Peggy Sheeran (Lucy Gallina) watches her father, Frank (Robert De Niro), through a door left ajar as he packs his suitcase for a work trip. In go trousers and shirts, each neatly tucked and folded against the luggage’s interior. In goes the snubnose revolver, the ruthless tool of Frank’s trade. He doesn’t know his daughter’s eyes are on him; she’s constitutionally quiet, and remains so throughout most of their interaction as adults. He shuts the case. She disappears behind the door. Her judgment lingers.
The scene plays out one third of the way into Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, named for Frank’s mob world sobriquet, and replays in its final shot, as Frank, old, decrepit and utterly, hopelessly alone, abandoned by his family and bereft of his gangster friends through the passage of time, sits on his nursing home bed. Scorsese, more so than many filmmakers and indeed most of his critics, understands that the art of directing doesn’t mean moving the camera within cinematic space, as if trying out for an Olympic event or performing parkour; he knows where the camera is supposed to be and leaves it there, in this case the door to Frank’s room, once more left ajar. He sits and he waits. Maybe he’s waiting for Death, but most likely he’s waiting for Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin), who disowned him and has no intention of forgiving him his sins.
Peggy serves as Scorsese’s moral arbiter. She’s a harsh judge: She renders her opinion of Frank early and never finds reason to overrule her verdict, try as he might in his old age to seek absolution from her. Women don’t play as straightforward and immediate a role in The Irishman as men, but all that’s for the best: The film takes a dim view of machismo as couched in the realm of mafiosos and mugs, men who, having been born babies and realizing that they liked being babies, refuse to grow out of it. When Scorsese’s principal characters aren’t scheming or paying off schemes in acts of violence, they’re throwing temper tantrums, eating ice cream, or in an extreme case slap-fighting in a desperately pathetic throwdown. This scene echoes similarly pitiful scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and Rashomon: brawls between wannabe roughs afraid of brawling, but forced into it by their own bravado.
The Irishman spans the 1950s to the early 2000s, the years Frank worked for the Bufalino crime family, led by Russell (Joe Pesci, out of retirement and intimidating). “Working” means murdering some people, muscling others, even blowing up a car or a building when the occasion warrants. When disengaged from gangland terrorism, he’s at home reading the paper, watching the news, dragging Peggy to the local grocer to give him a beatdown for shoving her. “I only did what you should,” the poor doomed bastard says before Frank drags him out to the street and crushes his hand on the curb. The Irishman is historical nonfiction, chronicling Sheeran’s life, and through his life the lives of the Bufalinos and their associates, particularly those who died before their time (that being most of them). It’s also a portrait of childhood cast in the shadow of dispassionate brutality, and what a young girl must do to find safety in a world defined by bloodshed.
Scorsese knows not to let the subtext thicken, so he spends the overwhelming majority of The Irishman’s 209-minute running time with Frank, with Russell and with Jimmy Hoffa (played to the hilt by Al Pacino). He may not look like Hoffa, but Pacino goes the distance in his every scene, stammering, sputtering, shouting, sucking down a sundae, a flesh-and-blood cartoon character far more alive than his more sinister accomplices. The de-aging technology Scorsese uses as a fountain of youth to make the De Niro, Pesci and Pacino of 2019 look like the De Niro, Pesci and Pacino of the 1970s and ’80s works, but only just; it’s beyond obvious that these are men in their seventies by their gait. But De Niro’s stiffness and Pesci’s stillness work to the advantage of their roles, just as Pacino’s crackling, wide-eyed intensity works to the advantage of his own. He’s a hoot, a font of screwball energy whose presence on screen morphs The Irishman into comedy in between gunshots, extortion and jury tampering, among a host of other transgressions.
How best to fit humor into a movie about one of America’s most notorious and storied buttonmen? Why try in the first place? The Irishman is a gangster film, true, but it’s a gangster film in the sense that it’s about gangsters, and a film about life’s regrets by dint of being about Sheeran, fated to die alone with no loved ones by his side. Scorsese’s gangster movies indulge the genre’s pleasures, of course, but in each of them—all seven of them—he’s looking for spirituality and for humanity. In The Irishman, he’s in self-reflection mode, glancing at his career-long search for God while pondering his own age. Most of all, he’s searching for a justice that only the feminine gaze can give. Frank Sheeran makes a fascinating subject, but there’s no denying that he was a monster. All anyone needs to confirm it is to gaze into Peggy’s eyes.
Writer: Steven Zaillian
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Lucy Gallina
Release Date: November 1, 2019 (theatrical); November 27, 2019 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.