At a Q&A following a revival of Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) earlier this year in New York City, screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi explained that he saw Scorsese’s upcoming film The Irishman as the last in a quartet of gangster films starring Robert De Niro that tower as the thematic core and crowning achievement of his illustrious career. Though set in different time periods and cities, they all drew heavily from his own upbringing in Manhattan’s Little Italy where he rubbed shoulders with the gangsters and mobsters that would populate his future films. As Pileggi explained it, the first was Scorsese’s breakthrough Mean Street (1973) which saw archetypal gangsters as Street Hoodlums. The second was Goodfellas (1990) which saw gangsters as Made Men—older now, more mature, struggling under the burden of responsibility, but still doomed by the siren call of fast living and power. The third was Casino (1995) where the gangsters were now Bosses—having put away childish things, they make and lose fortunes, empires, and lives with a throw of the dice. But now with The Irishman, Pileggi explained, we see the natural conclusion of this arc: gangsters as Lovers. The film might masquerade as a tough guy crime flick, but at its heart it’s one of the most devastating break-up movies in recent memory, a portrait of two men who don’t realize they desperately love and need each other until one is forced to destroy the other.
Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, the film recounts the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheehan (Robert De Niro) who in a few short years went from being a truck driver to a mob hitman to the right-hand man of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Armed by Netflix with a budget equaling the GDP of several small countries, Scorsese has crafted his longest, most ambitious, and most sprawling film to date. Freed from the traditional restraints of cinema made to be watched in movie theaters—i.e. a runtime conducive to the stress levels of the human bladder—the film is also Scorsese’s most shamelessly indulgent. While many filmmakers released from the demands of box office success feed their baser appetites for the lurid and transgressive, The Irishman might be the most restrained and muted film he’s ever made. At times he seems to mimic the calculated lethargy of the Italian masters he idolized as a youth—50s Rossellini and Fellini, 60s Antonioni, 70s Bertolucci. The film’s three-and-a-half hour runtime has little of the rising-and-falling actions that define traditional three-act stories. Instead it’s one long, continuous stream of memory, guilt, and regret; an unbroken 209-minute sigh.
The film is viciously calculated to remove any of the glamour or mystique of organized crime. There are no long tracking shots through the Copacabana, no riotous cocaine-fueled Wall Street orgies, no Chicago bosses discussing the Las Vegas skim over plates piled high with pasta in dimly lit back rooms. The machinations of the mob here are antiseptic and passionless, orchestrated by stone-faced bosses and executed by blue collar stiffs. Among these is Sheehan, a reticent World War Two veteran and Teamster who drives a meatpacking truck. After unexpectedly befriending Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the boss of the Northeastern Pennsylvania branch of the Italian-American mafia, while fixing his broken-down truck at a gas station, he establishes himself as the go-to guy for people in the know who need things “fixed.” He starts small: a stolen delivery of beef here, a bombed factory there. But he quickly gains a reputation for “painting houses,” a seemingly innocuous euphemism for spraying peoples’ brains and blood all over their walls with a handgun.
At first Bufalino—patient, understanding, shoulder-clapping Bufalino—seems the father figure Sheehan so desperately needs, providing him with the paternal affection he’s incapable of sharing with his own wife and daughters. One of the most affectionate scenes in the movie sees Sheehan and Bufalino sharing a simple meal of good Italian bread torn with their fingertips and dipped in red wine, the two talking in hushed Italian about the things they’d seen in the war. But their relationship quickly gets pushed aside when Sheehan meets his true love—the larger than life Hoffa. In Hoffa Sheehan finds his polar opposite and perfect compliment, a man of singular purpose and towering personality, as loud as Sheehan is quiet, as proactive as Sheehan is reactive.
In scarcely any time Sheehan is the mafia’s liaison with Hoffa and his close personal friend. So close is their friendship that Hoffa becomes a second father to Sheehan’s children and Sheehan his de facto bodyguard, sleeping next door to him at home and in the same room while on the road. In one of the film’s funniest and most telling scenes, Sheehan storms out of Hoffa’s office like a spurned lover after getting unintentionally caught in the crossfire of a vicious tirade towards his incompetent staff. An incensed Sheehan growls through his teeth that nobody can disrespect him like that, putting on his overcoat while announcing his resignation. But Hoffa is on him in a second, pulling off his coat and rearranging his jacket while cooing that he had no idea he was in the room and of course he didn’t mean him, baby, you know he’d never say something like that to him.
The first two hours of the film casually set up this grand affair between Sheehan and Hoffa, between the mob and the Teamsters, only to tear it down when Hoffa’s arrogance and ambition put him at odds with Bufalino and the other bosses, setting up a dilemma worthy of the finest Greek tragedy. If the first two hours were casually paced, the third devolves into near slow-motion as the arrangements for the hit are meticulously laid out and handled like Stations of the Cross. To some this third hour might feel interminable, but others might find it an elongation of cinematic time worthy of Tarkovsky.
I must confess that the film didn’t click for me until the last thirty minutes when the film settles into a suffocating exploration of grief and loneliness after everyone Sheehan has ever known or loved has either abandoned him or died. It’s a portrait of a dying man staring at the gaping chasm of his life and wondering where it all went wrong—one can’t help but think of King Lear or Willie Stark surveying their crumbling kingdoms. But whereas those men were at least active participants in their fates, Sheehan abandoned himself to a life of passivity; without Bufalino to guide him or Hoffa to latch onto, he was left alone to cruelly remain as the final survivor of their not-so-gilded age. He can’t even make sense of his own guilt towards his many crimes—while talking with his priest, he admits that he doesn’t feel sorry for his victims and can’t even muster up sympathy for their families, not out of sociopathic viciousness but because it’s all, as he puts it, “water under the bridge.” There’s literally nobody left alive to apologize to.
The Irishman is overlong and near-terminally indulgent, and for many its pacing might be the final nail in its coffin. But even those bored by the story can still find merit in the sheer magnitude of Scorsese’s film-craft. There’s been much discussion about the controversial CGI technology that de-aged the central cast, but for my money the results were near flawless; the first time a de-aged Pesci came onscreen several people in my audience gasped. Many have also pointed out that while computers can alter the age of an actor’s face they can’t do the same for their body language, singling out De Niro’s fatigued gait even when Sheehan is at his youngest. But a part of me wonders if that wasn’t an acting choice on De Niro’s part underscoring Sheehan’s emotional and psychological withdrawnness.
For many The Irishman will probably stand as Scorsese’s cinematic last will and testament, his reflexive coda on a long career mired in bloodshed and carnage. The man’s in his upper seventies and not getting any younger, and despite already having further projects supposedly lined up—in the aforementioned Q&A Pileggi mentioned that they’d begun collaboration on a five or six hour film/miniseries charting Scorsese’s youth in Little Italy under the working title Elizabeth Street—it’s unlikely he has many more films left in him, particularly at the rate he’s been releasing them in recent years. It might not, God willing, be his last film, but it will probably be viewed as the one that makes the most thematic sense as his Final Statement. After all, John Ford’s last film might’ve been the unusual missionary drama 7 Women (1966), but for many his career properly ended with the revisionist Cheyenne Autumn two years earlier which directly confronted and repudiated the myth of the Old West he’d spent almost half a century creating. If The Irishman is destined to be Scorsese’s “last film” it’s certainly a good one, a harrowing plea for forgiveness and compassion in the face of loneliness and the void that awaits us all at the end. But a great one? Perhaps not.