Towards the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s new epic The Irishman, soon-to-be hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) recollects his fears of death while fighting in the war. Sheeran remembers watching his enemies dig their own graves, confused by their persistence; maybe, he claims, they thought if they did a good job, the man with the gun would change his mind. But fate doesn’t lie in the hands of just one person — the man with the gun is reporting for duty for the rest of his country, standing guard with a mass of other soldiers. The Irishman, full of men with guns, demonstrates the consuming powers of control and fear. But no matter how well the job is done, argues The Irishman, life is always determined by fate.
Based on investigator Charles Brandt’s memoir I Heard You Paint Houses — “painting houses” is quickly demonstrated in the film by a gunshot and the leftover blood splatter on a white wall — The Irishman chronicles Frank Sheeran’s life in the mafia. Instead of relying on one solid plot, the story follows a great deal of Sheeran’s encounters; The Irishman ends up as a montage, essentially. Certain story lines are filled with conflict, while other moments feel like they belong in a slice-of-life film. It’s a holistic view of Sheeran, as both hit-man and human — which serves as the perfect opportunity for Scorsese and De Niro’s reunion.
This is not the only piece of monumental cast work gifted from The Irishman. Coming out of hiatus, Joe Pesci also stars as the secluded Russell Bufalino. For the first time, Al Pacino and Scorsese have found each other. And thank God they have, because Pacino’s portrayal of the ill-tempered Jimmy Hoffa is legendary. There are several other notable performances: Ray Romano heats up every court scene as Bill Bufalino, Jesse Plemons is Hoffa’s stupidly defensive son, and the carnivorous Bobby Cannavale is rarely without a fresh steak.
While the opening scene baits De Niro and Pesci in their true age, we soon divert to their younger selves with help from de-ageing techniques — which, though they aren’t great, never get in the way of the film. The chronology jumps around a bit, with asides from an all-knowing older Frank, but primarily sticks to telling a story from start to finish. From the point-of-view of The Irishman, the start of Sheeran’s life is the moment he meets mafia head, Pesci’s Russell Bufalino. Almost instantly, Russell takes Frank under his wing. The pair establish trust almost immediately — Russ is the mafia pundit forging a path for Frank, and Frank is a respectful student. Though it would be a crime to expect anything less from the master, Scorsese drives just the right amount of energy into these characters. They act as heightened versions of their roles, but they always feel human.
But their established respect can only last so long: enter union leader Jimmy Hoffa, full of charismatic yelling and manipulations. When Hoffa takes a strong liking to Sheeran, the two become joined at the hip. It’s all sundaes and cream at first — but Hoffa begins to lose his union grip with the election of Kennedy. Hoffa falls, and the film doesn’t hold back in showing his complete lack of grace as he does so. With each new stumble, Frank’s reputation also takes a hit. Like a divorced child attempting to pledge allegiance to both parents, he navigates between Bufalino’s aggravations and Hoffa’s crawl back to control. Pacino’s execution of Hoffa is one of the most breathtaking pieces of The Irishman — he wrecks every room he enters with his yelling, carrying a tidal wave of destructive masculinity with him everywhere he goes. He pounds ice cream sundaes like he pounds anyone who is fifteen minutes late to a meeting.
Perhaps it’s time to address the elephant in the room: this is a three-and-a-half-hour film. It does feel long, but there is no specific scene or part of the film that leads to this feeling. To put it simply — it’s never all that boring or slow, but it is a time commitment. This is a dedicated retrospective on one busy hit-man’s life, and to cut any large portions would be senseless. If anything, there’s almost too much time spent on characterisations. By just the second time he retaliates against authority, we probably understand that Jimmy Hoffa is stubborn. But it’s often these characteristics that make The Irishman such a treasure, even if they are repetitive.
The fleeting landscapes alone make the 209-minute run time worth it — the 117 locations that appear in the film serve as a guided tour of America through the eyes of erratic mafia men. From the sparkling blue beaches of Miami to the deep burgundy tones of steakhouses, the masterpiece is not without fantastic settings. Transportation, in The Irishman, is everything — it is expressive of the great transience of lives and careers. In one of the first scenes, Frank symbolically maps a route for his road trip with Russell. With a microscope in one hand and a red marker in the other, Frank traces a path while narrating about the added time of business breaks (for Russ) and cigarette breaks (for their wives). Frank must establish this balance of work and family from the beginning of the film — it’s a recurring theme, and it takes centre stage in the discussion of transience.
At the heart of The Irishman is a woefully woven tale of missed connections and regret. Sheeran struggles to form any sort of connection with his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) — from bowling to pummelling anyone who upsets her, he tries everything to reach her. It is her cold stares, her deconstructing female gaze that unravels the great Frank Sheeran. Just like the soldier watching the enemy dig a grave for himself, Peggy is a constant onlooker in her father’s life, watching his fate play out in real-time. The Irishman is a Scorsese classic: it is a mobster film, but it is also a meditation on work and fate.
The Irishman will have a limited theatrical release on November 1st and will be available on Netflix on November 27th
by Fletcher Peters
Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Fletcher is now living in New York studying towards a BA in Cinema Studies. She loves crossword puzzles, low-budget off-off Broadway shows, and when she’s at home, annoying her cats. Her favorite films include Rear Window, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s also a fan of everything Star Wars related. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, and Instagram.