The Irishman (or I Hear You Paint Houses) is built to give you a movie high. Over forty-five years have passed since Martin Scorsese directed a young Robert DeNiro in his breakout role in Mean Streets. Scorsese’s newest film spans a similar length of time, jumping across periods from the Italian countryside during World War II to the original Gulf War. While Scorsese reunites with DeNiro (their first narrative movie in 24 years), Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, as well as collaborating for the first time with Al Pacino, this is no “Greatest Hits” compilation of Scorsese’s past gangster pictures. Themes the director has tackled in past movies (morality, Catholicism, loyalty, isolation, stand-up comedy) are here, but at 77 years of age, Scorsese opts to deconstruct his past canon, presenting life through DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran in a weary, melancholy worldview.
Initially, the movie hews closely to Goodfellas, with a protagonist’s opening narration cutting to a car trip with DeNiro and Pesci. Scorsese uses many of the same propulsive editing rhythms as he used in Goodfellas, the Wolf of Wall Street, and After Hours to excite the audience; but in this movie, the build sets up the brooding third act. Even as he relies on old tricks, such as panning away from a gangland assassination to a bouquet of flowers (similar to the LaMotta/Cerdan title fight in Raging Bull), Scorsese invents new ways to tell similar tales, and along with his long-time ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker, expertly plays on his history, as well as invoking the movies that have inspired him. The Irishman is not about the rise and fall of Frank Sheeran: it’s more of a rise, steady decline, and plateau into loneliness. Despite all of the historical events occurring throughout the film, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Kennedy assassination, and the Watergate scandal, Sheeran operates on a simple code of honor with little regard to the changing world: loyalty to those whom he feels he owes. The film doubles as both a confession of its protagonist (he would never name names to any authority, he uses the audience) and a career summation for Scorsese, for movies he’s made and movies he loves. If anything, the movie has just as much in common with Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America or Coppola’s The Godfather Part II as it does with Goodfellas or The Departed.
It’s easy to see why Pesci came out of semi-retirement to play Russell Bufalino; the character allows Pesci to break the stereotype of his past psychotic made guys. Russ is a calm pragmatist, his every decision being carefully considered and weighed. Frank assumes Russ is a mechanic the first time they meet, and that’s not far removed from how Russ operates the Philadelphia criminal underbelly. Al Pacino plays Union boss Jimmy Hoffa with a true movie star’s swagger; his charisma dominates his scenes in a way we haven’t seen the actor in many a moon. Pacino’s Hoffa casts a spell over the Teamsters, Frank, and us, and even as Hoffa conducts dirty business, it’s difficult to not remain sympathetic to the hot-headed, immovable boss. Frank Sheeran doesn’t inspire similar sympathy, nor is he meant to: DeNiro plays him as a person unable to fully comprehend his actions and emotions. This is DeNiro’s most understated performance since Jackie Brown, and arguably his greatest since The King of Comedy. The much discussed facial de-aging software isn’t always the most convincing, but it never detracts from the movie, leaving the principals to do the heavy lifting. All three actors seem invigorated under Scorsese’s direction, and while regulars like Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, and a game Ray Romano make impressions, this is a three-actor showcase.
By the film’s conclusion, the audience is left to question whether Frank learned or repented from his violent past. After doing everything for everybody, the movie’s bookends reveal Sheeran alone in his old age in an assisted living facility with little to show. In contrast, Scorsese has shown growth and wisdom from his early days of Mean Street’s young punks to his 2016 Silence’s questioning missionaries. Netflix deserves praise for financing a three-and-a-half hour character drama chronicling mafia life during five decades with a budget befitting a summer tent pole franchise, but it’s a film intended to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The Irishman is unquestionably one of the best movies of the year, in a year with filled with other worthy candidates. Scorsese, in 2019, is still more than capable of creating a movie that makes us feel the way he does about his favorite classics. If this is Scorsese’s gangster swan song, then he couldn’t have gone out on a higher note.