The Irishman

Is it a masterpiece? Probably.

From my first viewing of Martin Scorsese’s three and a half hour epic, you would have to come down on the positive side. There’s so much in it, so much of it. Too much, probably, with a flabby middle section that talks and talks and feels like it’s going nowhere.

But this has got the seal of unmistakeable Scorsese swagger and language. It doesn’t have the verve, the brio of Goodfellas and that’s what wrong-foots you. It looks like it should have that vibe, but this is something altogether more downbeat, more melancholic, more mortal. It’s not much fun.

And you’ve got De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and even Harvey Keitel, all filtered through the gauze of the ‘de-ageing’ (and, it should be said, ‘ageing’) CGI so we often don’t know how much of what we’re seeing is really them, or what age they’re supposed to be. 

You can’t not notice it. It’s unsettling, creepy, eerie because we all know what De Niro and Keitel looked like when they were younger. So there’s a conscious play on popular iconography here, as if many of the previous characters they’ve played co-exist in these new ones, showing through like ghostly palimpsests. It’s a picture literally haunted by the past of its own content.

De Niro is Frank Sheeran, a war veteran who goes from meat truck driver to mob enforcer in 50s Philadelphia. He “paints houses” which means carries out hits, splattering the walls with red blood. Frank’s detached professionalism endears him to two key people. 

The first is Russell Buffalino, major player in the Philly mob, and played here by Joe Pesci in his first screen role for 10 years in a turn that quietly dominates the film and fills it with dread. It’s a magnificently disquieting performance and should win him the Best Supporting Actor once more – it’s a role clearly related to his Tommy De Vito in Goodfellas, less volatile but equally threatening, forever relaying coded messages to Frank, to “take care” of something, or to send someone “to Australia”.

The other bromance for Frank is with Teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa, played with whirling bravado by Al Pacino. I’ve no idea if his Hoffa is anything like the real Hoffa (who was a powerful union boss from 1957-71, with connections to the White House and the mob) but this is a brilliant character creation nevertheless, forever moaning about people being late and railing against the Kennedys. He treats Frank like family and Frank repays him faithfully – the pair even sleep in the same hotel room, chatting in their pyjamas like Morecambe and Wise, or Bert and Ernie.

This film is complicated on many levels, a series of meetings and conversations and protocols amid flashbacks and reminiscences, with screen freezes and title cards to inform you of the eventual fate of many of the characters: e.g. “Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo, shot three times in the head in his garage, 1980”. It plays with real life, secrets and the mythology of its own tellers, both within the film itself and through the casting of such recognisable actors, who are then blurred beyond recognition.

Frank is telling the story looking back from his wheelchair in a nursing home. Most of the time, but even within that framework, is another flashback told during a fateful car ride that Frank and Russell are taking to a Detroit wedding.

As these characters play out their dramas, world politics unfolds in the background, from Castro in Cuba, Kennedy’s assassination, to Nixon, and, suddenly, air strikes on Kosovo. That the mob is involved in all of this seems to be part of the message, showing how we’re all being played by crooks and corruptibles.

After an exhausting section, The Irishman finds its real groove in the final act, masterfully choreographed and executed, bringing all that has gone before it into thrilling, tense, brutal light. It’s Scorsese at his absolute best, which is to say American filmmaking at the top its game. All life is here – betrayal, family, loyalty, money, murder, respect, mortality, faith, grief, guilt, redemption.

The Irishman has faults – length, repetition, that ghostly CGI  and the women characters (wives, daughters) remain cruelly, frustratingly under-explored. It’s as if Scorsese can’t decide what story he’s telling here and he does it all through Frank, who’s a hard man to care for or read. Many storylines remain unresolved, unfulfilled – and maybe that’s the point. Mob life doesn’t give you tidy arcs or time to say goodbye.

Hidden in the many layers, there is so much wonderful stuff. A meditation on ageing and the fragility of flesh, it’s a late work from a master film maker that will surely become one of his great films. 

I saw it only last night at the Closing Night of the BFI London Film Festival and it’s unforgettable already: the way Pesci and De Niro dip their crusty bread in their glass of wine; the loopy conversations about who should apologise, or a frozen fish on a car backseat; Rodrigo Prieto’s snaking camera moves and colour palettes; the doo-wop of refrain of In The Still of the Night by the Five Satins; an underwater shot of Mafia guns used in hits, piling up at a popular disposal spot in the river; a nightclub singer; Pacino wolfing down ice cream; Joe Pesci’s face.

So like Pesci says, it is what it is. In life, as in this towering movie, we all get whacked in the end.