Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is a coldly enthralling, long-form knockout — a majestic mob epic with ice in its veins. It’s the film that, I think, a lot us wanted to see from Scorsese: a stately, ominous, suck-in-your-breath summing up, not just a drama but a reckoning, a vision of the criminal underworld that’s rippling with echoes of the director’s previous mob films, but that also takes us someplace bold and new.
Scorsese, working from a script by Steven Zaillian (who adapted the 2004 memoir “I Heard You Paint Houses”), tells the true story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a World War II veteran and unassuming truck driver who, in the 1950s, finds himself drawn into the orbit of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the elegant and sinister boss of the Pennsylvania-based Bufalino crime family. Sheeran, who became a trusted mob soldier and hitman, had many assignments, and one of them was to go to work for Jimmy Hoffa (played, in the film’s most extraordinary performance, by Al Pacino), whose Teamsters Union was mired in underworld connections. For years, Sheeran served as Hoffa’s right-hand thug, and then, according to Sheeran, he was the one given the order to whack Hoffa (though the labor leader’s sudden disappearance in 1975 has never been officially solved).
Scorsese turns this saga into a vast American canvas of greed, violence, ambition, politics, and corruption. The backroom string-pulling, the casual executions, the murderous muscle flexed with a terse euphemism (“I’m a little bit concerned…”) — we’ve seen much of this before. But Scorsese’s 1990 landmark “GoodFellas” was a mob diary staged to feel like a party; without falsifying what it showed us (if anything, the film made it look more genuine than it had ever looked in the movies before), “GoodFellas” asked us to revel in the thrilling amorality of easy money, fast pleasure, and quicker brutality, even as we confronted the sometimes horrific consequences.
“The Irishman” presents mob life as a far more solemnly unromantic and toll-taking experience. A film of masterly hushed precision, it digs deep into the nub of its subject, which is the dark heart of power. Yet it’s not quite what I would call an intimate drama. Films about the Italian underworld have always showed us how mobsters try to keep family and business separate, but in “The Irishman,” though Frank has a family, they’re barely on our radar except for his daughter, Peggy, played as a wily young girl by Lucy Gallina and as an adult by Anna Paquin. As a girl, Peggy stares at her father without saying a word, and what her inquisitive silence tells you is that she knows, more or less, what he’s up to. He loses her as a daughter, but in a sense he never quite has her.
At 209 minutes, “The Irishman” is longer than “The Godfather” or “The Godfather Part II,” longer than “Titanic” or any of the “Lord of the Rings” films — and that, on the face of it, could make it seem intimidating, like a mountain you have to climb. One might even ask: Why, in the age of skittery attention spans, did Scorsese choose to make a three-and-a-half-hour magnum opus for Netflix? But the answer, it turns out, is rather up-to-the-minute. That running time is a mere blip in the world of binge-watching; if “The Irishman” weren’t a movie at all but, in fact, a show (a limited series, say), we’d be talking all of three episodes. And the reason that connection is so relevant is that what Scorsese has made is, in a sense, a kind of glorified series. I don’t mean that as an insult to his cinematic ambitions. Scorsese, in contrast to what he did in the overly knotted-up “Casino,” is working here at full power — the jittery sweep of his voice, the intuitive music of his camera movement, the classic volcanic eruptions of male rage. Edited, with flowing contrapuntal brilliance, by Thelma Schoonmaker, “The Irishman” unfolds with an ominous momentum that’s heady and engrossing.
Yet the film, by design, is episodic in a way that’s small-screen-friendly and a little “objective.” It sits back and gawks at its characters — their close-to-the-vest style, their violence, their drive for dominion — rather than drawing us into any sort of shattering communion with them. It shows us the explosive force of their actions without necessarily asking us to be deeply moved. The first two “Godfather” films added up to a kind of tragedy (almost a Hollywood version of Shakespeare), because they were about how far men could fall who had soaked their rise in blood; we watched the humanity drain out of Michael Corleone until he was a waxworks Mafia vampire. “The Irishman” never glamorizes the violence it shows us, and never risks making it look like a lark; the film presents mob crime as the cutthroat utilitarian business it is. But what it also shows us is characters who don’t necessarily feel a lot for themselves. They’re clockwork operators — efficiency experts of violence. There’s little on the inside for them to confront, because that part of them is already dead.
The movie is set over a period of 30 years (60 if you count the framing device that portrays Frank as a man in his eighties looking back), and the digital de-aging process that delayed the film’s release and ballooned its budget to $150 million is integral to more of its scenes than not. It’s not just a matter of “flashbacks.” Much of “The Irishman” is set in the ’50s and early ’60s, and in these scenes De Niro appears as a more pink-fleshed, streamlined version of himself, and so does the now imperiously crinkly Joe Pesci (though his character is middle-aged even in the earlier scenes).
Is the de-aging process perfect? Of course not. You may feel, at moments, that you’re seeing characters who have been nipped and tucked with a kind of digital cosmetic surgery. Yet the process is still effective, and there’s a strange, singular way that it works for the movie. Even when Frank and Russell are younger, we feel an echo of the actors in their mid-seventies who De Niro and Pesci actually are. And this makes it seem like even the younger versions of Frank and Russell have the armored hearts of old men. Who knows where this technology will lead, but in “The Irishman” the de-aging turns out to be a mesmerizing experiment, even if it’s more of a device than a time-machine miracle.
How does an ordinary man like Frank become a killer? According to what the movie shows us, his time in combat took him part of the way there — not because he had to kill to survive, but because he was ordered to kill German POWs (after they’d dug their own graves) in a way that amounts to a war crime. And that hardened him. (It’s a tough movie that’s willing to snuff our idealism about America in WWII.)
In 1975, on the eve of the Hoffa assassination, Frank and Russell, along with their wives, are on a road trip to Detroit for a wedding, and they pull over near the Texaco gas station where Frank, after the war, first met Russell. The movie then jumps back to Frank’s first crime, which has a touch of “GoodFellas” exuberance about it — he was delivering sides of beef, and started letting them drop off his truck and into the hands of Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), an associate of Russell’s. It doesn’t take long for Russell to bond like a brother with Frank, the Irishman who speaks fluent Italian (he learned it during the war), and their chemistry hardly needs to be explained, because it comes down to that De Niro-Pesci thing that’s been there since “Raging Bull.”
Frank does whatever’s he’s asked, including blowing up a laundry service for a mobster named Whispers (“the other Whispers,” in one of the film’s many casually funny jokes), which was a wrong move, since the Italians owned a stake in it. Frank is then ordered to execute Whispers, and before we have time to wonder what this rite of passage will feel like to Frank, it’s already over. Frank’s hitman style is, shall we say, in-your-face. He’s a born pro; he doesn’t linger or fret or even think. De Niro’s superb performance is a close cousin to his work in “GoodFellas” — he plays Frank as a guy who’s at the center and on the sidelines at the same time, taking orders and reacting, mostly keeping what he believes behind his mask of a face.
Then Frank meets Jimmy Hoffa. Pacino invests the fabled labor leader with a full-throttle Loud Voice Al energy — but though we may, at moments, laugh at the classic Pacino bluster, make no mistake. This is a deadly serious performance as a man of vast influence and complex loyalty. Pacino invests Hoffa’s union speeches with a fervor that’s rooted enough to be real; his reach is vast, because the truckers he leads are such a vital part of America’s industrial bloodstream. He honestly wants to foster and protect their middle-class security. But that means constantly shoring up his own power. He treats the Teamsters pension fund as his personal kitty, using it to bankroll the hotels of Las Vegas. As the movie goes on, you see the shades of Pacino’s acting — his Hoffa is an egomaniac who is also a brilliant tactician, who has made himself into a union cult leader. Some of the best scenes in the film involve the rivalry between Hoffa and the weaselly New Jersey crime boss Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham). The two despise each other, and whether they’re fighting in prison (where they both served in the early ’60s) or squabbling at a meeting about whether you’re allowed to be 10 or 15 minutes late, we see the insanity of how a certain kind of masculine ego war could run the world.
Scorsese wants to dramatize how America used to work (and maybe still does), with the personal and political hopelessly entangled. Frank’s assignments go well beyond whacking mobsters who don’t know their place. In 1961, he’s asked to help in a weapons shipment that turns out to be for the Bay of Pigs invasion. For a while, the film turns into a luridly arresting mob’s-eye-view history lesson about the Mafia and JFK: the resentment the Italian crime leaders felt at having “bought” the 1960 election for Kennedy (by stuffing the ballot boxes of Chicago), only to see him appoint his brother, Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Huston), to the position of attorney general, at which point RFK goes after the mob with unprecedented vengeance. The film presents the JFK assassination as an underworld conspiracy, and whether or not you buy that, the triangle of the mob, the Teamsters, and the JFK administration, with the former bootlegger Joe Kennedy called upon to repay favors, makes for a thrillingly entangled political spider web.
When Hoffa is released from prison, he has to try to win his union back from Frank “Fitz” Fitszimmons (Gary Basaraba), his former number two, who, far more than Hoffa, is in bed with the Mafia. Hoffa starts publicly denouncing him for that very sin. And that, in the end, is what seals his fate. Pacino turns Hoffa’s inability to budge or compromise into a life-force spectacle of hubris; this is the finest acting he has done in years. It would be a stretch to call “The Irishman” topical, yet in its way the film could hardly be more timely. It’s a vision of outrageous power flying too close to the sun. And when Pesci’s terse, demonically understated Bufalino, behind his death-shield horn-rims, tells Frank that the order has come down from on high, the movie gives off a resonating chill.
How will the hit happen? Scorsese plays it for vintage suspense, but Frank, even when assigned to knock off a man who is both a long-time mentor and a friend, is strictly business. He has no choice, but it’s also his temperament. The film says that that’s the mob’s temperament: not something out of the movies (not even something that horrifying), but all icy calculation. Frank, later on, reveals his one pang of guilt. It’s not about the murder, but about the phone call he made to Jimmy’s wife. Yet it’s part of the frosty power of “The Irishman” that even in that one twinge of regret, we observe Frank’s pain more than we share it. He has murdered too many things, including his own heart.