From Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, the biggest, most provocative names in cinema have surprised audiences by eschewing flashier conventions for the contemplation of mortality.
Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, The Irishman, lands squarely in that same territory. On paper, The Irishman is a recounting of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran’s time as a hitman for the Bufalino crime family. But by stretching a story spanning decades over three and a half hours, and utilizing de-aging technology to keep Robert de Niro at the heart of every passing year, it’s less a gangland tale than a legacy filmmaker reflecting on growing old.
There’s no glamorous sheen to The Irishman’s depiction of a life of crime. Gangsters are introduced with text bearing their names and the gruesome ways in which they died. Their actions — violent or otherwise — take 50 people to approve. The most striking scenes are, instead, domestic: the director tails Sheeran (De Niro) and his eventual employer and close friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) from room to room, catching everything from blustery posturing to hushed conversations as the men sit on nearly adjacent beds in their pajama sets or cajole each other in the backseat of a car.
Based on the memoir I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, a former investigator, De Niro’s Sheeran narrates the saga from a retirement home as Scorsese drifts back in time to his touched up leading man. Through flashbacks, Sheeran fills in the gap between then and now, explaining his rise from truck driver to hitman and how it brought him into Hoffa’s life, his dealings with Nixon, his beef with the Kennedys, and his eventual disappearance.
Though the de-aging effects don’t quite hold up in stills floating around the internet, they’re barely noticeable in the film itself, the smoothed-out wrinkles unable to dampen De Niro’s jowls or broadened shoulders. That’s not to say that they should; Sheeran’s recollections aren’t to be romanticized, and the weight of his age feels somehow appropriate, even when we’re supposed to see him as a younger man.
The lack of a truly youthful portrayal has the added effect of making it all the more affecting when, in the final scenes of the film, De Niro (as well as Joe Pesci as mafioso Russell Bufalino) is aged up, becoming frailer and frailer before our very eyes. Naturally, death hangs over the entire movie as Sheeran dispatches man after man, and each death is horrible — particularly one that plays like a nightmarish version of Goodfellas’ most famous death scene — but that doesn’t make the slow reveal of death as the great equalizer any less poetic.
Mythic as these figures might seem, their slow dissolution keeps them human (and, despite all that they’ve done, pitiable). Their problems, their hang-ups, and their fancies (Hoffa can’t stop eating ice cream, even when he lands in prison) all add up to something more poignant than just a typical crime drama, aided by a trio of incredible performances from De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci.
All three men have become infinitely impression-able staples of pop culture, and The Irishman serves as a reminder of what made them such icons to begin with. Forget exaggerated scowls or exclamations of hoo-ah — it’s impossible not to feel something from De Niro’s stoicism eventually giving way to a bottomless sense of regret, Pacino’s heartbreaking stubbornness, or a rare glimpse of sweetness from the seemingly above-it-all, untouchable Pesci. All three are delivering some of their best work.
The Irishman certainly has some immediate wallops to pack, but it’s a film that only gets further under your skin after you leave the theater (or close your Netflix browser, as the case may be). The scope is huge, using Sheeran and Hoffa as foils for facing mortality head-on, not just on an abstract level but on a personal one, as Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci are all so strongly linked to the crime drama genre. The film is nothing if not in conversation with stereotypes about the genre and the ensemble’s past work, especially Goodfellas and the idea that its supposed heroes might be anything but volatile fools.
There’s not that much blockbuster action to speak of, at least in the sense that you’d expect from a cast of gangsters (though the filmmaker comes through with an “In The Still of the Night” needle drop). Scorsese is so adept at storytelling, and his cast is so unbelievable, that the film, which clocks in at 209 minutes — even longer than The Return of the King and Avengers: Endgame — barely feels its length. The Irishman feels more like being caught in a dream or reminiscence, with all the tenderness we’re willing to afford in those in-between hours. Only Scorsese and his assembled cast, not to mention longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, could bring that all into reality.
The Irishman is set to hit theaters Nov. 1 before streaming on Netflix Nov. 27.