“It is what it is,” the publisher of a now defunct Latino magazine used to tell me whenever anything went wrong or didn’t work according to plan, a verbal shrug of the shoulders that avoided any desire to accept responsibility for one of his many cockeyed business decisions. In Martin Scorsese’s new film The Irishman, the phrase, as uttered by Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), carries a sense of finality, of inevitability. The end is near. It is a phrase that very easily encapsulates the film’s melancholic mood, the sense that there is no going back, that what is done is done, and that the price we pay for our actions is high. The Irishman is more than a fitting final chapter to Scorsese’s decades-long fascination with organized crime as a social, political and even financial structure where business decisions are not only sealed with a handshake but signed in blood as well. It is about old age, about friendships made and destroyed, about regrets. Scorsese portrays crime, in this grandiose, sad, funny, and, in the end, devastating epic, as a destructive transactional endeavor.
The Irishman opens with a callout to Goodfellas; but instead of a breathless Steadicam shot from the streets of New York through the kitchen of the Copacabana night club to the front of the stage, the camera this time glides in and around the hallways, desks, personnel and residents of a nursing home until it circles around and stops in front of a man in a wheelchair: the now eighty-something titular Irishman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who, in spite of his heritage, has stayed true to the Cosa Nostra’s code of silence. He may be the last man standing but he still won’t tell the Feds what happened to Teamster union boss Jimmy Hoffa, who mysteriously disappeared in 1975 and is presumed dead. And yet, here he is, staring straight at the camera, straight at us, ready to spill the beans. To some, he may be the ultimate unreliable narrator — critics and crime experts have long questioned Sheeran’s claim that he was involved in Hoffa’s disappearance (The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s true crime book I Heard You Painted Houses, an euphemism for splattering someone’s brains on a wall…a title that Scorsese inserts in film’s first minutes with Godardian glee).
Like Henry Hill before him, Sheeran is our tour guide to this dark corner of recent American history. He takes us back to 1975 as he, Bufalino and their two wives prepare for a road trip to Detroit to attend a wedding which will involve countless cigarette stops for the wives, and a couple of business-related ones for Bufalino. The flashbacks begin to fold onto each other as one stop triggers another memory: of the time Sheeran and Bufalino first met at a gas station as Sheeran was trying to figure out what was wrong with his truck’s motor. The encounter would prove to be more than fortuitous; he is eventually hired by Bufalino as some sort of go-to man for any special project (including the delivery of weapons to a group of Cuban exiles on their way to overthrowing Castro in a little shindig otherwise known as the Bay of Pigs invasion) and then as an executioner after mistakenly blowing up the wrong laundromat at the request of another mobster. He is sent to Chicago to serve as an enforcer to Hoffa (Al Pacino) to later become, after dumping some cabs on the Chicago River and blowing up an entire garage full of them, Jimmy’s right-hand man and friend.
Much to their dismay, Hoffa and Bufalino have become the target of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s war against organized crime: they did, after all, help elect his brother to the presidency. JFK is assassinated, Hoffa is imprisoned for four years, and the doors are opened for the Mafia to feed at the union’s pension fund trough until Hoffa is released from prison and attempts to regain control of HIS union (as he yells over and over again). If you know your recent American history, you know this won’t end well for Hoffa but when that moment comes, the result is devastating, a turning point for the film and that’s due, in great part, to the chemistry between Pacino and De Niro. There’s a different energy level here than in the one scene they had together in Michael Mann’s Heat, where they were measuring and challenging each other, two roosters about to engage in a cock fight. More than playing to each other’s strengths, you can feel, in their scenes together in The Irishman, the passing of time, the missed opportunities, and the knowledge that now, at this late stage in their careers, this might be the last time they will get to play together on the big screen. You can feel the love and respect.
Hoffa gives Pacino the perfect vehicle for the kind of over-the-top, larger than life performance that has characterized his late roles. In his hands, Hoffa is charismatic, magnetic and ruthless as well as tender, playful, reflective. De Niro offers his most introspective role in ages: his Frank Sheeran is a man who never reveals what he truly feels even when his loyalties are tested but also one who begins to feel the weight of his actions, whose eyes over time go from steely, cold acceptance to sadness. These qualities, plus his one sudden burst of violence in front of his daughter Peggy, alienate him from his family. Peggy (Lucy Gallina as the young Peggy and Anna Pacquin as the adult one) overtime, turns into his silent judge and jury.
The film is built mostly around intimate set pieces involving two or three actors engaged in conversation, whether in restaurants, offices, hotel rooms or inside cars. Tarantino’s characters love to hear themselves speak; Scorsese’s love each other’s company and are not afraid to lay down their feelings (and not always the touchy-feely kind) on the table. It is this intimacy, this closeness, that Scorsese, scriptwriter Steven Zaillian and their brilliant cast build around these characters that make The Irishman a radically different film from Goodfellas and Casino. This intimacy opens a window into this men’s lives (for this is a man’s world, after all) where a simple word or act could strengthen or destroy a relationship (the film is full of intertitles describing some of these characters’ ultimately violent end).
Much has been made of the youthification process of the three leads which de-aged them for some of the flashbacks. Except for one or two glitches, I found the effect as unobtrusive as the layers of makeup, prosthesis or weight loss and gain actors have endured for their roles since the silent era. Especially because the technology leaves the actor’s key tool untouched: the eyes. De Niro’s and Pesci’s eyes reveal so much, particularly the latter, who, as Bufalino, leaves behind the nervous energy of his past performances to deliver one so quiet, so full of grace and dignity and wisdom that when he finally reveals his true colors at the end, the effect is as deadly as any of the brutal executions enacted or described on screen. Pesci may have been coaxed out of retirement for this role; but if this turns out to be his last performance, not only is he leaving on a high note but he also leaves us, the moviegoer, with a sense of regret of what could have been had the film industry paid more attention to his versatility. But let’s go back to the eyes: By leaving these actors’ gaze intact, free of any digital manipulation (outside of a color change here and there), Scorsese and the magicians at Industrial Light and Magic add to this film’s sense of loss: these are old men’s eyes staring out of those digitally rejuvenated faces which underlines the fact that we are listening to (and seeing) an old man’s reminiscences.
The Irishman is the gangland epic Gangs of New York could and should have been (and I love Gangs of New York). It is the work of a master filmmaker who still feels a deep love for the art form, who even at this stage of his life, embraces and adapts to change while discovering new ways to tell a story. But The Irishman is also the kind of work where you also feel the hands of editor Thelma Schoonmaker, composer and musician Robbie Robertson and director of photography Rodrigo Prieto and the cast. It feels like family reunion, a potluck if you will, with each member of the cast and crew bringing something special to the table. One of those rare films that feels flawless…that is, in fact, perfect.
The Irishman is currently playing on select theaters nationwide and begins streaming on Netflix on November 27.