(Yes, there are spoilers in this review. Insofar that there are spoilers in a well-known mob story in which everybody knows that Jimmy Hoffa isn’t with us anymore.)
The opening scene of Martin Scorsese’s latest tour de force, THE IRISHMAN, recalls one of his most indelible sequences—the tracking shot in GOODFELLAS that followed Henry and Karen down into the Copacabana and their dreamy, maze-like voyage to a front seat table for Henny Youngman and Bobby Vinton. But instead of the swaggering confidence of a camera quickly and slickly gliding through the kitchen and back rooms of the hot nightclub, the opening shot of THE IRISHMAN is a slow, unsteady walk down a sterile hallway and it’s not following anybody in particular, as if the camera doesn’t know where it’s going to go next.
Eventually it settles across from a downward-looking 80-something Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) who begins to talk to the camera: ““One of a thousand working stiffs until I wasn’t anymore”, alluding to his career as an Irish killer for the Italian Mafia. This is no fancy wise guy nightclub but rather a nursing home and the last stop for a retired buttonman who now lives with his lifetime of decisions, spilling his verbal memoirs to an unseen listener.
The opening title cards also evoke GOODFELLAS with white letters on a black background speeding by as a car drives down the road. But make no mistake, despite the obvious similarities and pair of iconic actors, THE IRISHMAN is not GOODFELLAS so don’t expect it.
THE IRISHMAN doesn’t have a plot per se but rather Sheeran takes the audience on a series of flashbacks and occasionally flashbacks within flashbacks (not unlike Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD). We first see Sheehan and gangster Russell Bufalino (a sublime Joe Pesci) getting ready for a 1970s road trip to Detroit for a wedding with their wives and some planned pit stops along the way. Not a minute later, we go back several more years to see when Sheeran met his eventual mentor for the first time, Bufalino, the genteel guy at a truck stop who helps Sheehan fix his truck before they go their separate ways.
Like any good Teamster, Sheeran develops a side hustle or three to pay the bills as well as ingratiate himself with the local Italian wise guys. The hustles start off with hot steaks and muscling deadbeats. During this pre-homicidal phase, we see Frank’s propensity for violence and how his daughter sees right through his charade and his La Cosa Nostra friends; her face says she knows he’s up to no good even if she doesn’t. Soon enough, he re-acquaints with Bufalino and the quiet wise guy takes a shine to the “Irisher”. Next, we see a flashback to Sheeran in the war, where he served in combat about triple the time of the average soldier. It’s also where he learned to take orders to justifiably kill men and quickly move on, skills that will serve him soon enough
On the cusp of blowing up a laundry for an associate, Whispers, Sheeran gets called before the Boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel, whose role is more akin to a cameo) to answer why he’d do such a thing. Bufalino’s respectful deference to Bruno is apparent and Sheeran knows he fucked up. But he’s then informed that Whispers lied to him because, in fact, Bruno owns the laundry and the message to Sheeran is clear: take care of Whispers. Thus, Frank Sheehan begins painting houses.
In short order, Sheeran meets Jimmy Hoffa (an excitable and excellent Al Pacino in his first ever Scorsese film) and becomes bodyguard to the occasionally outrageous, arrogant, and corrupt head of the Teamsters. All the while, the movie jumps ahead to the road trip to Detroit to check in with Sheeran and Bufalino then back to Sheeran’s career timeline as he becomes more and more useful to Hoffa and the mob. Eventually, the timelines meet up in Detroit when Sheeran is informed that things with an increasingly ballsy Hoffa are past the breaking point and shit needs to be taken care of.
But THE IRISHMAN isn’t just a chronicle of Frank Sheeran. It’s also a chronicle of the last half of the 20th century in America that plays out in the background and just how much these characters and their ilk had such a huge hand in these major history-altering events. These guys helped elect then (likely) killed JFK. They had access to billions of dollars of capital. They were the biggest movers and shakers in the country before cocaine and rats eventually took them down.
Scorsese doesn’t frame Sheeran as a bad guy or judge him and actually appears to have empathy for him. Of course, the audience may feel different. The fabled director also does an incredible job with the de-aging process for his 70-something stars. There wasn’t one part where I was distracted or thought it looked fake. You just get used to seeing these guys during different eras and the transitions are seamless (and crazy expensive as the de-aging was the reason it was Scorsese’s most expensive film at $160M.)
This isn’t the 100MPH rush of GOODFELLAS or even CASINO. Rather, it’s a pensive look at a life in crime and the toll it takes on a man’s soul. It also has a few laughs as well. THE IRISHMAN is nearly 3.5 hours because Scorsese lets it breath in parts, lingering on a TV set or a greyhound rabbit for an extra second. In that sense, it feels like a ‘70s movie, a goddamn great ‘70s movie.
Sitting alone after talking to a priest, Sheeran doesn’t care about the many guys he offed because that was business and, well, that’s a risk guys run in that line of work. It’s easy to justify. Rather Sheeran is left to live his final days out by himself, wishing he could make peace with his beloved daughters who want nothing to do with their father they know did awful things. But that shipped sailed many moons ago. The only thing left for the alone and lonely Sheeran to do now is wait for death.
This film sure feels like the last of the mafia movies from Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel and it’s an epic way to do so. The way of making a living like those mooks is gone. And Scorsese has said all he can say about the genre in this, his latest masterpiece.
As for the performances, DeNiro showed that even after the paycheck movies and schlock he’s made in the last couple decades, he’s still more than capable of carrying a sprawling film and hasn’t lost his chops at all. Pesci plays against type and is instead introspective and quiet though no less dangerous than anyone else in the film. His subdued work is also among the best of his career. Pacino gets to dial back a bit to his “hoo-ah” days by playing the energetic asshole Hoffa but is equally effective.
THE IRISHMAN is a slam dunk for a Best Picture nom, DeNiro should easily get a Best Actor nom, Pesci is a shoe-in for Best Supporting (assuming that’s what he shoots for), and Pacino is also deserving of a Best Supporting nom as well though if it comes down to him and Pesci, Joe will get the nod. Steve Zaillian should be looking at his fifth writing nom and Thelma Schoonmaker should be automatic for her eighth nod for editing.
Ray Romano, Sebastian Maniscalco, Stephen Graham, and Bobby Cannavale also turn in tremendous performances as well in smaller supporting roles. (Romano has really turned into quite the actor since his sitcom days.)
Put 3 and half hours aside, shut your phone off, and become immersed in this world. It’ll fly by. And it’ll never happen again with this crew.
THE IRISHMAN: A+