Every so often in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, when we're introduced to a new character, text flashes on the screen with their name, year of demise, and cause of death. At first it seems like a very Scorsese joke, a reminder that the violent delights of association with the mob have violent ends. But looking back, those little epitaphs are a constant reminder of this movie’s main preoccupation: mortality.
The Irishman would have made a fine straight-ahead mob film – and perhaps it would have turned out like that had Scorsese got to make it back in 2007. It tells, over 209 measured minutes, the story of Frank Sheeran, the man who might have killed the labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa, whose disappearance in 1975 remains a mystery till this day. But Scorsese no longer seems interested in exploring codes of honour and brotherhood that have long since become genre tropes. Instead, he shows Frank (Robert De Niro) in two deeply invested relationships: with the truculent Hoffa (Al Pacino) and the soft-spoken mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).
You knew Scorsese could make them fast, funny, austere, ferocious. Who knew he could make them tender? The gentleness is everywhere: in Pesci’s barely audible voice, in Hoffa’s habit of sleeping with the door slightly ajar. There’s a scene, some 40 minutes in, with Frank and his family at a bowling alley. Russell tells Frank he thinks his daughter, Peggy, is afraid of him. Frank brushes it off, saying she’s a little afraid of him as well. “She shouldn’t be afraid of you," Russell says, sounding genuinely pained. “You’ve got to be close to your kids." He calls Peggy over, tries to draw her out with a silly joke, fails, and lets her go back to her sisters.
There’s an echo here of Vito Corleone telling Johnny Fontane in The Godfather: “A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man." But that moment was wrapped in the codes of the mob and in ideas of what “real men" are like. It had no more warmth than, say, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse", whereas the scene from The Irishman feels altogether more human. You forget in the moment that this isn’t a hitman and his boss talking, just one man gently admonishing another to be a better father.
Peggy keeps returning as a reproach to her father, the Irishman of the title, a World War II vet who starts carrying out hits for the Bufalino family. His closeness to Russell brings him to the attention of Jimmy Hoffa, whom he helps out with lesser crimes. Hoffa is as animated as Frank and Russell are reticent, but a friendship blooms here as well, with the Teamster boss enjoying having Frank around as a sounding board (Frank sleeping over at Jimmy’s house reminded me of Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), another world-weary gangster film with a memorable scene involving two tough guys sitting in their pajamas talking).
The Irishman covers a lot of ground in its three and a half hours. It’s almost like Forrest Gump in the linking one man’s life with American history, taking in the brief reign of the Kennedys, the rise of Fidel Castro, and labour struggles in the US. Yet, despite the broad canvas, there’s no point at which it doesn’t feel intimate. By the end, as his friends start dying and Peggy cuts him out of her life, Frank is forced to confront whether he’s done something worth remembering in his time on earth, the irony being that the one important thing he did is something he can’t admit to publicly. Much has been made of Anna Paquin, as the adult Peggy, having barely anything to say, but the silent rebuke of the character extends past Frank to Scorsese himself.
You sense the director examining his legacy as the maker of deliriously entertaining gangster films, where you rarely see the toll on the families. There’s a short scene in which Hoffa’s wife – who's aware of the threats to her husband’s life – hesitates before turning the key in the ignition. There’s a cut, and we see the car explode. Another cut, and she’s still in car. She turns the key. The engine starts. It lasts just a few seconds, but it’s a moment of supreme empathy.
Since the film follows these characters over several decades, we see digitally de-aged versions of De Niro, Pesci and Pacino. It’s not too distracting, though I never got the sense of watching a man in his 30s, which is what Sheeran was when he started out with the Bufalinos. De Niro gives an intensely withdrawn performance, face wiped clean of emotion, corners of his mouth turned down. His turn started to pay off for me in the latter half of the film, after Hoffa’s relations with the mob began to fray and Frank finds himself caught in the middle. There’s a phone conversation or two that’ll work fine as Oscar reels, but my favourite De Niro moment comes later, a nod and a quiet “yep" standing in for an impossibly difficult decision.
If Sheeran seems to blend into the furniture, Hoffa appears to burst out of the screen. Hoffa’s disappearance is modern American folklore, and Pacino is appropriately larger-than-life. When he yells “cocksuckers" repeatedly at a roomful of employees, Rodrigo Prieto’s elegant lighting a counterpoint to the crassness of his language, it’s a reminder that no one rants quite like Pacino (his quieter moments include a killer reading of “It’s winter"). With Pesci working wonders with a few spare notes, De Niro riding a steady beat and Pacino taking off in solo flight, it’s like watching a great jazz trio perform.
At the end of Goodfellas, Henry Hill is upset that he has to live the rest of his life like a schnook. The Irishman shows us a vision of this, an aged gangster reduced to dipping a small piece of bread in grape juice so he can swallow it. They’ll remember this as the year Scorsese said uncomplimentary things about Marvel, then used the budget of one of their theme park rides to make a gangster film with barely any guns, a three-and-a-half hour meditation about a man who knew a man who was once famous for something.