After decades apart, director Martin Scorsese is back conducting Mob business with Robert De Niro (the two haven’t worked together since 1995’s Casino). Add Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, and Al Pacino to the mix, and prepare for fireworks. Can you believe Scorsese and the Scarface star have never joined forces? Now this director and these actors — all past their mid-seventies — make every minute count.
With The Irishman, America’s greatest living director creates his late-career masterpiece, a deeply felt addition that vibrantly sums up every landmark in his crime-cinema arsenal, from 1973’s Mean Streets through Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and the Oscar- winning The Departed. But his latest is also a response, written in fever, blood, and poignant regret, to accusations that his films are Mob recruitment posters. No one can accuse this film of that.
This time, Scorsese tackles the most vicious killer of all: advancing age. Yes, mobsters also die by the gun. No sooner is a gangster introduced than a caption appears citing grisly details such as “shot four times in the face in his kitchen.” So much for the glamorous life. But what of the hoods and wiseguys who outlive their sins?
Meet Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a real-life Mob soldier we encounter at a Philadelphia-area nursing home shortly before cancer brought him down in 2003 at 83. As the soundtrack swells with the Five Satins crooning “In the Still of the Night,” the camera tracks a feeble, wheelchair-bound Sheeran ready to keel over like Michael Corleone in Godfather III. All alone — his family keep their distance — Sheeran fills us in on his career as the “Irishman” in the last half of the 20th century. It’s a time, the film theorizes, when history-making moments like hits on the Kennedys and the Cuban invasion may have links to the Mafia.
That’s the movie, a never-boring three-and-a-half-hour epic about a history of American violence, artfully shot by Rodrigo Prieto and with genius editing by Thelma Schoonmaker. Steve Zaillian’s probing script allows Scorsese to blend blistering action and comic takes on Mob rituals with raw emotion. It’s the shreds of humanity in monsters that scare us because they make us see ourselves in them.
Sheeran’s Mob baptism begins when the film flashes back to him in his thirties. De Niro plays him by way of a digital de-aging process that could hamper lesser actors. But these aren’t lesser actors. De Niro is monumental in one of his best roles, nailing every nuance as a World War II combat veteran whose killing skills find a home with the local criminal bigwigs. The “house painter” hits paydirt when he meets Philly capo Russell Bufalino, played by Pesci. (Watching these two actors spark against each other once more is a dream come true.) The actor’s Goodfellas showboating is replaced by a quiet intensity that’s even more chilling. Bufalino doesn’t moralize about betrayal. ”It is what it is,” he says, treating Sheeran like an adopted son he can cajole into committing murder.
It’s Bufalino who connects Sheeran to crime boss Angelo Bruno (Keitel) — and, most crucially, to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the powerful president of the Teamsters Union. Pacino looms like a colossus in a tour de force that can be both hilarious and horrifying, as when Hoffa insists that being more than 10 minutes late for a meeting is code for “fuck you.” He also excels in tender scenes with Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, played as a child by Lucy Gallina and later by Anna Paquin, whose mute awareness of Sheeran’s misdeeds speaks volumes.
Did Frank Sheeran kill Hoffa in 1975 on orders from Bufalino? The film, like Charles Brandt’s biography of Sheeran, I Heard You Paint Houses, says yes. Some of the incidents have been discredited; Hoffa’s remains have never been found. But Scorsese is more focused on these criminal lions in winter, their bodies in disrepair, their deeds and names forgotten, their hearts and minds leveled by the march of time. Whether you catch The Irishman in theaters or on Netflix (it starts streaming on November 27th), you’ll be watching Scorsese at the peak of his powers directing giants. It’s unmissable.