Film & TV

A First Look at Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in The Irishman (Netflix)
It’s powerful, engaging, and brilliantly written and shot — but way too long.

Only four of Martin Scorsese’s first 24 films (not counting documentaries) are mob movies, but what a quartet: Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed are classics. (Yes, I’ll fight you over Casino.) Scorsese opus No. 25, The Irishman, features a lot of the strengths of those earlier films, but while it’s a good film, it isn’t a great one.

The opening-night feature of the New York Film Festival, The Irishman is a long, discursive tale told by an old man in a nursing home in the 1990s. He provides a three-and-a-half hour answer to the question, “Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?”

The title character, Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, is a Teamsters-union truck driver in the 1950s who gets busted for stealing sides of beef he’s supposed to be delivering and is defended by an attorney who turns out to be a mob lawyer. (I’ll leave out the name of the actor in question because it’s such an amusing surprise.) As in Scorsese’s other mob movies, the ability to keep one’s mouth shut under pressure from the law is the most highly prized quality, and Frank finds himself the toast of Philadelphia mob bosses (Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci). Without ever really pausing to think about it, Frank drifts into doing jobs such as blowing up businesses and then murdering people. An inflection point comes when Frank gets introduced to the mobsters’ very good friend over the phone: “This is Jimmy Hoffa. I heard you paint houses.” Frank paints with blood and brains.

Among the many pleasing aspects of the film is Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zaillian’s feel for words. In an age of blathering politicians, logorrheic news anchors, and 25,000-word licensing agreements for the latest OS update, Scorsese’s characters are refreshingly terse. Men who need euphemisms for what they say, both to downplay the horrors of their acts and because they might be under surveillance, make words count. “A little concerned,” as Frank notes, means red alert. If someone tells you, “It’s what it is,” you might want to head over to your local coffin shop (as Frank does at one point) and pick out a nice model. Pay in advance.

Frank is a kind of mashup of Henry Hill and Forrest Gump; he’s a war hero, he’s a dirtbag. He’s a dim bulb who tells us his life story without quite grasping the lesson of any of it. And he occasionally wanders into the background of historical events, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion. De Niro deliberately underplays the part, maintaining a granite face as his character drifts into damnation. He’s even more of a moral cipher than Hill, his counterpart in Goodfellas. (Both men, having Irish blood, were liminal figures who could never be full members of the mob, which makes them excellent explainers from the dark side.) Hill’s twisted moral framing derived from a deep, darkly funny cynicism that seems perfectly to match Scorsese’s, whereas De Niro’s Frank appears to lack any internal structure, even at the end, when a kindly priest tries to nudge him into contrition. No deal. I was taken aback when Scorsese, at a press conference after the world premiere, described Frank as “not a psychotic” and “basically a good man.” It is to a certain extent the task of artists such as Scorsese and De Niro to humanize even the most wicked individuals, but to even consider the possibility that Frank Sheeran (upon whose memoir the film is based) was a good man strikes me as morally bizarre.

The only lesson seems to be that if you lie down with dogs, you will get fleas: Once you’ve done a job for the Mafia, you have joined a game that could lead to your own violent death, or worse. But no such realization ever seems to dawn on Frank; his interior landscape is just a blank, and Scorsese doesn’t bring to it anything like the ironic voltage that courses through Goodfellas.

As Hoffa, Al Pacino makes his debut in Scorseseland and doesn’t waste the opportunity, dominating his scenes and turning De Niro into his straight man. Hoffa’s funny peculiarities provide many of the highlights of the film, such as when he starts an argument over whether it’s okay to be 15 minutes late to a meeting or whether ten is the limit. As much as any two men like them can be, Frank and Hoffa become friends, but really Frank is just a factotum to Hoffa and Scorsese should have done a better job of establishing their bond. One scene of real camaraderie would have sufficed.

What we get instead is, particularly in the slow-moving middle third of the film, a lengthy and numbing series of detours into various union beefs and mob hits. Quick: Who’s the guy who gets assassinated at Columbus Circle and why? The pileup of corpses serves very little purpose, and even more so than Goodfellas, this is not a chick flick. There is only one female character of note — Frank’s daughter Peggy — and she remains silent virtually throughout (as an adult she’s played by Anna Paquin, proving that Scorsese has so much juice he can get an Oscar winner to play a more or less non-speaking role). I think her silence works dramatically — from Frank’s point of view, he just can’t get through to her — but even Goodfellas and Casino featured a major female character whose perspective brought a lot to those films.

As always Scorsese excels on the visuals — the sets and costumes are dazzling, and the new de-aging technology previously seen in movies such as Aquaman (Nicole Kidman) and Captain Marvel (Samuel L. Jackson) enables the principal actors to play much younger versions of themselves without being distracting. The pacing is a problem, though. Scorsese would be wise to remember the example of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a movie that began and ended brilliantly but lost the audience in the middle, when it got distracted by secondary figures. The Irishman runs three and a half hours, and though some of its sidebars are interesting (notably, a section about how the mob got John F. Kennedy elected president by stuffing ballot boxes in Illinois), it could easily be trimmed by 30 minutes or more by tightening up the midsection. Failing that, a lot of viewers who see it on Netflix, on which it debuts November 27, are going to fall asleep in the middle. (A few theaters will get the movie on November 1.)

Though much of The Irishman covers very well-worn territory for Scorsese without providing new insights, its final scenes go to a place I’m not sure the director has ever gone before. How strange is it to be an assassin in a nursing home? Scorsese is himself 76, albeit extraordinarily vigorous for that age, and he doesn’t seem to have much considered the question of aging before. Now it is striking deep chords. Maybe living long enough to contemplate your sins in depth is a greater punishment than having your brains be used as house paint.

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