Martin Scorsese is one of the giants of the gangster genre. Goodfellas is one of the best films ever made, and the worst thing you can say about Casino is that it’s not as good Goodfellas. But Scorsese has made the genre his own when he explores it, so it’s fitting that his latest film, The Irishman (or I Heard You Paint Houses depending on how you want to read the title cards), returns to the genre as Scorsese looks at not only a post-war America but what The Greatest Generation leaves behind. Yes, you also have Scorsese, now in his mid-70s, knowing he’s in his twilight years, but The Irishman succeeds because its canvas is so much bigger than just an author in repose. Instead, Scorsese looks at the scars left by World War II on a generation of men who subsumed a legacy of violence and called it work. It’s a movie that shows brotherhood is cheap for the stern, stoic types who are so divorced from their own emotions so that the only thing they really understand is cold, hard business. Led by a trio of outstanding performances from legendary actors who are happy to remind you why they’re legends, The Irishman is a thoughtful look at the second half of 20th century America with Scorsese losing none of his spark.
The film opens in a nursing home where an elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) shares his life story of becoming friends with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Frank is a teamster (i.e. a truck driver) who doesn’t mind doing the occasional crime, which puts him on the radar of Bufalino and other mobsters. Eventually, this friendship puts Frank in the orbit of teamster president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who has a pretty good thing going with the mobsters. Mobsters want to build casinos, but banks won’t loan them the money. Hoffa leads the union and can use their dues and pensions to invest in casinos. But as the decades wear on, the relationship between the mob and Hoffa becomes frayed with Sheeran, a friend to both Bufalino and Hoffa, caught in the middle.
Despite its mammoth 3 1/2-hour runtime, The Irishman never feels bloated. Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker know how to keep the film moving along at an even clip, and that’s by making it dryly comic and funny. Rather than relishing in the mobster excesses displayed in Goodfellas and Casino, we enjoy spending time with these matter-of-fact characters and their bizarre worldview. The movie will happily skip along as Sheeran comes into the tells us about some made man before text flashes on screen telling us how this or that person died horribly. The Irishman is still violent, but in a cold, unfeeling manner. There’s no “Layla” montage where we see the vastness of the brutality. Instead, Scorsese makes it working class, like Frank, and he doesn’t need to show us every brutal hit because, to quote a frequent refrain, “It is what it is.”
What Scorsese sees here is the tragedy of the unexamined life even as we get Sheeran’s life story from his time serving in Italy in World War II all the way to the end of his days in a nursing home. Sheeran, Bufalino, and Hoffa are all “Greatest Generation”, men revered for their work ethic and taciturn nature, but Scorsese unpacks what that’s supposed to mean. If we revere men like Sheeran for fighting in World War II, then we also have to grapple with the violence they brought back with him. If we revere these men for what they’ve built, we also have to acknowledge what they stole, and the systems in place that protected them from consequences. If we revere these men for their stoicism, then we must also reckon with the emotional distance that renders relationships easily disposable.
Sheeran, Bufalino, and Hoffa are not “good guys.” This is a movie where you’re not rooting for people even though Sheeran attempts to paint himself in the most positive light possible (it should be noted that the real Sheeran was likely full of it [https://slate.com/culture/2019/08/the-irishman-scorsese-netflix-movie-true-story-lies.html], but that doesn’t really matter for the purposes of The Irishman). Instead, it’s the conflict that’s compelling as Frank’s loyalties are divided between Bufalino and Hoffa, and we see how the actions of these three men reflects an America they built for better or worse (usually for worse). It’s a film where the stories of women and minorities are consciously avoided because these comfortable white guys were really only in it for themselves.
That leads back to the film’s theme of legacy and what you build when your highest priority isn’t family or friends or people but your own self-enrichment. The kicker here is that Sheeran isn’t even really in it for the money or the glory. He’s not Henry Hill dreaming of being a gangster as much as he just wants to be a good soldier, and the mob needs soldiers. He has no agenda or high aspirations beyond just making above-average pay and having room to let his violent tendencies play out. “Isn’t this the kind of American we celebrate?” Scorsese asks. Frank Sheeran quietly does his job, makes money for his family, and does as he’s told. Doesn’t that make for a good American?
When the story is this rich and well-told, the minor flaws start to slip away. Yes, the digital de-aging is a bit distracting at first, but honestly you stop thinking about it after about ten minutes or so (it’s almost more distracting to see the brown-eyed De Niro wearing blue contact lenses). Yes, the movie can feel a bit long at times, but never so much that you’re checking your watch in frustration. This is a crime epic that, like Scorsese’s other crime epics, is about America, and he creates a picture that’s worthy of its scope.
While De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino have all turned in questionable performances, especially in the later portions of their career, everyone has brought their A-game. De Niro has the terse stoicism reminiscent of his work in Casino; Pesci brings a surprising and grandfatherly gentleness to Bufalino that juxtaposes nicely with the violence he oversees; and the bombastic aggressiveness of Pacino’s later work fits quite nicely with the egomaniacal Hoffa. These actors work well together not just because we’ve seen them together before in movies like Goodfellas and Heat, but because they’re right for these specific roles, especially under Scorsese’s direction.
It’s not right to say The Irishman is Scorsese at his best because that would imply that he hasn’t been hitting out of the park consistently forever. We can quibble over the relative greatness of his movies, but I find The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence just as potent as his new film. Scorsese’s gift, one that eludes many of his contemporaries, is that he’s able to keep his movies feeling personal and electric while casting a broader look towards deeper themes. The Irishman isn’t just another gangster movie from Scorsese. It’s wholly distinct from Goodfellas and Casino and also feels like a film that Scorsese could have only made at this point in his life. The Irishman may be a quieter movie than those two gangster movies, but it also shows that Scorsese isn’t going quietly.