Article by: Josh Bradley
Now in its sixth decade, Martin Scorsese’s unparalleled career as a director spans 25 narrative features and 16 feature documentaries. Of those 41 movies, at most six could be classified as “crime dramas”, and yet for better or for worse, many people with only a passing knowledge of Scorsese’s movies likely associate him with crime movies and gangster fare. It’s not so much that Scorsese only makes gangster movies — or even mostly makes gangster movies — but more that the few he has made have more or less defined the genre (I’d wager Scorsese movies would comprise at least 60% of any list of the best gangster movies ever). Thus, it’s only appropriate that Scorsese’s opus about looking back on your life and taking stock of everything you’ve done would take the shape of an expansive gangster crime epic.
The 77-year-old director’s latest begins in a nursing home with octogenarian Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) directly addressing the camera. In this confessional style, he recalls a fateful road trip he took a quarter-century earlier from Philadelphia to Detroit to attend a wedding with aged mob boss and longtime friend, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, sublime), and their wives. Early in this road trip flashback, the movie flashes back a second time to Frank’s time as a truck driver for a meat packing company in his 30s, when he first meets Russell and becomes a lackey for the Bufalino crime family. The story moves forward from there, chronicling Frank’s rise from Bufalino lackey to Bufalino hitman, while it occasionally returns to Old Frank on the road trip and Really Old Frank addressing the camera in the nursing home. Eventually, the main storyline catches up to the fateful road trip, and it becomes clear why Frank’s life story confessional begins with and periodically returns to this road trip, as it winds up being the most consequential trip of his life.
Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in The Irishman. Netflix.
Back in the main storyline, after Frank proves himself capable of painting houses — a euphemism for performing hits and splattering blood onto walls, from which the movie’s source material gets its title — Russell introduces Frank to union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and Frank transitions from being a crony for the in-the-shadows crime boss to being a crony for the high-profile union leader. By way of introduction for Hoffa, Really Old Frank’s narration observes, “Nowadays, young people don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was. Maybe they know he disappeared, that’s about it. But back then, there wasn’t an American alive who didn’t know who he was.” An astute and helpful observation, as this young person only knew Jimmy Hoffa disappeared and that’s about it. Turns out, as Frank’s narration continues, “In the 50s, he was as famous as Elvis. In the 60s, he was as famous as the Beatles,” and he captured the respect and admiration of millions of Americans, including and especially Frank’s daughter, Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult).
In these early years, Young Peggy’s admiration for Jimmy Hoffa is in direct contrast with her disdain for Russell — despite Russell’s best efforts to buy her affection — and her indifference towards Frank. She sees her father’s violent ways firsthand (Frank brutally assaults a grocer in front of her), and she deduces the nature of his work for Russell (she witnesses him sneak out in the middle of the night and reads in the paper the next morning that a man on the sidewalk was shot twice in the head). In the later years, Older Peggy’s indifference towards her father turns to disdain, as she suspects that he was involved in Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance. Much has been written about Anna Paquin’s lack of lines, but her silence is the entire point. She’s silently judging Frank and is the audience stand-in by doing so.
Anna Paquin in The Irishman. Netflix.
The whole point of Really Old Frank in the nursing home telling his story directly to camera is that he’s explaining himself, attempting to justify the choices he made that ultimately made his daughter hate him. This framing device makes the movie a confessional; it’s not a spoiler to say that it ends with Frank talking to a priest, and given the final shot of the movie, it stands to reason that the camera/audience POV that Frank addresses throughout his confessional is also intended to be a priest, or perhaps God himself. This comes out in the language of his narration, in the way that he’s embarrassed by parts of his own story, e.g. when he leaves his first wife for his second wife (“There’s never a good time to leave your wife, but… that’s when I left mine”).
Frank eventually comes to a crossroads where he must decide between Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa. Maybe it isn’t even much of a choice. One of the more subtle through lines of The Irishman is its meditation on power. Young Peggy rebukes Russell and is taken by Jimmy because the former is clearly a criminal and the latter is (or appears to be) legitimate. Jimmy doesn’t get his hands dirty, so Peggy admires him because she assumes he isn’t dirty, but his hands aren’t dirty only because he makes Frank do his bidding. Frank is powerful in the sense that he can perform hits and beat up grocers for perceived offenses, but the real power is not with Frank but with those holding the reigns. Jimmy Hoffa has the power to control not only Frank but also billions of dollars of union money (one of several fascinating historical subplots involves how investments of union money — directed by Hoffa — built Las Vegas to what it is today). In doing so, Hoffa commands the respect of Frank’s daughter that eludes Frank his whole life.
Al Pacino in The Irishman. Netflix.
There is plenty of clear overlap with Goodfellas, Scorsese’s most acclaimed foray into the gangster genre. Both are about one man’s decades-long involvement in organized crime, and like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Frank Sheeran is a passive character. In an early scene, Frank tells Russell about his time in Italy in World War II, how his commanding officers wouldn’t explicitly tell him what to do with prisoners, but would simply say “take him to the woods, don’t take too long.” Russell Bufalino works the same way; he tells you to do something and you go take care of it how you take care of it (Russell: “I don’t need two roads coming back to me”). After Frank’s time as a soldier in Italy, he’s a soldier for Russell Bufalino, then he’s a soldier for Jimmy Hoffa, but he never has any power of his own or any real control over the events around him. He’s a cog in a machine, powerless to prevent the death of his friend.
Another clear overlap with Goodfellas is the presence of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, the former giving his best performance in at least a decade, understated but still conflicted and — by the end — pained. As impossible as it may seem, this marks the first collaboration between Al Pacino and Scorsese, and while the once-(and occasionally still-)great Pacino has been in ostentatious Shouty Mode for nearly thirty years (blame Scent of a Woman), Shouty Mode works well when he’s playing an ostentatious, overconfident union boss. But the real revelation of the film is Pesci, emerging out of semi-retirement to deliver a (probably) final devastating performance for the director who made his career in the 80s and 90s. Do not expect to find the fiery, short-fused firecracker character Pesci played in Goodfellas and Casino, or even My Cousin Vinny and Home Alone. Here, Pesci never once raises his voice and still manages to be more menacing and terrifying than Tommy DeVito. In one key scene, Frank Sheeran finds himself explaining questionable actions to mob boss Angelo Bufalino (a brief appearance from Harvey Keitel), and Pesci’s Russell Bufalino doesn’t even have to say a word in the entire scene, and yet he’s as captivating and tension-inducing with silent looks as the famous “Why am I funny?” scene from Goodfellas.
Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci in The Irishman. Netflix.
For the most part, the much-discussed digital de-aging of the actors — which ballooned the film’s budget north of $150 million — works perfectly fine. The very first cut from 55-year-old Frank’s face to 35-year-old Frank’s face is only slightly jarring, and you quickly get used to the effect and forget that it’s even there. On the Director Guild of America’s Director’s Cut podcast, Scorsese said that the digital de-aging is simply the next evolution of makeup; sure, you have to factor how it affects lighting and camera angles, but you do the same for film makeup. Admittedly, the de-aging is (for now) limited to faces, and only so much can be done to make a 75-year-old body move like a 35-year-old; the scene where Frank beats up the grocer makes this clear. On that same DGA podcast, Scorsese shares a funny anecdote about his first day (ever) filming with Al Pacino, which required the 79-year-old actor to stand up out his chair. After the first take, the assistant director had to pull Scorsese aside and whisper, “He’s supposed to be 49 in this scene” (the director’s response: “You tell him”).
So… why age down older actors? Why not cast younger actors for the younger scenes and age them up with traditional makeup for the older scenes, which is what would’ve been done in the hundred years of movie history preceding the digital capability to do the reverse? The answer is simple: that would change the movie down to its bones. The Irishman is a movie about an old man looking at his life: Frank Sheeran, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, take your pick about which old man is doing the looking back. A young man playing Frank Sheeran would lose this pathos.
Robert De Niro in The Irishman. Netflix.
More important than the overlap with Goodfellas are the differences. Where Goodfellas is a frenetic, hyper-stylized roller coaster (Scorsese said in contemporaneous interviews that he wanted the movie to feel like an amusement park ride), The Irishman is a patient slow burn, with a 200-minute runtime to prove it. The framing device of the road trip from Philadelphia to Detroit is a decent metaphor for the movie’s leisurely sprawl: Frank and Russell could fly, but they opt to drive, take their time, take care of some business along the way, and reminisce about when they were younger men. And they are certainly no longer young men. While Goodfellas follows Henry Hill from adolescence into middle age, The Irishman follows its characters from middle age to the grave. When secondary and tertiary characters are introduced, there’s a brief freeze frame and text displaying their name along with their date and manner of death, underlining that this is — above all — a movie about endings.
As mentioned, Scorsese is now 77. Robert De Niro, acting in his tenth collaboration with Scorsese, is 76. Joe Pesci (another longtime Scorsese collaborator) is 76, and Al Pacino is 79. Perhaps these Greatest Actors of Their Generation will continue to make movies for another ten years — Clint Eastwood is still making movies at 89, after all — but it’s hard to not consider this epic something of a swan song, particularly given the nature of the story, chronicling the lives of these men from their 30s to their 80s.
It all has the air of “We’ve been at this all our lives, and we’ve had a good run, but now it’s over”. Earlier this year, director Todd Phillips used the term “trojan horsing” to describe his attempt to hide a psychological character drama inside a superhero movie, the result being the acclaimed Joker. An argument could be made that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zaillian use a gangster movie trojan horse as a means to deliver a movie about getting old, outliving everyone you ever knew, and having nothing but time on your hands to look back on your life as you sit and wait for death. Far too many cultural critics over the years have made the mistake of equating the actions and morals of Scorsese’s characters with Scorsese himself, but it’s difficult to not notice that the main character of The Irishman is taking stock of his life’s work in a movie that plays like a Greatest Hits album for the director that made it, from the genre, to the soundtrack, to the locations, to the players involved. Regardless of whether or not The Irishman will live on as Scorsese’s best work (too soon to tell), it certainly feels like both a piece of a whole and the culmination of one of the greatest careers in filmmaking history.