Spoiler-Free Review: Martin Scorsese's The Irishman Is Great
The Irishman is the third mafia movie collaboration between Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci, after Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). But other than those surface connections (and Pesci's undeniable sexual magnetism), this new movie does not form some kind of thematic trilogy. Don't interpret that to mean it isn't good. It's fantastic. Just maybe not what you're expecting.
Those '90s films maintain a furious pace, with a whirlwind of violence, sex, drugs, and rock n' roll displayed in kinetic filmmaking. As he showed with The Wolf Of Wall Street, Scorsese is still absolutely capable of making that type of movie. But the meditative, deeply introspective Silence couldn't have had a more different tone. The Irishman, much to my amazement, ends up more like Silence than Goodfellas or Casino.
However, it takes a long time to get to that ending. The Irishman is three and a half hours, which is almost as long as it takes to read the title of the biography it's based on: I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank, "The Irishman" Sheeran & Closing The Case On Jimmy Hoffa. But not a moment of it is boring. Its zoomage (the movie zooms) is different from the furious montages we associate with the usual Scorsese crime movie. Not only are there no Rolling Stones songs on the soundtrack, but there's barely any rock at all! What the movie does best is offer Robert De Niro another opportunity to prove he is still one of the greatest actors since the invention of talking pictures.
Frank Sheeran (De Niro) is a monster. He's a coldblooded mob enforcer who'll follow orders and whack a guy, and he doesn't even seem to be getting anything out it. If he were a sadistic lunatic in clown paint, or numbing his conscience with booze and sex, it might be a little easier to take. But no. While fighting in World War II, he discovered that he had the stomach to kill, to keep his head down, to not ask questions and survive. That skill set carries over once he gets mixed up with the mafia. He's good at his job and has a tidy upper-middle-class life. Sheeran is simply the cold banality of real-life evil, even though the story surrounding him is anything but.
Through The Irishman, Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zallian tell the grand arc of organized crime in the 20th century. The rise of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Kennedy election and assassination, and the Bay of Pigs Invasion are all chapters in its grand sweep. Mob lore, like the killing of "Crazy Joey" Gallo (see the Dylan song), are made the memories of a man who is somehow likable, thanks to modesty, a good work ethic, and a desire to not make waves. Except he never takes a step back to wonder why he is doing any of this.
Sheeran's rise in the Philadelphia mob under the backing of Russell Bufalino (Pesci) eventually lands him a gig as Jimmy Hoffa's right arm. Hoffa is the most famous working man in America, offering pensions and health benefits for truck drivers. (That's good!) But he's also a venomous, vengeful egomaniac who will destroy anyone who gets in his way. (That's bad!) His disappearance in 1975 is a minor historical punchline now, but remember that well into the 1980s, bumpers in union-connected areas bore "Where's Jimmy Hoffa?" stickers.
Pesci's crime lord is pure calculating evil, but he plays him as a kind, oddly caring man. He takes a shine to one of Sheeran's kids (who will eventually grow up to be Anna Paquin), and we're conditioned to think this is going to lead to some gross and twisted thing. But no, he just likes the little tyke. She doesn't return the affection. This is part of what's so devastating about The Irishman; no one is all bad. Sheeran will eventually come to rely on this.
Then there's Pacino's Hoffa. The heartbreak in this movie (spoilers!) springs from Sheeran's eventual betrayal. Hoffa is a hothead, so ultimately, the mob decides that he's got to go. He's ruining "this thing of ours." But when it's Pacino screaming and yelling in Hef-like satin pajamas, it's the greatest thing you've ever seen. You don't want him to get whacked because he's just so damn funny. With any other actor -- any other trio, really -- the emotion wouldn't be there. When everything finally goes down, the movie takes a sharp turn into genuinely operatic tragedy.
The last 30 minutes make for such a cold splash of water, because through it all, it's been quite funny in that typically Scorsese "bustin' balls" kind of way. There are lots of stretched-out conversations about how to transport a frozen fish, or how long you should wait for someone at an important meeting. (The traffic!) Pacino has a rant about "Booby" Kennedy to his lieutenants that I want sampled in future rap songs. But the finale reminds us that nobody gets out of this life alive, and when mortality catches up with you, everyone has to take a look at how they've lived.
Many of Scorsese's movies have been accused of being unethical. (The Wolf Of Wall Street makes white-collar crime look like a lot of fun.) In a way, The Irishman isn't just Frank Sheeran reflecting on his life, but also Scorsese looking at his career. I do not want this 76-year-old genius to retire, but he's been making movies for well over 50 years, and if this were to be his last, it'd make for a perfect summation of his better-known work. Maybe this is the third in a series after all.
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