Whether we realize it or not, our lives are slowly and permanently altered by the arc of time’s arrow. Much as the wind can hollow a riverbed into a howling canyon, we are being changed in excruciating increments. The Irishman shows us a man who passes from young to old to finally ancient, a journey that allows his evil deeds to seep deeply into his soul, creating scars that will never heal. Unlike many of Martin Scorsese’s protagonists, Frank Sheeran lives long enough to look back on his life with an uneasy blend of wry nostalgia and armor-piercing regret. Sheeran may’ve changed the flow of history, but it has also changed him.
Like Goodfellas, The Irishman relies on bemused narration to drive it. As the film opens, a decrepit Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) slouches in a wheelchair, oblivious to the nursing home around him. He recounts his story directly to the audience. From this hub, the film leaps around in time, showing us Sheeran’s rise from boosting meat delivery trucks to running point for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Through the years, Sheeran meets an assortment of significant criminals: Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) acts as Sheeran’s guardian angel, although his gentle countenance belies the savage killer within. Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), a Philadelphia mob boss, helps usher Sheeran up the gangster food chain. Finally, “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham), is an ambitious teamster who sizzles through every scene like a lit stick of dynamite.
If this mafia organization were a tightly-wound clock, then the bulk of the movie deals with how the gears and levers slowly fall out of it. Hoffa becomes a rising star, but his big mouth eventually overtakes his ambition. He manages to piss off Bobby Kennedy and the powerful mob chiefs at the same time. This binds Sheeran between his loyalty to Hoffa and duty to the Organization. It also puts Bufalino in an awkward position of protecting Sheeran while also steering clear of Hoffa’s eventual supernova.
The Irishman throws a lot of plots, subplots, dates, and characters at us, but veteran screenwriter Steven Zaillian keeps all the timelines in order. The story is further aided by de-aging CGI, which trims a few years from all the main characters. This digital gamble mostly pays off because it isn’t terribly intrusive. The special effects team never attempts to transform Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci into what they looked like in Heat or Casino, they just try to make them vaguely younger. Perhaps the biggest distraction is De Niro’s blue sky eyes, which only serve to amplify the fact that his face has been altered.
Despite this high tech tinkering and Scorsese’s usual cinematic flourishes, this movie belongs to the main actors. De Niro excels at playing. an affable man who always ends up with the wrong people at the right time. Pesci’s casting makes for a nice flip on his turn in Goodfellas: Russell Bufalino may not have Tommy DeVito’s volcanic temper, but he does exhibit the same amount of ruthlessness. Ray Romano steals a few scenes as a mob lawyer whose ethics blow with the breeze. Even with all this greatness, Pacino is the clear standout. Hoffa’s unflinching charisma turns out to be his greatest strength and his biggest weakness. It’s a performance for the ages, and Pacino should land yet another Oscar nomination.
The Irishman shows us a man made weary and withered by the things he has seen and done. Time has carved out the topography around him, emptying the landscape of everyone or everything special, so that all he can do is sit with his own thoughts. The Irishman may be a spiritual cousin to Goodfellas and Casino, but it also stands apart from those films because we follow Frank Sheeran’s life all the way to its natural conclusion: Brittle and broken, with nothing left but terrible memories.
209 min. R.