One of the most persistent criticisms leveled against Martin Scorsese, widely considered one of America’s greatest filmmakers, is that he makes immorality seem like too much fun. In films like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese indulges in the earthly delights enjoyed by his protagonists, and refuses to dole out the justice his critics demand. The Irishman silences those criticisms, the rare Scorsese crime film in which no one is having any fun and everyone gets punished.
Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a minor figure in American history whose life story dovetails with the rise of labor unions and their toxic relationship with the mob. Sheeran starts out as a truck driver and small-time crook, but he impresses his union lawyer (Ray Romano), who introduces him to his cousin, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Soon, Sheeran is working as a mob enforcer, whacking who needs to be whacked with the utmost professionalism. Unlike in Scorsese’s previous works, the violence here is presented as routine, with little fanfare or shock value.
Admired for his loyalty and taciturn nature, Sheeran keeps rising, eventually crossing paths with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who recruits him to be his bodyguard and confidante. As Hoffa struts and frets his hour upon the stage, Sheeran becomes our unreliable narrator of some of the most controversial events of the latter half of the 20th century, but it is the deep friendship between these two mysterious men, and the brilliant actors playing them, that centers the film.
The Irishman is not a history lesson. It’s a three-and-a-half-hour epic spanning an era in which America achieved massive social change—none of which appears on screen. Neither civil rights nor the counterculture get more than a mention. Clothes and haircuts never change. The same ’50s pop songs that open the film are still playing on the soundtrack well into the 1970s. None of this is a mistake. The Irishman is ultimately a cautionary tale about men who refuse to let go—Hoffa of his power and influence, and Sheeran of the walls around his heart—and Scorsese manifests their reluctance to change in every frame.
Scorsese’s thesis is that, for these men, their inability to communicate is their tragic flaw. Sheeran first ingratiates himself with the mob by refusing to name co-conspirators when busted for stealing meat. Throughout the film, the dialogue hinges on the characters’ use of code. “I heard you paint houses,” says Hoffa to Sheeran in their first meeting, referencing his work as an executioner. Another key scene revolves around the secret meaning of the phrase, “It is what it is.” Never do the characters speak their minds directly, and you get the sense that if they did, their problems might be solved. It’s a bold subversion of the first and only rule of organized crime, always keep your mouth shut, and a searing critique of Boomer masculinity.
The Irishman is a masterpiece of ideas, but it also feels inert for long stretches. Maybe it’s the prominent use of de-aging technology, which is intended to take decades off the face of a 76-year-old De Niro, but instead thoroughly removes his humanity. He plays a character in his 30s for the first two hours of the film, and I’m here to tell you, reader, that it is simply not credible. Or it could be the fact that a character who can’t communicate is one without drama, and despite the action and bloodshed, it often feels like nothing important is happening because the events of the film don’t change Sheeran one bit.
Nevertheless, the film builds to a devastating finale in which Sheeran suffers a fate far lonelier than any of the unlucky souls buried in the desert in Casino or even poor Henry Hill from Goodfellas: condemned to a purgatory of ketchup and egg noodles in Arizona. The gangsters in The Irishman live the same life for too long, but Scorsese and his troupe avoid the same end. They are still kicking down doors, looking backward while moving forward, pushing the boundaries of their art, for better and for worse.
The Irishman opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.