Any Martin Scorsese movie is (or ought to be) an event but The Irishman feels especially so. That has a lot to do with the much discussed and somewhat harangued runtime, just shy of three and a half hours. But it has more to do with the three names at the top of the cast list. And if they’re why you’re watching the film, you won’t be disappointed (though you may be distracted by shaky cameos like Jim Norton as Don Rickles or Steven Van Zandt as Jerry Vale). Joe Pesci comes out of semi-retirement to reunite with Scorsese for the first time in nearly a quarter century. Al Pacino, in his first Scorsese film, is at the top of his game in a tragic, frustrating and surprisingly hilarious turn as Jimmy Hoffa. And Robert De Niro, in the title role, builds to a subtly building heartbreak as a soldier—first in the military, then in organized crime—whose code of loyalty, order and hierarchy lead him to a life that is both uncommonly brutal and yet, somehow, unremarkable. This lack of glory, in either victory or defeat, is the defining trait of The Irishman, a mob epic that justly makes being a mobster look like a drag.
Set to a mournfully grinding score by The Band’s Robbie Robertson, The Irishman follows real life union official and reported gangster Frank Sheeran from World War II to his final days at a nursing home in the early 21st century, though not exactly in that order. We get to know Sheeran through the two defining friendships of his life, with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and with Teamsters union leader Hoffa.
Much has been made of the digital de-aging done to the three lead actors in order to let them play their characters over as many as 60 years. Any challenges to verisimilitude this brings could be charitably explained away by the fact that what we’re seeing are the memories of an elderly man. In any case, slightly blurry faces are less a distraction than the fact that the bodies still belong to the actors as they look and move now. It’s odd to see a young and healthy Sheeran kick the shit out of somebody while holding his arms delicately at his sides like strings of Christmas lights he’s trying not to get tangled up.
Like many Irish-Americans and many movie mafia types, Sheeran is Catholic. Famously, so is Scorsese and, arguably, so is The Irishman. Some of the movie’s most understated grace notes come in conversation between Sheeran and the priest who visits him in the nursing home. But even before that, the whole movie is shot through with a bittersweet sense of duty and fatalism that will likely be familiar even to American Catholics who aren’t killers and crooks. There’s a gallows humor to the way the movie offhandedly seems to accept JFK assassination conspiracy theories and, in the movie’s most darkly funny touch, to the freeze frames when we meet a new character, with accompanying text outlining when and how they will die (almost always unnaturally).
Structuralism is a well-worn tool in Scorsese’s bag. His movies often take the shape of their lead characters’ memories or ideas of themselves. Here, the flashbacks within flashbacks reflect the way the details of Sheeran’s long life now all exist on top of one another in his mind. And the length itself is natural for someone who’s still puttering around but no longer has anything to do or anywhere to be.
What does seem less common for Scorsese’s is the movie’s conceptual nature. He’s one of the great living film artists but he’s generally an entertainer as well. Even when telling tales of bad men, he wants the audience to have a good time. This is what leads shallow-minded individuals to accuse him of glorifying someone like The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort. Perhaps this is his response to that criticism or to similar ones about how he’s portrayed gangster life in the past. For long stretches, The Irishman is, to put it plainly, not fun to watch. But in its devotion to drudgery both in subject and in method, it’s a lot like Sheeran himself, persevering through principles it doesn’t have to understand to follow.