"Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas didn't glorify the behavior of its monster characters, but it focused on a man who did. The trick of that movie, through its whirlwind ups and frenetic, all-too-enticing downs, is how Scorsese puts his audience on watch and asks a question he doesn't dare answer: If you could live your life like anything other than a schnook, would you risk your soul?
Twenty-nine years later, The Irishman offers an example of closure for that existential query. It shows the mafia -- that life of crime that seems so alluring in Goodfellas and The Godfather films before it -- as brutal, fickle, irrelevant. It's a death sentence as all-encompassing as any disease. An example: throughout the film, subtitles flash across the screen to inform viewers about the fate of the person they're watching. Shot six times in the head while in his kitchen, shot three times in the face, that sort of thing. We never even see them go; what's the point? Their demise is their predetermined destiny.
Set for release in theaters on Nov. 1 before hitting Netflix and a global audience on any device starting Nov. 27, The Irishman is Scorsese's own version of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, an almost spiritual deconstruction of his career that reconciles with the imagery of his past, starring the two actors, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, who made his classic mob movies such classics. And, oh yeah, Al Pacino is in it too. (When going for this broke, why not?)
The Irishman is based on the Charles Brandt book I Heard You Paint Houses (in mob terms, to paint a house is to murder someone), which tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver who claims to have killed Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1975 and was never found again, and scores of other underworld figures. (The veracity of his claims is uncertain, but Scorsese's movie takes Frank at his word.) Frank isn't just a cipher, however, stuck between Hoffa and the mob -- he's Scorsese's own Forrest Gump, a character who, over the course of his life, forged a close personal relationship with both Hoffa and mob kingpin Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), helped run guns to Florida that were later used as part of the Bay of Pigs invasion, ran in the same crowd as the Watergate burglars, and maybe even knew significant details about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (That final event hangs over The Irishman, but Scorsese stops short of connecting the president's death to the mafia in overt terms.) The movie doesn't celebrate Frank and his actions as much as pity his shortsightedness and stubbornness and the cost his actions have on his life. By the time the film reaches his third hour, Frank's daughters, especially Peggy, played as an adult by Anna Paquin, have disowned him. (Paquin has maybe three lines in the entire movie, but judges the proceedings and her onscreen father with a righteous anger worthy of 10 monologues.)
(A note here about the length: The Irishman runs 209 minutes, or just under three-and-a-half hours with credits. Yet despite the imposing number, Scorsese's movie hits a rhythm that makes the finished product feel, if not brisk, certainly comfortable. Credit here to Scorsese's longtime right-hand, Thelma Schoonmaker, who edited The Irishman and should add to her tally of Oscar nominations next year.)
If this was all The Irishman was, it would be enough. But there's more to this reconsideration of perceived glories past. Scorsese famously used Industrial Light & Magic to digitally de-age his cast to allow each of the main stars to play their characters throughout the film, no matter the time period. That means De Niro is Frank when he's a soldier in World War II (around 20) and he's still Frank at 40, 50, 60, 70, and into his 80s. (Pesci and Pacino go through a similar time warp, although neither ages as young as De Niro.) Before its debut, the gimmick seemed to threaten the entire enterprise and the early trailers did nothing to disabuse those fears (at worst, The Irishman teaser clips made the picture look like a video game cut scene or the miniatures from Welcome to Marwen). But it's hard to imagine the movie working without it: To see De Niro at the same age he was in Goodfellas and Pacino regain his stature from The Godfather Part III and City Hall brings an added layer of nostalgia and mortality to the film -- especially because while the actors look younger, their bodies tell a different story. This isn't the De Niro from Mean Streets or even Midnight Run. This is a man with miles on his back and legs. The Irishman is a movie that knows we've seen the best of these men for decades, that we still quote their movies to friends in text threads, and that an entire generation of certain filmgoers was raised with these wise guys -- and Scorsese uses that familiarity, that memory, to mine deeper levels of pathos than he has in quite some time.
Not that we should have expected anything less from the greatest living director in the first place. After all, he told us as much earlier this year, during a panel with De Niro at the Tribeca Film Festival. "It was a world that has been, I think, romanticized since then," Scorsese said of the milieu of his best-known work. "It's become something that, even in our new film, we still deal with... how should I put it? The nature of it, the essence of who the people are, not necessarily the trappings around it, but who the people are."
Scorsese is famous for forcing the audience to figure things out on its own. The Irishman, however, feels pretty definitive with its statement. (Maybe after all this time, he was tired of letting other people speak on behalf of his films.) If this is the last mafia movie he ever makes -- and judging from his upcoming slate of projects, including adaptations of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Devil in the White City, it might be; Scorsese is now 76 years old -- what a way to go out.
TV Guide Rating: 5/5
The Irishman hits theaters Friday, Nov. 1 and Netflix on Wednesday, Nov. 27.