A Harrowing, Hilarious Return to Historical Gangster Epics
A saturnine masterpiece about Faustian decisions and their cancerous consequences, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a bold and brave mob movie that feels like Puzo crossed with Proust. Scorsese conjures all his protean powers to transmogrify a true-life pulp thriller into a deeply affecting spiritual crisis. It’s a wise look at wiseguys.
THE IRISHMAN ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel
Running time: 209 min
Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, the epic biopic chronicles the life of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) from his formative moments as a 24-year-old serviceman during WWII to his ruminative days as an 80-year-old in a nursing home. It’s an ethical meditation on the effects of a life lived wildly outside the law but still within strict, even stifling, criminal codes.
As a postwar meat truck driver stopping at a roadside Texaco, Sheeran serendipitously crosses paths with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a genial but cagey gentleman who piques Sheeran’s interest but doesn’t reveal his name. Then again, he’s the head of the Bufalino crime family, based in Pennsylvania but with a reach that covers the East Coast and beyond. Sheeran finds himself drawn to the mob, and to the extra money, hustling sides of beef from his cargo until the graft nearly gets him fired.
Good thing he’s a blue-collar worker in the age of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), where the International Brotherhood of Teamsters rules American industry—its highways, its train routes its factories—with an iron fist. It’s almost impossible for Sheeran to lose his job. And once the Sicilian mob starts to trust Sheeran, a vet who learned to speak Italian while serving overseas, then the Irish union man becomes a made man. They start hiring him for cold-blooded murders instead of meat-truck hustles anymore.
The moral turpitude is fine with him. In Anzio, his superiors ordered him to make Nazis dig their own grave before shooting them down on the spot. He took war crimes in stride. Why not organized crime? “It was like the army,” Sheeran explains in voiceover. “You followed orders. You did the right thing, you got rewarded.”
Soon enough he’s throwing hot firearms into rivers and lugging DuPont dynamite in his car trunk. And, eventually Hoffa summons him to the phone for a brief conversation. Like talking to General Patton, thinks an intimidated Sheeran. “I hear you paint houses,” Hoffa casually remarks, speaking code for Sheeran’s hitman status. “I do my own carpentry, too,” Sheeran replies. He knows how to clean up his messes.
Hoffa is a political celebrity in the midcentury age of Kennedy. He’s more popular than Elvis, bigger than the Beatles. And he holds onto his mob ties, but loosely enough that he’s able to slip out of 13 Grand Jury indictments. Sheeran becomes his body man, and the arrangement seems to work out for everyone. Until, one day, it doesn’t.
Think geriatric Goodfellas, then think again. American auteur Martin Scorsese isn’t just returning to the Cosa Nostra rhythms of that epochal 1990 classic. He’s invoking the cocksure young bloods immortalized in his 1973 breakthrough Mean Streets. He’s revisiting the hotheads, cool killers, and corporatized ambition of 1995’s dazzling wider-canvas Casino. And he’s working at a measured pace that feels downright innovative: episodic but never melodramatically serialized, pensive but never ponderous. For three and a half hours, he lets the thrilling moments of a dangerous life become the nagging burden of a prolonged death.
Amazingly, the Irishman isn’t just harrowing; it’s hilarious. On road trips, the tough guys need to give their wives chronic cigarette breaks to puff on their Menthol Lights. Sheeran and Bufalino, wanting to keep regular, make sure to have Total cereal at breakfast. Hoffa can’t stop eating ice cream sundaes and griping about people who aren’t punctual. The quotidian details are delightfully neurotic.
The cast is pretty phenomenal, too. The marquee legends unsurprisingly feast on the material, from De Niro’s poker-faced calm and Pesci’s quiet menace to Pacino’s razzle-dazzle desperation. But the rest of the cast, including Ray Romano as a nonplussed mob lawyer, Stephen Graham as a strutting Bantam thug, and Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s disgusted daughter make the entire film absolutely enthralling.
As the nonpareil interpreter of gangster lives, Scorsese delivers an apt capstone to what is now a cinematic tetraptych of underworld life in the second half of the 20th century. It’s difficult to imagine a more monolithic, or more apt, summary statement for the mafioso experience: punch-drunk highs, harrowing chills, ego-boosting power trips, humiliating falls from grace. He details a fundamentally existential erosion that grows with creeping deliberation to a devastating crescendo.
Scorsese is so good at mob movies because he’s spent a lifetime making so many other types of pictures: musicals, remakes, sequels, contemporary comedies, historical dramas, period romances, religious epics. Like any great artist, each of his experiences informs the other, feeds it and inspires it. He knows how to plumb the depths of human experience because he keeps mining in different places. And in doing so, he gets closer to the truth within us all.