“You don’t know how fast time goes by ‘till you get there,” Frank tells the nurse, late in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which, make no mistake, is the work of a filmmaker in his twilight years. Like John Huston’s The Dead or Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband, it’s a story of people looking back on their lives and, often regretfully, at the decisions they’ve made; like those films, it is the work of a director who is himself at an age which allows the kind of analysis that might elude a younger man. As with many of his earlier works, it’s a film fascinated by the mechanics of organized crime, and the human interests of that work. But there’s a pervading sense that, with this picture, Scorsese wants nothing less than to put the gangster movie into its grave – at some points, quite literally.
“What we wanted to deal with was the nature of who we are as human beings,” he explained at a press conference following today’s press screening for the film, which opens the New York Film Festival tonight. “The love, the betrayal, guilt or no guilt, forgiveness or no forgiveness – all of this.”
He tells the story using two separate, and sometimes incongruent, framing devices. Some of the story is told by the title character, a mob enforcer named Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), from his nursing home, told in both voice-over and direct-to-camera address. But Steven Zaillian’s screenplay also keeps returning to a three-day road trip to a wedding in Detroit, in a car shared by Sheeran, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives. (Honestly, I’d watch a whole movie of these two old farts and their wives driving across the country, collecting money and arguing about smoking in the car. Or a spin-off series. Your move, Netflix.) Early on, they pass the gas station where they first met all those years ago, and we flash back to his entrance into the organization, and off we go.
The Irishman, as you’ve surely heard by now, runs right around three-and-a-half hours, and Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoomaker set the tempo early; it’s a leisurely movie but an energetic one, powered by its bursts of violence and flashes of humor. Scorsese loves his funny little sidebars, about late meeting etiquette and why you should use the bathroom before a hit, which of course would be the first thing to go in the “short version” people who hate cinema always seem to clamor for. Here, as ever, they add texture and humanity.
The director fills his cast with several old favorites (De Niro, Pesci, Harvey Keitel), new members of the Scorsese company (Vinyl’s Bobby Canavale and Ray Romano, Boardwalk Empire’s Stephen Graham), and one legend he’s somehow never worked with (Al Pacino). Everyone gets a chance to shine – thought there’s less Keitel than you might hope – but the MVP is Pesci, making only his third film appearance of the 21st century. He’s acquired a striking maturity and gravitas in his time off-screen; the man who used to be cinema’s most reliable motormouth here has entire scenes where he says nothing, and you cannot take your eyes off of him. He speaks in codes and pleasantries with a gentle smile; he delivers bad news with a rueful shrug. What are you gonna do? Most of all, he never raises his voice. He’s a man (and an actor) who doesn’t have to.
De Niro is quite good in the leading role, though his physicality is sometimes at odds with the younger ages he’s playing. But his comic timing is exquisite (particularly in grumpy-old-man mode), and he expertly digs out the pain and sorrow of the character in its later, darker scenes. Pacino, as Jimmy Hoffa, doesn’t show up till a good 45 minutes into the picture (it’s a good entrance), and he is, in most of his scenes, swinging for the fences in that way that drives some critics of his contemporary work batty. But his flamboyance works for the character, and he’s well aware that he’s more funny than scary (watch the way he eats AT his rival in a key scene). More importantly, those aren’t the only notes he’s playing; much of his work consists of quiet duets with De Niro, and there’s real pleasure in watching these two old pros just batting their scenes around, developing a specific dynamic (Jimmy the hothead, Frank the calming influence). It’s so acutely evolved and cleanly conveyed, their final scenes together land like a gut-punch.
Much has been made of Scorsese’s decision to use computer-aided “de-aging” technology to allow his actors to play much younger versions of themselves, a move that shouldn’t come as a surprise; from Woodstock’s split-screens through Hugo’s 3D, this is a filmmaker who’s always enjoyed playing with toys. The effects are, to be honest, initially jarring, especially as we begin with scenes of these actors playing (roughly) their current ages. But once the trickery is established, this viewer wasn’t much bothered by it; it’s just another artifice you get used to. (The decision to make De Niro’s eyes blue is frankly more bothersome.)
And there are other, smaller issues. Zaillian’s screenplay gets a bit into the weeds with the Teamster politics, and at a point in the film at which viewer attention is bound to waver. Scorsese never really finds an angle from which to see the women in this story, which is especially unfortunate because he’s proven it possible before (see: Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas and Sharon Stone in Casino); as Frank’s daughter, Anna Paquin is egregiously underused, though a scene of her and De Niro exchanging charged looks during a news report about one of his hits is quite effective. And the film never really deals with the credible questions that have been asked about the accuracy of Sheeran’s claims, collected in the source book I Heard You Paint Houses. The filmmakers ultimately treat it mostly as historical fiction, without making any real claims of authenticity either way, which is probably wise.
Is it too long? Yes and no. Yes, in that 209 minutes is a good long sit in even the most comfortable of theaters, and there are stretches were you can feel the time Scorsese is taking. But no, in that its expansive running time allows him to create a full, rich world and story – and besides, most of its viewers are going to watch it on their couch (perhaps in pieces) anyway, as the film was bankrolled by Netflix, and the streaming giant was unable to reach an agreement with the major theatre chains to run the picture in the short window before its Thanksgiving weekend debut on the service.
Would that that weren’t the case – but it is. “We couldn’t get the backing, for years. We just couldn’t get the backing,” Scorsese shrugged at the NYFF press conference. “And ultimately it was Ted Sarandos… Ted and everyone at Netflix said they’ll go with it, they actually backed the film and financed it, and were creatively attuned to us.” That America’s poet laureate of gangster movies couldn’t get any of his regular studios to bankroll a gangster movie, with this cast, is incredibly depressing; ponder, but not for too long, how easily he would’ve been handed a check if he were the one directing, say, Joker, just to pick a random example.
Or maybe none of the majors were willing to put up that kind of coin for a gangster movie this dark. One of Scorsese and Schoomaker’s neatest tricks is the deployment of onscreen text that’s consistently undercutting the action – most effectively, a little title card sharing the eventual (usually grisly) fate of minor characters. They drop these tidbits when those characters are introduced, which is certainly an effective way of puncturing the mythologizing so common (or so we’re told) in crime cinema. But it’s also a frequent re-upping of a key theme: Death hangs over everyone, and everything. These characters are old guys who don’t really know any other way to live, so they lived like this, until they didn’t.
So there’s something brave and unexpected about what Scorsese has done here – giving us the gangster epic seemingly demanded by the mass audience that rejected a difficult picture like Silence, and indulging in all of the flourishes of those films before embarking on a sorrowful examination of guilt and sin. It’s easy, from the personnel involved and general subject matter, to lump The Irishman in with Goodfellas and Casino. But there’s one key difference: Goodfellas and Casino are about outsiders who did whatever had to do to get inside, and later sold their souls, willingly, to keep a piece of what they considered theirs. The Irishman is the story of an outsider who can’t let his soul go quite so easily.
“The Irishman” screens this weekend at the New York Film Festival. It is out November 1 in limited release, and streams November 27 on Netflix.