“It is what it is” is almost comedic in its delivery in The Irishman. Robert De Niro, as the softly spoken Frankie Sheeran, is explaining to Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa how something that may have been a choice is now an explicit expectation.
Martin Scorsese, of Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed and Gangs of New York, is revisiting the gangster world that defines his career. He was always critical; always showcasing all the stuff these guys bought, their ridiculous wealth and the graphic reality of mobster life. Crucially, and sometimes misperceived, he finishes his gangster tales by reminding us how, in the end, it’s not like it is in the movies. Broken families, horrific memories and messy, untrusting relationships plague the Henry Hills, Aces and Frank Sheerans of the world. It is what it is, and it never changes. The rise and fall of the criminal life.
The Irishman, in contrast, feels almost like an extended fall from beginning to end. The long life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro) is anything but glorious and, using flashbacks within flashbacks, the tapestry of his mob life is framed. We begin with Sheeran in an old people’s home and then, for the most part, a road trip to a wedding, which unto itself takes us as far back as World War II. But there’s no glory in Frank’s military career, just a confused observation of humanity: why are soldiers who know they are going to die, willing to dig their own graves? We witness his relationship with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his rise in the infamous Italian crew until he meets labour Union President Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Their families are close and Hoffa’s problems, including a rival union leader Tony Pro (Stephen Graham), become Frank’s problems too. The history of America, from Bobby Kennedy’s trials and the assassination of JFK, all play a part in Frankie’s life, feeding into these tumultuous years. Sprawling, era-defining and reminding us of Scorsese’s expertise in this genre, The Irishman is a perfect piece in the director’s twilight years.
There’s a few set-pieces, almost small vignettes within the overarching plot, such as “Crazy Joey” Gallo’s murder at the Umberto Clam House. On their own, they are classic Scorsese, doing what he directs best. Another small story involves a character called Whispers (Ed Harris) and Frankie’s job to light up a rival laundry business. These are the tales that bind the wider film together, each one adding to the long list of sins committed by our central Robert De Niro character. A large part of the film focuses on a single job in the final act. After that, there must be a further thirty minutes tracking the move into older age as both De Niro and Pesci look even older than the septuagenarians that they are (Sheeran died in his early eighties and Bufalino died at 90). The digital effects used must be seen to be believed. While, akin to Hugh Jackman in the early stages of The Greatest Showman, no one truly believes the actors are in their twenties when they reveal them at their youngest, these moments are brief. For the bulk of the film, they are in their forties and fifties and this is seamless. Truly impressive is how, until the actors play their actual age, you realise that the vast majority is down to the magic of Hollywood and you didn’t realise until the final hour.
The Irishman is highly likely to be Scorsese’s last foray into this genre – especially with these actors, together. There is a reflective and more direct tone to The Irishman than in his previous films. There’s no time for cops and the chase. There is considerably less space given to families, though Anna Paquin’s minor role as Peggy, Sheeran’s perceptive and intelligent daughter who learns from an early age what Daddy’s job is, is particularly striking. A powerhouse performance from the three big guns and the cast members mentioned, but there are additional impressive turns from Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons and Harvey Keitel.
The Irishman makes time for the busyness and inextricable links between the criminal underworld and the political overworld. Trials, newspapers, corrupt Presidents and golfing all lend themselves to current events in the US. Benefitting from repeat viewings, the structure and connections will only reveal themselves further, but in the first instance you will bask in the environment we recognise despite how Scorsese shades it in a light that refuses to glorify these kings of their empire. The finest actors, an icon of a director in Scorsese and a story that will resonate and re-engage on every watch, The Irishman is an unforgettable master work.
This was originally published as London Film Festival coverage for Culturefly.co.uk in October 2019