There’s an enormity to almost everything about The Irishman: the casting, the killing, the Iditarod run time. But it’s not the blood splatter or the tracking shots or even the much-discussed CG de-aging effects (which are impressive, if not a little unsettling) that stay; it’s seeing these faces we’ve watched for nearly half a century — a sort of craggy-cinematic Mount Rushmore — come together again, most likely for the last time.
One face is actually here for the first time, which seems hard to believe: Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese have never worked together until now. So it makes a certain sense that the director would bring him on, finally, to play a figure as towering as Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary Teamster whose 1975 disappearance became one of the late 20th century’s most enduring mysteries.
It’s Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who’s the ostensible center of both the movie and the 2004 memoir on which it’s based, I Heard You Paint Houses. Sheeran’s father was in fact a house painter, though in his own future line of work it came to mean something else (if there’s blood on the wall, it’s because he put it there; not with a paintbrush but a gun).
A WWII veteran and short-haul truck driver, Sheeran gained favor with Philadelphia Mob bosses Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), eventually becoming one of their most trusted assassins and enforcers. He also, with their blessing, was assigned as a sort of body man and best friend to Hoffa, whose fortunes as the head of organized labor in America were deeply entangled with organized crime.
As Scorsese hopscotches across cities and decades, often in the service of a dizzyingly large number of plot turns, characters, and narrative cul de sacs, it’s hard not to wonder whether the movie — underwritten entirely by Netflix in the anything-goes age of streaming — would have made more sense as a limited series. (The real-life story would certainly support it, and surely there must be reams left over on the cutting-room floor; though it also feels a little like sacrilege to question his famously discerning editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.)
There’s a sense too, that The Irishman is a kind of caps-lock Scorsese — the greatest hits of his career revisited once more, with feeling. The movie’s passing parade of gangsters and goodfellas don’t have the electric specificity of 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street or the still, hymn-like beauty of 2016’s Silence. Babies are born; deals are forged; doubles are crossed. Men go to prison (though they call it “school”), women smoke cigarettes (and don’t speak much), and kids (played in adulthood by, among others, Anna Paquin and Jesse Plemons) serve mostly as bystanders, looking on in vague confusion or with the harder squint of those who’ve seen more than they really want to know.
It all becomes a bit of muddle for a while midway through; one that’s not nearly as compelling as the acting itself, which is largely phenomenal, frequently surprising, and often more than a little heartbreaking. As Bufalino, Pesci — who’s hardly been on screen for over a decade — abandons his hair-trigger intensity for a sort of gentle, contained menace, his eyes slow-blinking behind enormous glasses and his mouth pursed in a thoughtful moue. He doesn’t want to do bad things, but sometimes bad things are necessary for the order of things, you know?
Pacino plays Hoffa as a man with his own indelible code of honor: Bristly, driven, and fiercely intelligent, he has a soft spot for kids and ice cream sundaes and a blind one for the limits of his own power (which went nearly to the top — though in the end, clearly, not high enough). He often feels like the heart of the movie, if Frank is its muscle; for much of his performance, De Niro is stoic to the point of impenetrability, an Easter Island statue in wingtips and a rayon bowling shirt.
It’s only as the film enters its final devastating chapters that the full weight of Frank’s actions begin to register as something more than names on a coroner’s ledger. And that’s where The Irishman finds its deepest, truest place: not as a whiz-bang Mafia caper or a sprawling, starry history lesson, but as a poignant meditation on mortality — both for the real lives unfolding on onscreen, and for the actors who’ve spent their own lives turning these stories into something more than real; they’ve made them ours. B+
(The Irishman premiered last night at the New York Film Festival, and will be in limited theatrical release beginning Nov. 1 before coming to Netflix Nov. 27)