'The Irishman' Review: Martin Scorsese Reflects On Mortality With A Funny, Melancholy Masterwork

The Irishman opens with a long, one-take tracking shot that feels familiar. One of the most famous film moments of director Martin Scorsese's acclaimed career involves the long, one-take tracking shot in Goodfellas, following gangster Henry Hill and girlfriend Karen as they descend through a series of backrooms and basements to work their up way into the Copacabana.

That scene is breathtaking – bustling with electric energy, scored to the Crystals enthusiastically singing the bouncy "Then He Kissed Me." But when Scorsese returns to a similar set-up for The Irishman, things have slowed down. The camera glides at a much more languid pace, taking its time, as The Five Stains croon the measured, somber "In the Still of the Night." If Goodfellas is a young man's film, loaded with manic, coked-up life, then The Irishman is the film of a man slowing down, confronting the inevitability of mortality. This is not Goodfellas. This is not Casino. This is Scorsese at his most reflective, crafting a masterwork that finds the filmmaker reflecting on everything he's done, and what it's all amounted to. The results are breathtaking, and one of Martin Scorsese's very best films.

Martin Scorsese is 76-years old, and he couldn't have made The Irishman at a younger age. Goodfellas arrived when Scorsese was 48. Casino came when he was 53. In the grand scheme of things, Goodfellas and Casino were films made by a much younger man – and an older man's perspective is what The Irishman needed. It reunites Scorsese with longtime collaborator Robert De Niro for the first time since Casino. It also reunites Scorsese and De Niro with Goodfellas and Casino co-star Joe Pesci, who had to practically be begged out of retirement to appear here. They're all older men now, and their age is essential to telling this tale.

Much has already been made about the digital de-aging technology Scorsese has employed to turn back time on his older actors, but this isn't a gimmick. Does it look fake, or distracting? There are one or two scenes where things seem a bit off – the skin too smooth in places. But overall, the de-aging (and later, aging) is the key ingredient to making this 3 hour and 30-minute epic work. Because Scorsese wants us to follow these men through decades – from 1949 through 2000. He wants us to see them in their salad days, and then force us to watch them age and wither before our eyes. This is a film about mortality – about the inevitability of time ticking away. As De Niro's Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran tells us: "Sooner or later, everybody put here has a date when he's gonna go."

When we first meet Frank, his date is fast approaching. He's very old, wheelchair-bound in a nursing home. And he's about to tell a story. Who is he talking to? There's never another person revealed on the other side of Frank's conversation – he's talking directly to us, the audience, but technically speaking, he's talking to literally no one. It's as if we've stumbled into this old man's life, and are watching him recite his story to empty space before he shuffles off this mortal coil. And what a story it is.

Frank Sheeran was a real person, and his exploits were chronicled in the true crime book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Much of Sheeran's story, as told to Brandt, has been discredited. But that doesn't matter for Scorsese's film. Besides, the entire tale here is from Frank's point-of-view – there's always a chance he's an unreliable narrator.

To hear Frank tell it, he was a truck driver and member of the Teamsters who just happened to luck his way into criminal history. In the first of many flashbacks, he befriends local Philadelphia gangster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who takes Frank under his wing and introduces him to the powerful mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel, in a small, but memorable role). Frank's induction into the world of these gangsters eventually turns him into a full-blown, cold-blooded killer. His leap from trucker to contract killer is so casual, so nonchalant, that it's darkly comical. This type of dark humor is all over The Irishman, with De Niro garnering huge laughs with his hang-dog expression and silent reactions to shocking events.

It's only a matter of time before Frank's exploits attract the attention of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). If Russell Bufalino is like Frank's surrogate father, Jimmy Hoffa is the brother Frank never had. The two become fast friends, and while Frank seems to genuinely love Jimmy, Frank's mobster pals don't second the emotion. Because Jimmy Hoffa is a hothead, and he'll do whatever it takes to come out on top – even if it means pissing off powerful people in the process. One of those powerful people is gangster Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano (Stephen Graham, chomping on both cigars and scenery), who is even more of a hothead than Hoffa. It's not a spoiler to say that Hoffa is the doomed party in this story. History will tell you that, and The Irishman tells you upfront. When Hoffa is first introduced in the film, Frank's narration says that people these days probably have no idea who Jimmy Hoffa was beyond the fact that one day, he disappeared off the face of the earth. And Frank knows exactly what happened to the vanished Hoffa...if you believe his story, that is.

Scorsese has told plenty of stories about wiseguys before, and the scenarios in The Irishman seem, on paper at least, like the perfect opportunity for the director to cover the same ground he did with Goodfellas and Casino. But that's not what's happening here. Yes, there are bursts of violence. Yes, there are shots of men in finely tailored suits sitting down in dimly lit restaurants to enjoy rich meals. But The Irishman is more subdued; more melancholy. Unlike most of Scorsese's other films, which are layered with walls of sound from pop songs, The Irishman features long, uncomfortable stretches of silence. Silence that forces us to stop, and reflect. Like Frank Sheeran, Scorsese seems to be looking back at his journey. The film itself unfolds like a literal trip down memory lane, with Frank and Russell on a road-trip to a wedding, stopping frequently so their wives can have smoke breaks. At nearly every stop, Frank is reminded of some past incident – be it a fond memory, or a transgression. The fond memories are few and far between. The transgressions are plentiful.

Just what kind of a man is Frank Sheeran? Is he a psychopath? He certainly kills with ease, and late in the film, when asked if he has any remorse, he replies in the negative. But Scorsese and De Niro don't paint him as a madman, or even someone with a particular bloodlust. He's just a man doing a job. And that job happens to involve killing lots of people. De Niro, once hailed as the greatest actor of his generation, has been on autopilot for several years. Here, reunited with Scorsese, he comes back to life. This is the best work the actor has done in decades – a rich, nuanced, subtle performance. De Niro manages to make Frank seem human, even when he's about to shoot someone at point-blank range. It's not that the film is sympathizing with Frank. In fact, as time ticks on, it becomes more and more clear that Frank's violent lifestyle has utterly destroyed his family and rendered him virtually alone. But in De Niro's skilled hands, Frank is believable, even oddly relatable and likable at times.

De Niro is backed up by a killer cast. Much will be said of Pacino's turn as Jimmy Hoffa, and rightfully so. It's by far the showiest role in the film, and Pacino embraces it with gusto. Danny DeVito's Hoffa had Jack Nicholson playing the Teamster boss as something of a brutal thug, but Pacino manages to make Hoffa a surprisingly charming guy, almost grandfatherly. While Frank's daughter Peggy (played later by Anna Paquin in a mostly silent, but still impactful performance) fears him and his good pal Russell, she loves Hoffa, embracing him warmly in ways she would never do with her father. That's not to say The Irishman turns Hoffa into some cuddly hero. He's prone to violent outbursts and fits of rage. And his biggest flaw is his foolish stubbornness. He never knows when to quit. De Niro and Pacino play off one another beautifully, with De Niro often playing the calm straight-man to Pacino's loudmouth comedian. A warmth radiates between the two.

As it does between De Niro and Pesci. To see the two actors together again is a treat in itself, as De Niro and Pesci still have such a wonderful rapport with one another. Pesci has said in the past he walked away from acting because he was tired of being offered nothing but violent gangster roles – roles he made famous in Goodfellas and Casino. One can see why he eventually gave in to his part here. His Russell Bufalino is the anthesis of the brutal killers he played in those previous Scorsese gangster epics. This is Pesci's most quiet performance, and perhaps even the best of his career. He plays Bufalino as soft-spoken, and well-natured – and we never see him kill anyone (although he does show up in a bloodstained shirt at one point). Even when he has to order the death of a character, he does so with a genuine sense of regret. "I never wanted it to come to this," he says softly, and we believe him. What a joy it is to have Pesci back on the screen and to see him deliver such soulful work in the process. A late scene, where an ancient-looking Russel shares a mostly quiet meal with Frank, is so tender, and so sweet, that it might bring tears to your eyes. De Niro may be the star, and Pacino may get all the attention, but the film really belongs to Pesci.

Scorsese and longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker work magic with their epic, sprawling narrative. Some may balk at the 209-minute runtime, but there's never a moment where this story drags. Indeed, the three-plus hours practically fly by, because we're so swept up in this decades-long journey. There's not a single second wasted here, because one gets the sense that all the characters are hanging on for dear life – literally. As the years tick on, and their bodies fail them, The Irishman's main players find themselves closer and closer to oblivion. That final date that Frank talked about is inevitable. It exists somewhere on some calendar, waiting for us all. When we come to the end, and look back at what we did to get there, what will we find? Will we be content with the choices we made? Or will we be like Frank Sheeran, alone and decrepit in a nursing home, having conversations with no one?

/Film Review: 10 out of 10