“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Everyone who’s seen Goodfellas at least a dozen times and can practically quote it from memory — virtually everyone who’s seen Goodfellas, in other words — knows what comes right before Ray Liotta says the line: a stabbed body, a bloody sheet, a bright-red glow coming from a car trunk. Everyone remembers what comes after it too, once the credits have rolled: A kid’s romanticized view of these neighborhood big shots, all flashy suits and fancy cars and colorful nicknames. Even more than the Godfather films, Martin Scorsese’s wiseguy magnum opus cast a massive shadow on every Mob story that came after it. Released two years before another cinema-obsessed filmmaker turned the combo of thrills and chuckles into a career template, this rise-and-fall tale still remains the Rosetta stone of modern ha-ha, bang-bang cinema. Not for nothing does it kick off the 1990s.
Like a lot of crime flicks, Scorsese’s The Irishman — which premiered last night at the 57th New York Film Festival — owes a debt to that nearly 30-year-old work. The big difference, naturally, is the pedigree. And for a long stretch of this look at the life and times of Frank Sheeran, the Mob muscle-turned-Teamster-official who was Jimmy Hoffa’s ace in the hole (and, according to his 2004 memoir, I Heard You Paint Houses, also his murderer), there’s that same distinct recipe of irony and history, violence and humor, pop narcotics and Italian-American anthropology. “When I was young, I thought house painters painted houses,” Robert De Niro’s Sheeran says in a voice-over; cut to a white wall getting splattered with red blood courtesy of a bullet. After that, you settle in for lots of gunshots and guys shooting their cuffs as the decades roll by, with the changing car styles and collar sizes letting us know what period we’re in. So far, so very vintage Scorsese.
But there’s a bigger, more significant game the director is playing here than just putting together a greatest-hits reel (in more ways than one). The Irishman wants to look back at a stretch of the 20th century when organized labor and organized crime and the American government all engaged in a sometimes contentious, sometimes cuddly back-and-forth. It also wants to make you question how we view these wisecracking wiseguys and take-no-shit tough guys, and what happens to them after the ring-a-ding fun and the gunfire stop. It is, in so many ways, the anti-Goodfellas — a long, sustained adrenaline rush that then asks you to spend serious time contemplating the aftermath of a life characterized by criminal activities, moral compromises, and Mob rules. It’s not just one of Scorsese’s major works. It may be the most deeply felt gangster movie of all time.
First, however, we get to know Frank. Played by De Niro with his usual well-calibrated shrugs, verbal hesitations, and erupting-volcano volatility, this World War II veteran is a truck driver who gets busted by lightening his sides-of-beef load to get in good with some Philadelphia syndicate folks. He first meets his wiseguy patron saint, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), at a service station when his rig cops out. Eventually, Bufalino and his equally connected cousin/lawyer, Bill (Ray Romano), induct Sheeran into a whole world of made men, mobster-adjacent professionals, and murderers for hire. (Many of these real-life figures are introduced via onscreen text that identifies who they are . . . and the date and manner of their often untimely deaths. It’s a brilliantly fatalistic move.)
Most important, they broker a meeting between Sheeran and James Riddle Hoffa (Al Pacino). The larger-than-life head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters immediately takes a liking to Sheeran, especially after an improvised job in Chicago sends a message quickly and efficiently. The two become practically inseparable, mutually enduring then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s attacks, internal union/organized-crime tensions, prison sentences, and the slings and arrows of “the little guy,” a.k.a. New Jersey gangster Anthony Provenzano, a.k.a. Tony Pro (Stephen Graham, reminding you that no current working actor channels Cagney’s coiled-spring energy better). The more Hoffa tries to regain power over the Mob proxy who has become the new Teamster president, the more Bufalino and the other family heads start to lose their patience with the mercurial public figure. Something’s gotta give. Something eventually does.
A lot of dust has been stirred up over Scorsese’s decision to use digital effects to alter his leads’ looks, all the better to trace the characters’ long, winding arc from twentysomething working stiffs or thirtysomething head honchos to frail octogenarians ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. Yeah, it is occasionally distracting and regrettably distancing — De Niro’s de-aging for those early years in particular looks like he’s wearing plastic facial prosethetics in certain scenes — though not a deal-breaker. You eventually get used to the odd effect of seeing him, as well as Pacino and Pesci, appear as if they have stepped out of time machines. Thankfully, the bells-and-whistles approach doesn’t affect the performances; Pesci reminds you why he’s been sorely missed onscreen, and this is easily the strongest work Pacino has done in ages. Even his shouty moments feel perfectly of a piece with his hotheaded Hoffa. A sequence involving him, Graham, a meet-up, and a lack of punctuality somehow plays as both a parody of every I-heard-things Mob-cinema sequence and one of the most satisfying examples of the same. All of these guys, as well as the key supporting players (included but not limited to: Romano, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Kathrine Narducci, Domenick Lombardozzi, and Welker White), understand the rhythms of Steve Zaillian’s screenplay and Scorsese’s direction down to the last get-the-fuck-outta-here.
Not surprisingly, De Niro is the linchpin here, and the one who’s most associated with Scorsese’s difficult men and dangerous outlaw types. (At the premiere last night, the director joked that his last feature film to play at the NYFF was Mean Streets, “some 46 years ago in this room — and with the same cast.”) The 76-year-old actor gives you a lot of the familiar De Niro-isms you expect in a collaboration like this, which only makes what happens in the film’s last act that much more of a coup. Had Scorsese ended The Irishman right before the three-hour mark or so, people would walk away saying it was merely the duo’s latest exercise in criminal chic. Instead, he lets the story play out past the natural climax and extends things past the thrill-ride parts. Things slow down. People get old. A few conflicts don’t get happy resolutions, or even closure. We’ve seen the physical pain these men dole out; Scorsese insists we bear witness to the psychic pain they feel in their winter years.
It’s the part of the mobster mythos that we don’t normally get to see in movies, and especially not in Scorsese movies — the gangster as tragic zero. Screenwriter and partner-in-crime-cinema Nicholas Pileggi has suggested that this is the end chapter of a loose quartet of works: Mean Streets was the crazy young street punks, Goodfellas followed the made men, and Casino detailed the inner workings of gangster capitalism at its finest. The new one reveals itself to be the curtain call of such characters, and the film practically demands you go back and watch all of its early bada-bing in a whole new light once you know the inevitable endgame. Goodfellas memorably ended on a man and a gun, a callback to cinema’s very first iconic moment of screen violence. It’s not a spoiler to say that The Irishman leaves you with a portrait of emptiness: a man, a room, a void, and silence. You get a fun, funny, scope-and-fury crime epic. You also get a genuinely spiritual movie, and damned if that makes all the difference.