The Irishman gets the band back together, but not just to play the old hits. Its credits are a litany of elder icons, returning to the gangster genre that they helped define: directed by Martin Scorsese, it stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci (who has come all the way out of his semi-retirement for the role) and even features Harvey Keitel. While it would be easy for it to be a rehash of past glories, The Irishman is a sharp stylistic break from films like Goodfellas or Casino, even as it expands on some of the same themes.
One of the most famous moments in Goodfellas is a tracking shot through the Copacabana night club. The Irishman opens with a similar shot, but this time, through a nursing home. It’s a declaration: this is a film about coming towards the end of your life. Here we meet Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who tells the audience about his involvement with the mafia throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Fighting in World War II acclimatised him to killing, and after a chance encounter with fussy, restrained mafioso Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and a scheme to steal the meat he delivers for the trucking company he works for, he becomes a hitman. They euphemistically call killing “painting houses”.
Frank takes us through a history of post-war America through the lens of organised crime, like a gangster Forrest Gump. It’s a story that reaches from the White House to the lowliest labour union chapter, made all the murkier by the mob’s self-mythologising: at one point, Russell claims that the mafia whacked John F. Kennedy, and it’s for us to decide if it’s true. The central plot leads up to Frank’s involvement with the never-solved disappearance of Teamsters Union president, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), in 1975. Young people, Frank tells us, might have heard Hoffa’s name or know that he disappeared, but in the ‘50s, he was as big as Elvis and in the ‘60s, he was as big as the Beatles.
It’s a melancholy, meditative epic. I wouldn’t say it’s slow – its mammoth three-and-a-half hour runtime zips by – but its pace is deliberate, not blistering. And because the story takes place over such a long period of time, digital de-aging technology is used on several characters. This could make you understandably wary, but honestly, it sticks out for about ten minutes and then you don’t think about it again. It might age badly, as has a lot of CGI, but it feels more like a natural extension of make-up and wigs than the creepy digital copies of people in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And it’s unambiguously worth it, because it’s the only way you could cast these brilliant actors in these roles.
There are a lot of great older actors who have been languishing in Adam Sandler movies and insurance ads and Last Vegas-type old man comedies, and The Irishman is an excellent showcase for a bunch of old guys who’ve definitely still got it. It would be easy for De Niro’s performance to lack depth because his character lacks depth – Frank is, ultimately, empty – but he brings extraordinary humour and pathos to Frank’s emotional and intellectual stuntedness. His stumbling over his words, even in voiceover, is a great touch.
But as great as De Niro’s performance is – and it’s probably his best performance since Jackie Brown – both Pesci and Pacino are the real standouts. Pesci plays Russell quiet and reserved: he exudes power, the kind of guy who puts out a hit with a nod and never gets his hands dirty. Frank tells us that he was kind of guy you could tell owned something, and he’s right, even if he hilariously thinks it’s the gas station at which he happens to bump into him. It couldn’t be less like Pesci’s performances in Goodfellas and Casino, but it’s equally magnetic.
The fearless Pacino, by contrast, is huge. He plays Hoffa like a volcano. Pacino’s Hoffa seems to feel everything to the point of the eruption, consumed with injustice both real and imagined. At all times, he’s always barking insults and picking fights, yet we completely understand why Frank’s daughter, terrified of Russell, absolutely loves him.
Also, he eats an outrageous amount of ice-cream, and it’s delightful.
Scorsese has been underrated as a comedy director most of his career, and The Irishman is some of his funniest work. The humour in this film ranges from the dark – whenever we meet a new character, text appears on the screen detailing their gruesome death, and it quickly becomes a running gag – to the farcical – Frank and a mafioso (Keitel) do a quick Abbott-and-Costello routine about who owns a laundry – with equal success. This serves to make the horror all the more horrific and the melancholy all the more melancholic.
It’s one of the best films of the year, and one of the best of the decade. It’s so great that it makes you feel silly to have ever doubted that it would be.