Martin Scoresese is no stranger to messy, twisted characters. He has a tendency to paint these characters with a sharp, but humanizing brush. This quality is what gives his films like “Goodfellas” and “Taxi Driver” (among others) their uniquely hazy morality. His stories are compelling not despite their darkness, but because of it.
The director’s latest release, “The Irishman” is no exception. The film offers both the delectably gritty genre work that Scorsese’s audience has come to expect as well as a tender self-reflection on the filmmaker’s own oeuvre. Following the rise of the Buffalino crime family and the Teamsters Union, the story depicts the ambitions, flaws and humanity of three gangsters with genuine heart.
Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro (“Heat”), is the story’s primary narrator, recounting his experience joining the mafia as a hitman. De Niro’s performance involves some of his most impressive acting in years, bringing back the rageful poise of his other collaborations with Scorsese along with a softness that answers the simple question, what happens to a gangster if they make it to old age? That answer is not a pleasant one; in fact, when the glory days of his role in the mafia are over, it is painful to watch him past his prime. A similar point can be made about De Niro himself, and maybe that’s what makes the film as touching as it is.
At Sheeran’s side are mob boss Russel Buffalino (Joe Pesci, “My Cousin Vinny”) and President of the Teamsters Union Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, “Ocean’s Thirteen”). The very experience of watching these three legendary actors interact is electrifying — their criminal endeavors made me momentarily feel what it was like to watch the crime movies with fresh eyes. But to call “The Irishman” a mere best hits anthology of Scorsese’s career would be a severe underappreciation of its power.
Sheeran, Buffalino and Hoffa’s stories are laden with stylistic and narrative Scorsese tropes, but they explore new territory too. In particular, I found the script’s entanglement with national politics particularly insightful. The Buffalino family’s friendship with the Kennedys sheds light on a magnitude of political corruption that is present in other crime movies, but rarely so directly impactful on actual history.
Scorsese leaves no detail of this story out, amounting in a runtime of three hours and 29 minutes. Yet, the film does not drag for the most part. Excepting the penultimate hour, a close look at Jimmy Hoffa’s attempts to return to power, “The Irishman” avoids feeling sluggish. If anything, I’m glad Scorsese decided to pack the story with everything he could.
But Scorsese knows that the actors at the film’s center now lack the vitality of their digitally de-aged counterparts possessed in the mob’s heyday. And he uses this to his advantage, challenging the audience to imagine their lives without youth or momentum or glory. In this way, “The Irishman” becomes a story about falling from one’s peak. The nature of a high point is that it is momentary, subject to the remorseless advance of time. What Scorsese ultimately achieves with “The Irishman” is nearly magical: It is a sad, even painful thing to watch these criminals fade, much like it is to watch Scorsese himself grow old.