Goodfellas and Casino were glamorously visceral depictions of gangster life. The Irishman, following the rise of mob fixer Frank Sheeran, might seem like a companion piece. But it has more in common with Scorsese’s recent movie, Silence. It’s not so much about the actions of evil men as the reasons for them. What price morality, spirituality? Why gain the whole world only to forfeit your soul? It’s like a Bosch painting come to life.
Framed in multiple flashbacks, the aged, wheel-chair bound Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro) is finally telling his story after years of keeping schtum. Spooling back and forth from the 50s to the 70s, we see Frank’s encounter with his gangster mentor, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and his transition from handler to hitman to trade union honcho. But who’s Frank’s better friend, Russ or the charismatic union bigshot Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino)?
At three hours twenty minutes, The Irishman is a big ask. Netflix gave Scorsese a greater running time than cinemas would usually tolerate. And it’s entirely appropriate to the film. Taking time to let the relationships build and brew heightens what’s at stake. A multi-threaded tapestry is woven together, then slowly, tensely unpicked.
De Niro. Pacino. Pesci. It’s a killer cast. Pesci is quietly menacing, less keenly frightening than in Goodfellas, but Frank’s young daughter senses the evil in him from the off. De Niro is suitably inscrutable, a closed book. But it’s Pacino who burns the screen with a wildfire performance, possibly the best of his career. Every movement and word rings true. His word-play face-offs with rival union-mobster Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham) are also fabulously funny. “How come every mobster’s called Tony?”, cracks Hoffa.
Scorsese has always found the comedy-of-the-absurd in the gangster world. And the editing, as much as De Niro’s voiceover and the script from Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball), is laugh-out-loud in places. Soon as a mobster appears, titles pop up telling us when he was offed and how. Rival car blow-ups are like Laurel and Hardy’s Tit for Tat.
Reactions, not actions, are at the core of it. Frank’s daughter (luminous Lucy Gallina, Boardwalk Empire) witnesses her father’s explosive violence when a shopkeeper lays his hand on her. Her silent moral judgement is like a splinter in the soul for Frank. Particular when the grown-up Peggy (Anna Paquin, True Blood) refuses to speak to him. And shuts her bank kiosk when a frail Frank pretends to be a customer just to see her.
Some cite silence in female characters as downplaying their agency. Not here. Cordelia-like, Peggy’s eyes and looks carry the heart of the movie. Even to her admiration for Hoffa. Like a Jacobean play, Scorsese imbues The Irishman with the pervasive sense of goodness, conscience and judgement, even as the main players deal in death and dirty tricks, stitching-up the country, each other and, ultimately, themselves.
A cinema movie? Certainly. Netflix watchers breaking it into bits will forfeit the immersive experience of the serpentine plotting and pressure-cooker pay-off. Tough on the body, it’s salve for the soul.