In contrast with director Martin Scorsese’s last two gangster epics, Casino and Goodfellas, The Irishman is director Martin Scorsese’s first effort in the trilogy without the aid of non-fiction crime author Nicholas Pileggi. Pileggi, the scribe of the books and screenplays behind Casino and Goodfellas, was replaced by author Charles Brandt and veteran screenwriter Steve Zaillian. Zaillian’s script is masterful, but the heavily disputed source material raises questions that The Irishman declines to ask.
The Irishman kicks off as Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a wheelchair-bound old man, alone in a nursing home, starts recounting his life to no one in particular. Early in his life, Frank, working as a delivery driver for a butcher’s shop after returning from World War II, sells his steak shipments to the Bufalinos, a Philadelphia-based crime family. When Frank is accused of theft by his employers, truck drivers’ union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) gets Frank off scot-free.
A loyal jack-of-all-trades, Frank begins doing jobs for the family. A newly anointed tough guy, Frank beats those who wrong his family (both his crime and real family) and “paints houses” (supposed mob slang for murder). Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the head of the family, then introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the president of the Teamsters union. Jimmy illegally invests Teamster pension money into mob loans. Frank, meanwhile, serves as Jimmy’s bodyguard and confidant. When Jimmy’s business relationship with the mob turns sour, Frank must smooth the relationship or choose a side.
There is an unmistakable air of finality in The Irishman, likely the last entry in a string of Scorsese films about the Italian-American experience. Half of The Irishman’s slightly bloated three hours and 29-minute runtime is a greatest hits collection, featuring Frank and Jimmy’s meteoric rise, gorgeously-shot mob intimidation tactics, and good-humored, absurdist dialogue, all backed by an extraordinary score. But the film’s latter half is the best argument for The Irishman holding a special place in the director’s five-decade filmography.
Lamenting the ravages of time, the cynicism of discovering a relationship with God while on death’s door, and the regrets of a wasted life, The Irishman is decidedly unlike the glamourous Goodfellas. By its end, The Irishman confronts mortality, and features existential dread encroaching on nihilism as few films have. Only Scorsese could manage these subjects with a sad, gentle grace, and it’s unlikely that even Scorsese could have succeeded without more than 50 years of directorial experience behind him.
The Irishman, which catalogs Frank’s life from his working years through retirement, owes its 55-year timeline not to makeup and prosthetics, but to digital de-aging technology. The cost of the visual effects, bumping the film’s budget to a blockbuster-worthy $159 million, will stagger you more than the waxy renditions of young De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci. The Irishman is a cut above Rogue One’s creepily de-aged Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher, but the technology is still trapped in the uncanny valley. If De Niro’s ghoulish eyes and the trio’s artificial faces aren’t enough to give away the true ages of the three stars, their rigid, robotic physicality is.
Despite the disquieting use of CGI, Scorsese is able to coax Oscar-level performances from Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino. Pesci gives a demure performance, playing quiet control, diverging from his manic, unhinged characters in Goodfellas and Casino. De Niro, a two-time Oscar winner, and perhaps the most routinely exceptional actor, period, humanizes the callous Frank. Working with Pacino for the first time, Scorsese capitalizes on late-career Pacino’s, shall we say, extraness, with a larger-than-life depiction of Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman’s standout performance.
While Casino and Goodfellas were intricately researched by an author concerned with accuracy, the biography about The Irishman’s titular character, Frank Sheeran, has raised doubts from the FBI and investigative journalists alike. Exposing Frank as a liar in the film would only support Scorsese’s central themes, but Sheeran’s story is instead presented as gospel truth. The Irishman provides a case-closed-style explanation of Hoffa’s death when the investigation is as open as the day Hoffa disappeared. Unless viewers resign themselves to research after the credits roll, the answer to “Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?” may become cut-and-dry thanks to mythologizing by Sheeran and Brandt.
Hoffa’s disappearance, along with the way he presided over the Teamsters, led to a turning point in American history: the decline of the middle-class due to the perceived moral threat posed by labor unions. The slow death of organized labor is unremarked upon by The Irishman. Had Scorsese devoted just a few of The Irishman’s 209 minutes to the sweeping economic repercussions of the story, the film could have been a companion piece to Casino and Goodfellas as well as The Wolf of Wall Street.