A very Martin Scorsesian gimmick that director Martin Scorsese employs in “The Irishman,” out now on Netflix, is that every time a new character is introduced on screen, text appears in the frame to show us how that person died. For example, when Harvey Keitel’s mob boss Angelo Bruno is introduced, we learn that he was shot in the head sitting in his car outside his house in 1980.
At first, it’s a darkly funny bit in a film that’s funnier than people are giving it credit for — all of these mafia heavies and other criminals end up dying the same way they lived. But by the end, after the film has spanned nearly 80 years of history, it’s a deeply affecting subtle touch reminding the viewer that time comes for us all, and life always feels both quicker and longer than it really is. No matter what we’ve done in life, we all have an expiration date, and those who live by violence are often killed by violence.
So what does that mean for the life we live now? For Scorsese, in “The Irishman” and in real life, true hindsight on a life (or career) well-lived can only be seen at the end. So it’s best to take action in your own day-to-day life to do the right thing now instead of regretting it later.
“The Irishman” is adapted from Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa” and is about the life of Sheeran (a digitally de-aged and then makeup-aged Robert De Niro) as he rose to prominence as a hitman for the Bufalino crime family. (Scorsese also clearly wants you to know, through some very bold title cards at the beginning, that the title of this picture is “I Heard You Paint Houses.”)
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At three-and-a-half hours long, the film takes place from World War II to Sheeran’s death in 2003, as Sheeran tells someone off-camera (it’s the feds, but really, it’s us) his life story. In doing so, Scorsese tells us his own filmic story, too, referencing the mob movies he’s made before as a way to inform the weight of this one.
For instance, the opening shot is a duplication of the steadicam shot from “Goodfellas.”
The steadicam shot of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) entering the Copacabana through the back door and into the dining room while The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” plays in the background encapsulates the essence of “Goodfellas”: Hill’s life is externally glamorous and flashy and moving along at a quick pace because of his association with the mob, but he still had to go through the proverbial back door to get his wealth and fame. What’s a life of glitz and glamor worth if you didn’t earn it? Once you lose the money, you lose everything else.
In “The Irishman,” the steadicam starts outside Sheeran’s nursing home bedroom and slowly winds its way through the hallways, a little less confidently than the camera that tracked Hill. This time, The Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” plays in the background. After a short trip, the camera stops hard on an aged, white-haired, wheelchair-bound, sleepy Sheeran.
The joy of the “Goodfellas” glide is gone. As Sheeran tells his story — a winding, convoluted tale framed as a road trip with Russell Bufalino (a Joe Pesci who is as quiet and controlled as Tommy DeVito was volatile) and their wives — “The Irishman” becomes a mournful look at the joylessness of a life of crime. There is no danger of the audience misinterpreting the point here like with “Wolf of Wall Street.” The lives of these men are empty and are not to be envied.
It’s here where Scorsese seems to be in conversation with himself, reckoning with everything that came before and an examination of his own place in history as well as Sheeran’s. This is the type of movie one could only make after making “Casino” and “Goodfellas” and “Wolf of Wall Street.” Understanding the debauchery and decadence of the other films of Scorsese’s canon inform your understanding of the characters here.
If this film’s version of Sheeran is to be believed (and there are many crime historians who say he is not to be believed), he is the man responsible for shooting and killing his friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino in full “Scent of a Woman” mode) in July of 1975. Is this true? Does it matter? We’re being told this film through Sheeran’s perspective on a long life lived, from the comfort of a nursing home after the rest of his friends have long since died. To hear Sheeran tell it in this film, he was sort of like a Philadelphia mafia Forrest Gump, just happening to be in the right place at the right time for a lot of his major life events. In truth, he’s kind of a boring Scorsese protagonist, constantly reacting to his surroundings instead of impacting them.
Sheeran seems boring because he’s trying to not inciminate anyone in his story to the feds, but it makes it more profound and tragic if he is lying about killing Hoffa — an old man’s final grasps at relevancy in a world that has already passed him by.
He downplays his own shortcomings — this is where the de-aging CGI technology makes sense and where I was willing to overlook some of its more uncanny aspects; don’t we all imagine our physical selves as more healthier and youthful than we actually are? — and venerates awful men; he spends more time negotiating a price for his own casket and talking about a car he accepted as a bribe than he spends talking about his own family. The dissolution of his first marriage gets barely a sentence of his story. By the time he’s in the nursing home, after betraying one of his best friends out of a perverse sense of loyalty to his other friends, he has no more peers. His wife has died. His children won’t talk to him. “It is what it is,” he says.
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His oldest daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) sees right through his facade, and despite speaking only seven lines, is the emotional center of the movie. Her damning glances at Sheeran every time he does something wrong are just as violent as the many killings and curb-stomps that populate this film. The climax of the film isn’t when Sheeran kills Hoffa; it’s when he tries to see Peggy as an adult at her job as a bank teller and she wants nothing to do with him. All his talk of loyalty and honor and doing what had to be done to protect his family is just empty rationalization.
But to listen to Sheeran tell this story over the course of 209 minutes never feels joyless; it’s a cinephile’s dream. The only way to convey the brutal sense of time passing you by is to make a movie this long. Remarkably, this is the first time Pacino has worked with Scorsese, and he puts in a great comedic performance (“You never show up to a meeting 10 minutes late, and you never wear f—in’ shorts to a meeting!”). Pesci says so much more with his eyes than he ever has here, and it would not surprise me if he got nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Scorsese turns all of his familiar themes up to 11 here: Catholic guilt, mafia, brotherhood, biblical narratives, crime, history and what it does to people.
There’s a sense of melancholic joy in seeing Pesci, De Niro and Keitel on screen again at the same time, as if they know they may never get the chance to work on something of this magnitude again. “The Irishman” is a lot like this summer’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in that it could easily be the perfect endcap on a long, storied career for one of Hollywood’s greats, and a great entry into one of the best stretches of films he’s directed.
It’s the perfect film for 2019, proof that time marches on, at first slowly, and then all at once, and shows that even the men who seek power through the most corrupt means will meet the same end that awaits us all.
My rating: 5 dead fish out of 5