Like The Wolf of Wall Street, face-value observations will push The Irishman into a corner filled with reductive accusations of an aged master just playing it safe. Many surface-level characteristics adhere to the Goodfellas model: a mob film that controversially lends a seemingly sympathetic eye to a group of loathsomely lovable thugs who curse, backstab, rise, and fall through a decade-spanning runtime that exceeds three hours. But not all his profundity comes from the ways maulings made hilarious can spark an introspective dialogue about experiencing the “joys” of being bad. While each indulges in similar vices (greed, selfishness) to describe a cynical viewpoint in a fun way, the tone and focus always change the thesis and Scorsese’s newest is more bleak than usual.
The surface-level politics of The Irishman are easy to identify, as the film’s depiction of the story of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) bears contemporary resemblances. Hoffa runs for office as a swearing, golfing, rich kid in an old man’s body. While his feigned sympathetic calls to the working class (“‘The day our trucks stop, America stops’”) bring him far, he is undone by a loudmouth demeanor and a lack of self-awareness. But in the end, it’s Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), Hoffa’s closest confidant, that ends up becoming the more meaningful proxy. The geriatric sociopath makes it away with little more than the clothes on his back and plenty of coveted “self-respect,” but cannot relate to anyone around him. After being told why he ruined his daughter’s life, he asks “‘Is there anything I can do to make up for it?’” When told by a friendly priest that “‘We can be sorry, even if we don’t feel sorry,’” Sheeran reiterates he feels nothing about his crimes. Instead of making a politically charged condemnation, Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian seem to be offering an open dialogue with Trump himself, presenting this once powerful sociopath as a frail blank that eventually will become a bland statistic.
While equally energetic and hilarious as Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street in its early hours, The Irishman distinguishes itself by incorporating ample moments of sobriety, most of which come from the limitations of age. While the story follows the seemingly glamorous long term friendship between elderly gangster Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the vision of mob life rarely feels entirely virile. Scorsese’s usual rockin’ soundtrack, flamboyant point-of-view camerawork, and snarky voiceover bring a lot of life, but never the full appeal. Both Joe Pesci and De Niro, badasses of the past, are visibly frail when they meet despite being in their 40s. What used to be jawing punches accompanied with whiplash-inducing slaps in Goodfellas have turned into minor swats of fists against aged bodies. The shootouts are still violent, but they lack that idealized criminal cool.
Their age is not a mere cosmetic change. Drinking, smoking, and snorting is not in excess, while the luxuries of sex and romance are barely factors. The only thing left to indulge in at this age is respect from one’s peers. Most of the film’s conflict doesn’t come from gang wars and new light shed on criminal empires. Instead, it comes from rude comments made in public and breaches in decorum. In one of the film’s strongest scenes, Pacino grills an equal on the implications of being merely minutes late to a meeting, leading to a bare-knuckle confrontation that eventually destroys everyone. As silly as the vanity may seem, words are presented as being as serious as actions. As childish as it is, we don’t make the rules.
All of this is possible through the famed de-aging technology, which captures every wrinkle and fold of several lifetimes so convincingly, the notion of checking immersion becomes mute. It is what all digital effects can only dream of being: they become a complete reality. Every conveyable snippet of each storied actor’s capacity as a performer is laid out. Beyond the obviously enrapturing freakouts, breakdowns, and impassioned speeches that will play over Oscar reels next year, the brilliance of the three central performances comes from their physicality. The detail of playing different ages comes not from how hunched over one actor can look in their character’s later years, but from how an ever-changing personality can match one’s deteriorating body. The subtly in details as minuscule as the slowing speed of a character’s tendency to intentionally break eye contact inform more than just how old they’ve become.
Pesci’s return to the craft will likely receive the most attention from critics, as he plays reserved with a removed grace that outshines any of his previous dramatic work, showing a range that exceeds screaming like a child trying to prove himself. Pacino’s casting as Hoffa is perhaps the culmination of all that his career has built to. His outlandish screaming and comedic sensibilities may help to provide a scope of emotions, but a dramatic versatility and vulnerability not seen in several decades makes him feel more real than any wacko he has ever played. Both are textbook powerhouses, but De Niro is the behemoth in what may be the highlight of his career. The quick-talking naturalism of his tough-guy legacy is present, but the inability to take charge of a situation comes through in his confident stutter which falls when challenged, and ever-shifting eyes make him feel like a coward that could pass as a leader.
Scorsese previously wrapped up with knowledgeably light punishments of these cretins, but The Irishman extends further, showing the barren opportunities left. Both professional and personal families are lost to senility and unattended relationships, while the most basic motor functions crumble over time. With no empire left, the question turns from “What will I leave behind?” to “Why did I even bother?” as quietly as possible. Even titans like Breaking Bad needed to answer these questions with words over years, but Scorsese only needed a fleet 210 minutes.
[NYFF Review]: The Irishman
A masterpiece from Martin Scorsese, The Irishman offers an introspective look at the life of a gangster
Career Bests of its Central Cast
Revelling Commentary that stands out above easy Anti-Trumpism