Published On: Sat, Sep 28th, 2019

In The Irishman, Martin Scorsese finally takes the glamour out of gangsters

At the press conference following the New York Film Festival press screening of the Netflix-produced feature The Irishman, director Martin Scorsese discussed the project’s long gestation, noting that he and star Robert De Niro had wanted to work together again “since Casino.” It sounded odd to hear it put that way, because before Casino, De Niro and Scorsese had one of the most prolific collaborations in American movies — to the point where during Casino’s 1995 release, critics largely received it as an old-hat retread of Goodfellas. Now it’s 2019, Casino has a better reputation, and De Niro and Scorsese haven’t made a feature together in decades.

That kind of time-passing blink is at the heart of The Irishman, even if its three-and-a-half-hour runtime suggests otherwise. Scorsese’s return to organized crime and its adjacencies takes place over roughly 50 years in the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a real-life hitman whose exploits powered Charles Brandt’s non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses. (The title flashes pointedly onscreen toward the beginning of Scorsese’s film.) To allow the 76-year-old De Niro and other cast members to play younger versions of their characters, the film uses cutting-edge computer effects to de-age its major players for large chunks of its story. It’s Netflix’s most lavish production yet. (The film is receiving a limited theatrical release in November, and will be streaming to Netflix subscribers on Thanksgiving.)

For the most part, the effects are impressively seamless. Beyond a few sequences where the movie’s “young” De Niro simply doesn’t fit with what actual young De Niro looked like, the most noticeable change is the change of his eye color from brown to blue. The tweaks are a little eerie, but that dynamic works for the movie, where Frank’s sometimes-murderous job is treated with dispassionate, workaday remove. He doesn’t refer to himself as a hitman. He identifies vaguely as a union man.

The Irishman first introduces Frank as a delivery-truck driver who engages in strategic meat theft and gets away with it. (“I work hard for them when I ain’t stealing,” he explains.) He soon falls in with the Bufalino crime family, becoming close with Russell (Joe Pesci, dipping back in from his retirement) and later influential union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, making a belated Scorsese-picture debut). Frank shoots plenty of people in the head, but he spends just as much time smoothing over little beefs, parsing the hidden meanings of a mobster confiding that he’s “a little concerned” about another mobster’s failure to fall in line.

De Niro delivers the customary Scorsese-gangster narration explaining the ins and outs of his business, but the film isn’t packed with procedural details or multiple colorful points of view, like Casino or Goodfellas. Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker still make asides with snappy cutaways and move the action along propulsively, but they’re imparting middle-management tidbits. On-screen text fills in some gaps with what becomes a running gag: as the text introduces minor characters, it also notes the particulars of their violent demise, years later. The de-aging effects are effective in part because they’re subtle; Frank Sheeran never looks especially youthful. For most of the movie, he feels comfortably settled into middle age. It’s implied that his service in World War II may have robbed him of any youthful idealism, or even general lustiness.


Photo: Niko Tavernise / Netflix

The retro clunkiness of these characters, well past their physical primes, is key to what makes The Irishman often surprisingly hilarious. The tough guys — especially Pacino’s volatile Hoffa — bicker over punctuality, offer each other cereal, drink ginger ale. De Niro and Pacino share a hotel room wearing grandpa pajamas. In a framing device within a framing device, De Niro and Pesci go on a slow, smoke-break-filled road trip with their wives. Scorsese’s gangster movies usually have streaks of mordant humor, but here it’s more quotidian, as when the ultra-powerful Hoffa tries to enjoy an ice cream sundae without an associate nagging him about the federal laws that affect their pensions differently.

Pacino is delightful in his role, reconciling his preening showboating (appropriate for a puffed-up, sometimes self-appointed leader of men) with his ability to go quiet and seething. Pesci, meanwhile, inverts his violent-hothead characters from Goodfellas and Casino. He’s the even-keeled higher-up who evaluates the situation and issues his orders, still calling De Niro “kid” after decades together. It’s an impressive, imposing bit of restraint.

The De Niro performance, especially with its digital tweaks, will probably strike some Scorsese habitués as boilerplate, given how it relies on his familiar downturned mouth, crinkled eyes, and hemming and hawing. But as The Irishman goes on and on, wonderfully entertaining but not concise, his work gathers power. The movie barely covers the growth of Frank’s family (another way he’s made to seem perma-middle-aged); it barely even distinguishes between his wife and his mistress.


Photo: Netflix

But early on, Scorsese establishes that at home, Frank operates under the watchful eye of his daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a kid; Anna Paquin as an adult). As a child, she says very little, and her parents describe her as shy and sensitive. Then suddenly she’s grown, and her silence isn’t so easily dismissed. It’s a shame to see Paquin in a Scorsese movie without anything more to do than issue reproachful looks, but at least that neglect is thematically appropriate. It’s no accident that Frank’s closest relationships are with fellow gangsters/workers. He may not revel in violence, but he’s at home in that world, moreso than in the domestic sphere.

All of Scorsese’s violent movies reckon with the consequences of their violence, but The Irishman is particularly interesting in the way it follows Frank as he ages. It’s clear from the opening shot, which tracks through a nursing home, that this isn’t a guy who gets whacked, blown up by a car bomb, or even confined to witness protection. He lives with what he does, yet seems fully unequipped to grapple with it. The movie is chilling not because De Niro plays Frank as an icy, remorseless killer, but because he’s an affable company man, proud of his union appreciation dinner, and he also happens to kill without remorse.

Scorsese has often regarded his gangster characters with a mixture of fascination and repulsion, and they’ve never looked less glamorous than they do here, particularly in the movie’s devastating final stretch. The major players of The Irishman weave in and out of ’60s and ’70s American history. Yet most of them, particularly Frank, seem to be living for their pointless, petty work, fighting a losing battle against the clock. That theme renders the movie’s technological fight against real-life aging more poignant, as the digital fountain of youth gives way to decrepitude. In many ways, this is an Old Man movie — a slower late-period work by a filmmaker ruminating on his advancing age, and on the beloved classics he made as a younger guy. But it’s Scorsese’s version: pulsing with more life than most younger filmmakers, before giving way to stark, chilling regret.


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