Almost thirty years ago, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was released into theaters. In contrast to the common perception, the 1990 masterwork was the filmmaker’s first real storytelling dalliance with the mob. Some intimidating, probably connected fellows moved around the fringes of previous films, like the real career criminals little asthmatic Marty saw in the metaphorical shadows on his childhood neighborhood, spied with curiosity and trepidation as he made his way to the refuge of a movie theater. If Goodfellas was an opening statement on a key portion of Scorsese’s arc as a director — that would eventually include Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, and, extended to television work, the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire — then The Irishman is the closing argument. It’s not exactly a reconsideration of the bloody brutality that precedes it, but it does feel like the work of a slightly different person, one who is pushing toward the age of eighty and presumably feeling mortality encroach like never before.
Based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, the film tracks the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, working with Scorsese for the first time since Casino, released in 1995). In the nineteen-fifties, Frank edges into the circle of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the top man in the region’s branch of a wide-ranging crime family. Frank’s dogged commitment to fulfilling whatever task is asked of him proves valuable to the Russell, and Frank moves steadily up the ladder, eventually getting a plum spot at the side of Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The stakes grow ever larger and more dire as both outside forces and inside men constantly jockey for more influence or better positions.
Scorsese is clearly in his element with The Irishman, and the mob machinations are the least of it. The film’s dense story — which gets added strata from real political events that intrude in big and small ways — calls upon Scorsese to use the precise cinematic grammar he learned from the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks. At three and a half hours, The Irishman doesn’t move briskly (it feels about as along as it is), but it still demonstrates a clicking efficiency. Every element belongs, contributing to the whole portrait of a compromised man and the accumulated wounds to his inner being that ultimately wind up leaving only the faintest of scars. And even as the film makes it clear that there’s little burden of remorse on the men who’ve spent their whole lives exacting personally lucrative and sometimes capricious cruelty on their fellow humans, it also presents the endless, impassioned scrambling for one more tarnished medal of power as pure futility. The grave claims everyone.
The cast adds to the sense that, no matter what films may yet follow, The Irishman is Scorsese’s valedictory. Besides reigniting the famed camaraderie with De Niro, the film includes Scorsese’s Sport and Brutus, Harvey Keitel, and draws Pesci, who won an Oscar for Goodfellas, out of effective retirement. And it’s Pesci who makes the most indelible impression, playing Russell with care and grace. In direct opposition to the hotheads that are the defining roles in Pesci’s filmography, Russell operates with the unworried authority of a person who always gets what he wants, in part because he knows heightened conflicts draw unwanted attention. In drawing back his energy, Pesci makes Russell uncommonly real.
There’s more that can be typed about The Irishman. The film is a remarkable addition to Scorsese’s filmography, already a tally of ambition and accomplishment unparalleled among his peers. The layers of commentary and self-reflection invite scrutiny and excited theorizing. It is a film demanding to be studied, as its own unique work and as one piece of a prolonged artistic statement. Distilling down to the terms of the cultural debate Scorsese inadvertently launched this fall, however one weighs its flaws and feats, there’s no doubt whatsoever that The Irishman is cinema.