The Irishman, a three-and-a-half-hour crime epic about the rise and ignoble decline of a mob hitman, may be the very first Martin Scorsese movie that feels explicitly like the work of an old man. Scorsese, of course, is an old man (he turns 77 next month), but he still directs with a mad enthusiasm and muscular craftsmanship we tend to associate with the youngest and hungriest of filmmakers. The Irishman is no exception; there are sequences in this supersized opus, like a snappy montage of retaliatory car-bombings, that prove once again that there really is no substitute for Marty’s eternally imitated style. No, it’s not creakiness but an elegiac mood that afflicts the latest (and last?) gangster picture from the master of the form. Reuniting with a murderers’ row of similarly wizened crime-movie veterans, Scorsese hasn’t just returned to reclaim the genre he nearly perfected. He’s come to bury it, too, with what feels an awful lot like a preemptive eulogy for everyone involved, himself included.
Right from the start, The Irishman foregrounds the looming inevitability of death. The film opens with a Scorsese signature: a protracted Steadicam shot, winding down a long hallway and snaking around corners. This time, though, we’re receiving a guided tour not of a hip nightclub but of the much less glamorous layout of a nursing home, the Five Satins’ timeless “In The Still Of The Night” setting a geriatric jukebox tone. Eventually, the camera lands on Scorsese’s first muse and this new film’s star and narrator, Robert De Niro, looking and sounding older than he maybe ever has on screen. He’ll magically become a younger man over the small eternity that follows, though the shadow of decrepitude never quite disappears.
De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, the real-life South Philly truck driver who moonlighted, over the second half of the 20th century, as a hired gun for the mafia. His induction into a life of crime came courtesy of his eventual mentor, the mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, coaxed out of retirement, maybe for the last time, by the director who secured him his Oscar). The two first meet at a gas station in 1949, when both were closer to middle- than old age. In order to allow these septuagenarian legends of the screen to play characters 30 to 40 years their junior, Scorsese employs state-of-the-art de-aging technology—one reason for the hefty $150 million Netflix spent on the movie. It’s not a seamless effect: There’s a waxy Marwen vibe to some early shots of De Niro, who rarely looks—and never moves—like the star did during his New Hollywood heyday. That said, maybe the uncanny valley isn’t such an inappropriate setting for the story of a old man trying and failing to remember what he was like when he was young.
Adapted by Steven Zaillian from the nonfiction novel I Heard You Paint Houses—an alternate title that Scorsese, oddly, cues up at the beginning and end—The Irishman unfolds over maybe half a century, Frank explaining in voice-over the no-questions-asked part he played in the criminal enterprises of Bufalino and fellow mafioso Angelo Bruno (another old Marty collaborator, De Niro’s Mean Streets costar Harvey Keitel). That makes it a cousin, in exhaustive anecdotal detail, to Scorsese’s past true-crime procedurals, Goodfellas and Casino—another backstage tour of illegal business, all hustles and betrayals and violent collisions of fragile masculine ego. As always, the director relies on editor Thelma Schoonmaker to manage the nonstop flow of information, forging a coherent timeline out of a daisy chain of executions. The internal logic of the structure is cause and effect: how one thing leads to another that leads to another until someone’s face down in a puddle of their own blood.
Is there a filmmaker alive who derives or provokes more pleasure from the petty disputes between short-tempered men? “We’re all hotheads,” someone remarks in The Irishman, which features some of Scorsese’s flat-out funniest tête-à-têtes of profane verbal warfare. For once, it’s not Pesci lighting the fuse; for proof that this is a more meditative gangland drama, look no further than the casting of the director’s one-time agent of chaos as something like the voice of reason, turning to violence only as a last resort. No, in The Irishman, antagonism duties fall largely on Al Pacino, as the famous, disappeared union leader Jimmy Hoffa. Zaillian builds the dense middle hour of the movie around this stubborn, charismatic public figure, the narrative plunging headlong into labor politics, the election and assassination of JFK, and the way the mob’s agenda intersected and eventually diverged from Hoffa’s, leading inexorably to only one possible outcome. Pacino, another mob-movie heavyweight making his long overdue debut in Scorsese Land, plays Hoffa as a self-made Shakespearean tragedy: someone who willed himself into power through sheer force of conviction, then was undone by his pride and pigheaded overconfidence.
It’s the perfect part for Pacino, applying those latter-day hambone tendencies to a character, a real man, who was by all accounts a very big personality. De Niro, too, is better than he’s been in ages, in a role that weaponizes the very qualities—like that squinty, sleepy detachment—many have pointed to as proof that he checked out years ago. If The Irishman is at least partially about the mechanics of consequence, Frank is just one of the gears: a frighteningly empty instrument of a man, so passive even in his violence that he threatens to disappear into the fabric of the narrative he narrates. Much of the drama hinges on the bond between him and Hoffa—a friendship that ultimately proved secondary to the demands of a business built on ultimatums and bottom lines. But the film plants an earlier, just-as-significant falling out in the scene of this cold-blooded killer committing an act of ostensibly protective brutality in front of his daughter, eventually portrayed in adulthood by Anna Paquin. She’s the pointedly silent and sidelined conscience of The Irishmen, a nearly mute spectator whose fear hardens into a deep moral revulsion over the years. (Scorsese, sometimes accused of muscling female perspectives out, shows what a world without them looks like.)
The Irishman is the director’s longest drama, but it never drags. The 200-plus minutes pass in a blur of dark humor and characteristically gripping incident, like the sequence where Frank helps push a fleet of cabs into the Chicago River. But it’s in the final act, when Scorsese slows things down to a purposeful crawl, that the film accumulates its full power. After a lifetime of dispassionate bloodshed, of getting his hands dirty without a second thought, Frank finally pulls an assignment he doesn’t want. The Irishman turns the lead-up to the hit into an excruciating slow-motion death march, moving step by step through the process with a stark clarity of detail, forcing Frank—and, by extension, us—to experience the gravity of his actions in what almost feels like real time. It’s one of the great passages of Scorsese’s whole career, as patient and methodical as anything in his last movie, Silence. And it brings out a subtle agony in De Niro one might have assumed the actor was incapable of still summoning.
Death is a promise not a threat in The Irishman. Often, Scorsese will freeze the frame during an introduction of some new player in the criminal empire, flashing a quick obituary in white text, as if to say, “He’ll be gone eventually, so he basically already is.” You could call the film—which ends where it begins, in that drab elder-care facility—a kind of spiritual relative of Unforgiven: Just the sight of its aged stars, who look old even when they’re supposed to look young, sparks memories of a whole genre—a bygone era of crime fiction that Scorsese and De Niro and Pacino built, apart and sometimes together. The key difference is that Clint Eastwood’s last gunslinger grappled with actual remorse. Here, we’re left in the company of a man so emotionally divorced from his actions that he can’t even wrap his head around the idea of regret. So perhaps it’s Scorsese, the conflicted Catholic, who’s atoning. After Goodfellas and Casino and even The Wolf Of Wall Street, he’s finally made a gangster movie that couldn’t possibly be misunderstood as a glorification, given how far it pushes past even the most nominal glimmers of glamour, to the kind of rock bottom you hit only when you’ve outlived and alienated everyone else. In other words, it’s hard to imagine a sad bastard like Frank Sheeran becoming a dorm-room hero, even if The Irishman inspires yet another generation of hotshot upstarts.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the New York Film Festival.