The Irishman is the kind of self-reflective film to come at what might be the beginning of the end of a master filmmaker’s career, made remarkably alive in its ideas and narrative weight through the context of time and experience. Here comes a re-examination of a genre that defined Martin Scorsese’s career, a crime saga in tune to generational divides and the consequences of committing oneself to dying regimes. Epic in its timeline and intellectual scope, Scorsese has made something funereal and absurdly funny, one that appears in surprising dialogue with his career and place in the modern cinematic landscape. The Irishman is a film of fatal mistakes of the soul and a world that eventually spins forward without you, and even against you.
The film centers on Robert DeNiro (giving his best and most layered performance in decades) as Frank Sheeran, a blue collar workman who finds the good graces of upper mob management before becoming a key hitman in the syndicate. He becomes a pseudo-mentee and protected associate to Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, making a subtle and triumphant return to the screen) and the powerful Bufalino family, sacrificing with ease the necessary morals to commit violent crime. Before long, he becomes acquainted to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), to whom he devotes his life’s work before becoming a key member in his storied disappearance.
Thanks to the breezy and absorbing tempo of Thelma Schoonmaker’s assemblage, much of the impact of The Irishman comes from its ability to catch you in the easy sway of submission that Sheeran falls into before the film pivots into something more contemplative and damning. It’s not just that the film’s three and a half hours fly by, it’s that they spark of something fresh for the filmmaker. If the film appears structurally similar to such Scorsese works as Casino or a less aggressive The Departed, the film’s third act makes it a surprisingly singular experience to the Scorsese crime oeuvre.
The Irishman has quite a bit on its mind beyond what meets the eye. A film fascinated by unions and the bureaucracy of criminal hierarchies, such institutions are examined by Scorsese in an almost allegorical point of view. The unquestioning approach Sheeran has to the world of the Bufalino’s and Hoffa signifies a generational (and especially masculine) mentality that could apply to any number of ideological or real-world clubs: culture, political belief, corporate allegiance, and yes, filmmaking. But Scorsese shows that the natural end of Sheeran’s kind of short-sided decision making, arriving with changing tides, is isolation.
Much of the film’s narrative weight and emotional power belongs to a younger generation, with the children of these criminals given limited voice to reflect the life thoughtlessly chosen for them. This is defined by Anna Paquin’s brief but intensely impactful performance as Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, and also somewhat by Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s stepson. One falls victim by losing their voice in the process, the other goes against the system, using her silent gaze as a disarming and condemnatory weapon. If those that come after you don’t become your accidental victims, they will move on without you.
It’s both character study on Sheeran and a character study of a generation on the precipice of not being able to justify their actions of self-advancement. Steve Zaillian’s script (from Charles Brandt’s non-fiction novel I Heard You Paint Houses) is densely wordy and introspective, allowing for this legendary ensemble to mine the material for profundity and thoughtful detail. But much of the achievement lies in Scorsese’s patient and intuitive molding of the material into something keenly observed about our modern moment, delivering a cohesive thought of a film that couldn’t come at a more fascinating point in his career.
The Irishman is a deceivingly plotted meditation on how mighty eras die before you know it, and then show with vicious expediency the ignorance and carelessness of our decisions. It’s maybe the most quiet way Scorsese has ever knocked you on your ass, a soulful, regretful examination of the consequences of head-in-the-sand behavior.