar show or gimmickry but to add real heart and grandeur to a film that is trying to grapple with the scope of a life. The subject at hand here is Frank Sheehan (Robert De Niro), the teamster and mafia figure who claimed right before his death that he was the one who killed Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Although hardly accepted as a definitive answer to one of our great unsolved mysteries, Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” ”Gangs of New York“), inspired by Charles Brandt’s “I Heard You Paint Houses,” saw in this deathbed confession the opportunity to make something more poignant and personal: An opus about the enormity of a life lived in and around the mafia.
To pull off this ruminative trick and still make an entertaining film, Scorsese has naturally gone back to his original muse, De Niro, and a few old friends. They include Joe Pesci (who came out of retirement for an all-time performance as crime boss Russell Bufalino, who is both sympathetic and otherworldly sinister) and Harvey Keitel (in a small role), who have along with their director defined and illuminated the concept of the mafia for many who will never come near that world.
Frank tells this story of friendship, loyalty, ego, violence and family from a retirement where he is achingly alone. Death is all around. Scorsese plants a brief, matter-of-fact obit on the faces you meet along the way. And Frank has the blessing and burden of having reached an age that no one is supposed to in this line of work. You can feel the weight of that with every word.
Pacino doesn’t make his entrance into the film for quite some time, but his arrival and gravitas gives the film a jolt exactly when it’s needed. It’s almost needless to say that seeing him and De Niro together again is a special delight.
If this all seems rather somber, it’s because of the stunning last hour, which will stick with you long after the film is over. But before then, “The Irishman” is actually quite droll, with some of the best characters and dialogue you’ll see in a film all year. There’s a long conversation about fish in one of the tensest stretches that is delightfully funny and natural, and an amusing running thread about Hoffa’s distaste for lateness. The actors, the director and the script never get lost in the plot — this is the rare film that makes you feel as though life is really happening around the mafia machinations, of which there are plenty.
“The Irishman” is much more than just another mob story after all. It’s also the story of a filmmaker in the late stages of his career reconciling with one aspect of his life’s work. “Silence” was that for his religion-themed films. But “The Irishman” is the more effective and clear-eyed attempt — not to mention more accessible to audiences than a tale about 17th-century Portuguese Missionaries.
But one thing that “The Irishman” is lacking for is in substantive female characters. Here, they are wives to be left, or tolerated, and daughters to protect and disappoint. The latter is embodied by Frank’s daughter Peggy, who as a young girl witnesses her father commit an act of violence that puts a permanent crack in their relationship. She is Frank’s conscience, which he won’t realize until it’s far too late. What she isn’t is a character we get to know anything about.
Perhaps who Peggy is or grew up to be (Anna Paquin portrays her as an adult) is inconsequential, though. This is Frank’s story, after all, and he’s still learning all the way up to the end.
“The Irishman,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “pervasive language and strong violence.” Running time: 208 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.