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Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman opens the New York Film Festival—and a coffin for crime epics

Martin Scorsese’s <i>The Irishman </i>opens the New York Film Festival—and a coffin for crime epics
Photo: Netflix
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Standing on the stage of the Walter Reade Theater this afternoon, Kent Jones issued a plea: “Let’s stick to questions about this movie.” It’s opening day of the New York Film Festival, and Jones, departing director of the fest, is about to introduce a whole panel of living legends. One wonders if his request is a reminder to himself more than anything. There is, after all, a lot of onscreen history spread across the careers of Martin Scorsese, whose latest (and maybe last?) decade-spanning crime opus has just screened for the press, and his star-studded cast of gangster-movie alums: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. Who could resist digging into those respective and intersecting IMDB pages?

Jones keeps the focus on the movie we’ve all just watched—on the Netflix-financed, three-and-a-half-hour, mob-epic collaboration between the director and his three stars, who are joined on stage today by producers Emma Tillinger Koskoff and Jane Rosenthal. But the past hangs heavily over the post-screening discussion. It’s there in talk of the Goodfellas/Casino/Raging Bull reunion at the film’s center, and in the unanswered question of how it felt for Pesci, mostly retired from acting, to return to the screen. (“No,” he replied, with famous terseness, when Jones asked if he could shed some light on the experience.) Honestly, just seeing this murderers’ row all together, and in the flesh, triggers a mass flashback to 50 years of American movies.

Of course, watching The Irishman (Grade: A-) provokes its own flush of memories. More than that, though, it actually interrogates them, shining a harsh spotlight on the nostalgia anyone—Marty and his cast included—might have for the movies it directly and indirectly echoes. Based on the 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses (an alternate title that Scorsese, oddly, cues up at the beginning and end), The Irishman dramatizes several decades in the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), the Philadelphia truck driver who moonlighted as a killer for hire after being taken under the wing of mafia bigwigs Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (De Niro’s old Mean Streets costar Harvey Keitel). Yet the film doesn’t just feel like a revival of a certain mode of outlaw procedural mythmaking, like Scorsese returning to reclaim the genre he popularized and maybe perfected. Framed by the recollections of an elderly Sheeran, it feels like a goodbye to that kind of story, and maybe to those telling it from behind and in front of the camera.

Much of the curiosity surrounding The Irishman concerns its digital de-aging technology, a variation on the kind Marvel has used to turn Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Douglas into the spitting images of their younger selves. (There’s a reason Netflix reportedly spent more than $150 million on the movie, which took more than 150 days to shoot, as Koskoff revealed during the press conference.) Truthfully, the first time The Irishman flashes back to the maybe thirtysomething Frank, grimacing from behind the wheel of a truck in 1949, the effect is a little jarring, a little distracting—he looks like he’s speeding his way out of Robert Zemeckis’ Marwen. But the eyes adjust to the illusion. Moreover, this magic trick speaks to the unreliable unreality of memory itself: We’re not so much seeing the young Frank as we’re seeing the version of him that exists in his own mind, vaguely younger in appearance but not moving exactly as a young man does. It’s a “problem” with (potentially accidental) resonance.

For a while, The Irishman plays like a highly watchable retread, the band getting back together for one more greatest-hits performance. We’re being treated, in other words, to another backstage tour of organized crime—being made privy once more to the violent ins and outs, the hustles and executions and betrayals, of real lives lived far outside the law. The plot tracks Frank’s life of crime from the late 1940s (with one brief, disturbing flashback to World War II—a less operatic echo of a similar scene in Scorsese’s terrific, underrated Shutter Island) to the turn of a new century. Much of the incident-heavy middle hour concerns the disappeared labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, played by an appropriately outsized Al Pacino, finally bringing his bug-eyed intensity to Scorsese World. Throughout, the director provides plenty of the shit-hot style and dark humor for which his crime epics are so revered: a single-take assault that moves from indoors to outdoors with a dramatic shattering of glass; a shot of a pistol sinking to rest alongside a whole armory worthy of discarded firearms at the bottom of a river; a comic cutaway to a car explosion as Frank explains that he’s talking about a different, still-alive mobster named Whispers, etc.

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Photo: Netflix

It’s all a little familiar, and even at the director’s heftiest runtime, The Irishman doesn’t quite possess the same breadth of fascinating detail as the process-obsessed Goodfellas and Casino. It’s not quite as snappy, either, but that may be a feature, not a bug. However entertaining it gets, this is a much more elegiac picture than its celebrated predecessors; death looms over every minute, more of a guarantee than a threat. The film opens with a Scorsese signature, a long, winding Steadicam shot, but it’s giving us the layout of a nursing home, not a hip nightclub. When introducing a new player in the criminal empire, Scorsese often flashes a quick obituary in white text, the when and how they’ll be knocked off—it’s as if they’re dead already. Even those who survive the gangster life are eventually claimed by some thief in the night, by prostate cancer or that gentlest of killers, “natural causes.” The more meditative mood (the violence is severe, but never gleeful) extends to the performances, especially Pesci’s; once Scorsese’s resident agent of chaos—the nastiest brute in any police lineup—he’s been cast this time as an aging don who thinks of violence as a last resort, not to be taken lightly. The movie lets us see the actor’s age, even when the CGI is physically disguising it.

De Niro, meanwhile, is playing a character so passive, even in his violence, that he threatens to disappear into the fabric of the narrative he narrates. The Irishman conceives of this infamous assassin as a man with no philosophy or vision of his own, a man who follows orders and makes no choices, a man who allowed himself to be pulled along through history, to become an instrument of others’ ambition and corruption. He is always in the middle of disputes, playing peacekeeper at the behest of others. (When the film turns to the conflict between Hoffa and the mob, it’s Frank who bridges those worlds without ever really curtailing the tensions.) De Niro, in his later years, has been frequently accused of sleepwalking through roles. But no film since Jackie Brown has made better and more pointed use of his detachment, his weariness, and—most relevantly—his advancing years.

It’s in its long, sobering final act that The Irishman accumulates its full power and reveals its grander purpose. Overall, this is a remarkably brisk three-and-a-half hours—Scorsese, at a ripe 76, still directs with the energy of a hungry young filmmaker, his command of montage yanking the audience forward from scene to scene. (He’s aided, as always, by longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, providing that crucial flow.) But he knows when to slow down, too, and when to make the minutes count. The movie’s most masterful stretch—and one of the great sequences of this great director’s career—arrives later on, as Marty turns the lead up to a significant hit into a protracted gauntlet of sudden presence and awareness, a man who’s been yanked dispassionately from one violent act to another finally feeling the impact of every step, stopping and smelling the roses in the worst way possible. This is the Scorsese of Silence, patient and methodical, and it brings out a subtle agony from De Niro one might have assumed the actor could no longer summon.

In the end, The Irishman reminded me a bit of Unforgiven: It feels, at last, like a critical eulogy for an era of crime fiction that Scorsese and De Niro and Pacino built, apart and sometimes together. The film doesn’t delve deep enough into the friendship between Sheeran and Hoffa—a notable flaw in a movie without a lot of them. But maybe that’s because the real crucial relationship is a seemingly marginal one: the strangled bond between De Niro’s remorseless gun-for-hire and the daughter (played as an adult by Anna Paquin) who observes his cruelty from the sidelines, barely speaking but imprinting a conscience on the film. (That she’s a woman doesn’t feel accidental; Scorsese, sometimes accused of muscling female perspectives out, shows what a world without them looks like.) As much as they take special care to tell the audience that their characters are rotten to the core, Goodfellas and Casino and another spiritual relative, The Wolf Of Wall Street, have been misunderstood as glorifications; it’s an inevitable consequence, perhaps, of following ugly men with occasionally glamorous lives. Scorsese takes no such chances with The Irishman, a crime epic that pushes further forward in time than most, to a truly ignoble end. Eventually, it reminds us, we’re all just fitting ourselves for coffins.