At the end of Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence—an austere and sublime 161-minute epic about faith, doubt, and suffering, set in the world of Portuguese missionaries in 17th-century Japan—I remember thinking: If this is Scorsese’s last movie, I’m OK with that. I didn’t want it to be, mind you, and the evidence offered by the film itself, the sheer ambition of the project and the energy required for its execution, suggested that the master had more than one film left in him. But Silence, with its elegiac tone and somber subject matter, might have served as a fitting farewell, in part because the world it explored was so different from the material usually associated with the creator of urban gangster sagas like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed. Of course, Scorsese has made other films explicitly concerned with religious experience—Kundun and The Last Temptation of Christ could be considered the first two parts of a trilogy that ends with Silence—but the deepest mark he’s left on the culture is as our great modern poet of organized crime.
What a double joy, then, to have Scorsese’s next film after Silence not only answer the question “Does he have one more in him?” with a resounding yes, but for that same film to be an audacious masterwork that brings the themes dear to Silence (mortality, loneliness, the struggle between faith and doubt) into a version of the culturally specific milieu that Scorsese grew up immersed in and understands to his bones. The bulk of The Irishman, based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, takes place not in the Little Italy of the director’s New York childhood but in mid-20th-century Philadelphia, where Frank Sheehan (Robert De Niro), the Irishman of the title, goes from being a mildly crooked meat-delivery truck driver to rising in the ranks of the Italian mob as a ruthless and dependably discreet hit man.
Our first glimpse of Frank is as an old man in a wheelchair in the common room of a Catholic nursing home, at the end of a long opening shot that establishes his everyday world—life-size statues of saints, nurses bearing IV bags, codgers doing jigsaw puzzles—with as much style and skill as a similar tracking shot in Goodfellas that introduced us to the romanticized world of gangster life as seen through the eyes of Ray Liotta’s not-yet-made-man Henry Hill. In a voice-over that starts inside Sheeran’s head and then turns into spoken language, Frank promises to tell us a story that will explain it all: how he ended up there; who were the people he knew, loved, and killed along the way; and what the whole thing—his life—has meant. It’s that last question that proves too intractable even for this movie’s 210 leisurely minutes to address. But that very intractability—the lack of an interpretive framework that could make sense of a life lived in the service of violence, power, and money—is a part of The Irishman’s point. It’s a film about the inherent inadequacy of stories, the way our lives exceed (or at times simply outlast) the narratives we cling to about ourselves and the people around us.
In order to tell us his story, Frank must go back in time—a move accomplished narratively through a series of intricately nested flashbacks and visually via a digital technique that puts De Niro’s familiar grizzled face, along with those of a few of his most famous co-stars, through a kind of age-reversing filter. The effect, while it takes a few scenes to get used to, is shockingly successful. As Frank recalls a road trip he once took with his boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives (Stephanie Kurtzuba and Kathrine Narducci), we see him at the wheel of his old tank of a car, slightly less wrinkled and gray, but already stolid and worn down by years of serving as fixer and hit man for a Philadelphia crime family. A stop near the gas station where Russ and Frank first met years before triggers another flashback, and another injection of digital Botox: Frank, not yet associated with the Mafia, is the driver of a meat-delivery truck who pads his paycheck by occasionally stealing the goods to sell under the table. When he’s defended in court by a mob lawyer (Ray Romano) who also happens to be Russ’ cousin, Frank falls into the orbit of the Bufalino crime family. His ability to carry out orders of the most grisly kind, established in a further flashback to his service in WWII, serves him well as he rises through the ranks.
That rise is depicted with none of the glamour of Ray Liotta’s gangster apotheosis in Goodfellas. Though the two films rhyme in many moments—that long opening shot, or a late scene involving a shared prison meal—The Irishman isn’t a bildungsroman but an elegy. The world in which it takes place is fallen from the start: Frank harbors no illusions about the allure of violence or the beauty of Mafia brotherhood. He does, however, grow attached to some of the men he’s hired to protect, especially the legendary Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, who enters this capacious saga at around the one-hour point, played by Al Pacino with a curious mixture of menace, paranoia, and sweetness. (Both Pacino and De Niro seem more energized by their roles in The Irishman than they have been by anything they’ve done in years. As for the too-long-absent Joe Pesci, he dials his Goodfellas-era bluster way back and delivers what may be the movie’s best performance—quiet, focused, and, like much of the dialogue by Steven Zaillian, intermittently very funny.)
After he takes on a role as Hoffa’s combination bodyguard and consigliere, Frank ascends to a different rung in the hierarchy. He’s entrusted with more secrets but also expected to carry out more dangerous high-profile hits, including the real-life killing of “Crazy Joe” Gallo at a Little Italy clam house and, ultimately, the assassination of Hoffa himself. (Whether Sheeran really was “the Forrest Gump of organized crime,” stumbling into a role in nearly every significant chapter across three decades of mob history, is a matter that has faced heavy skepticism from Mafia experts.) But before that climactic betrayal, Hoffa also becomes close to Frank’s family, especially his daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as a young woman), who’s sharp-eyed enough to realize early on that something fishy is going on with her dad’s irregular hours and frequent late-night disappearances. The dearth of significant female characters in The Irishman will no doubt cause some discussion, and it would have been satisfying to see Paquin get at least one juicy dialogue scene amid all the silent glances and angry glares. But part of the point of the Peggy subplot is to establish how peripheral a role Frank’s wife and four daughters played in his emotional life, such as it was.
A huge part of the power of this richly layered, temporally twisting film is its sheer duration. In many ways, it’s a movie about duration, about the subjective experience of passing through time and the tragedy of outlasting nearly everyone you love. The way Frank’s life story seems to expand and contract with the rhythm of his telling—individual days are recalled in pristine detail, while whole decades whoosh past in a blur—sometimes put me in mind of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, which also, like The Irishman, concludes with an extended meditation on aging and loss. Those final scenes wouldn’t have the melancholy sting they do without the weight of everything that’s come before. I’d be hard-pressed to say that the three-plus hours of The Irishman fly by, but it’s also tough to think of a single individual scene I’d want to lose. Between the burnished sheen of Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography, a soundtrack full of perfectly chosen period pop music, and countless sharply observed details of place, time, and character, The Irishman establishes a world that, for all its violence and tragedy, is hard to leave behind when the last shot (which again echoes Goodfellas, with its closing image of an anxious retired mobster framed by an open door) finally comes. The goodfella has aged into an oldfella, but at some point, won’t we all?