Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic The Irishman is just incredible

Scorsese’s long-awaited theatrical/Netflix release delivers, but not necessarily in the way you would expect.

What is it about gangsters that we find so compelling on-screen? Real-life gangsters aren’t necessarily as compelling; even though Montreal has been a hub for organized crime for decades, the moments of pure cinematic drama (like the death of Sal “The Iron Worker” Montagna, gunned down on the banks of the river in Charlemagne in 2009, or Rocco Violi, felled by a single bullet from a sniper while sitting at his kitchen table in 1978) are far outweighed by the moments of old men sitting in cafés yelling at each other and making lucrative — if highly uncinematic — construction deals. In fact, organized crime has gone through many ups and downs in its cinematic depictions. The most famous of them all, The Godfather, presents the Cosa Nostra as a somewhat archaic organization full of elders and rules and endless pageantry reminiscent of the Catholic Church.

Martin Scorsese first upended that idea with Goodfellas, which posited the idea that people become criminals not because they have the utmost respect for some strange, dusty customs but because it’s an extremely good and seemingly satisfying way to make money and earn respect. Goodfellas is an exciting, kinetic film that makes crime look, if not exactly pleasurable, like something you could definitely understand getting behind. This has, inexplicably, driven many people to extrapolate that Scorsese’s films are pro-gangster, even if they’ve pretty much always shown both sides of the coin. Things that are morally bad obviously have some kind of advantage down the line, but surely you don’t need me to explain this.

All this to say that if Goodfellas could be seen as Scorsese rewiring the idea of organized crime as a hierarchized form of religion, then his latest film The Irishman is Scorsese rewiring his own picture of glamorous crime into something much more drab and working-class. A three-and-a-half-hour behemoth of a gangster epic, The Irishman is about organized crime as working-class fabric of American society. It posits that, while some gangsters walked around like rock stars, the majority of them were middle-aged men who operated from the sidelines and even the most brutal murders were purely operational choices. It depicts crime — a decision one makes, it seems, to touch “freedom” away from the confines of capitalist society — as its own form of bureaucratic prison, full of the same kind of office politics and red tape as any other job. If that sounds infinitely more boring to you than Goodfellas, know that The Irishman is perhaps Scorsese’s funniest film ever.

Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) has spent most of his adult life as a truck driver; he begins supplementing his income by fudging numbers and selling some of his cargo to local gangsters. This brings him some mild trouble with the authorities, which he in turn gets out of thanks to the help of lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), whose cousin Russell (Joe Pesci) heads an influential Pennsylvania crime syndicate. Sheeran becomes an invaluable asset to Bufalino, doing odd jobs here and there, but also “painting houses,” a colourful euphemism for murder (due, presumably, to the splatter of blood that inevitably results from three quick taps to the back of the head). Sheeran rises through the ranks of the organization to eventually become bodyguard to union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who becomes not only a close friend to Sheeran at work but a close friend of Sheeran’s entire family. (Suffice to say that, while all of Sheeran’s decisions are for the sake of his family having a better life, he is never around to witness that they do.) 

Frank Sheeran’s life echoed what happened to so many Americans after World War II: he got a job, got married and set about making money, with the eye always on the prize of making more money for less work. Sheeran’s life also paralleled many of the great events of American history at the time, including dalliances with the Kennedys (Bobby Kennedy, played by Jack Huston, almost immediately sets about trying to sniff out Hoffa, which is hardly welcomed with open arms by any of these guys), running guns to the Cubans and brushing elbows with various other semi-legendary mob guys. In that sense, The Irishman feels a bit like a micro-focused version of James Ellroy’s freewheeling Underworld USA trilogy, which chronicled that same period of time in kaleidescopic, Ellroy-heavy fashion.

The Irishman is not that. It’s a character study of a guy who more or less spent his whole career following orders, sublimating his own personality, talking when asked to talk and saying the things that he was told to say, whacking the guys he was asked to whack without asking questions, and what happens when that guy finally looks back on his life and sees what kind of legacy living your whole life like that will leave. Thematically, it has a lot more in common with Scorsese’s more openly religious films like Silence — the films that explore Scorsese’s relationship with guilt and faith — than those that explore excess like Wolf of Wall Street. Jordan Belfort knows some people think what he does is bad; he doesn’t care. Frank Sheeran might know the same thing, but he doesn’t even pause to think about it. It’s his own version of a devotion to a higher power, and Frank takes even longer to question it than the monks in Silence.

The Irishman is therefore not exactly a film about pomp and circumstance, though there’s some of that, too. It’s mainly a film of guys having meetings, of sitting around having drinks and discussing things and politicking and, perhaps most importantly, how the world goes by even when you’re busy trying to change how the world works. There’s a lot to say about how The Irishman looks at male friendships, especially these pre-bromance friendships that seem borne out of a need to bond that’s half bonhomie and half a desire to self-protect. Sheeran and Hoffa become friends even though the balance of power is completely fucked in Hoffa’s favour; it becomes what Hoffa wants and needs as an insecure, paranoid old man prone to fits of emotional flurry. Pacino hasn’t been this good in decades, harvesting the explosive and bug-eyed Pacino from dozens of subpar films into a tragic, comic figure that feels fresh even though a) he’s playing a real guy who is not only famous but a pivotal figure of 20th century America; b) he’s doing it with pure Pacino energy. 

In fact, it’s hard to be concise about a film that presents such a complex, funny, mordant, touching and dense tapestry in such a matter-of-fact way. It’s one of Scorsese’s simplest, most visually unadorned works, yet every frame feels rich and packed with detail (even if, in some cases, that detail is an old man’s knit polo shirt and pinky ring). The film’s hefty budget and insanely long production can be chalked up to its use of deaging technology — a facet that has been much discussed in the lead-up to the film but ultimately factors in the film less. Some of it is certainly adaptation: it’s certainly bracing that the film cuts early on from a 90-year-old DeNiro to a smoothed-out DeNiro in his 40s, but the majority of the deaging is used to make DeNiro look about 10 to 15 years younger than he actually is. The Irishman, despite its technological hoop-jumping, is not a film about young men.

Most of the great filmmakers did not get to plan what their last movie was: they were either sideswiped by illness or became unfashionable long before their careers were over. Most of the great directors’ last films are not eulogies — they’re footnotes. There’s no indication that Martin Scorsese is intending for The Irishman to be his last film, but it’s such a lonely, contemplative look at all of the themes that have popped up in his films before that there’s no way he’s not at least considering that it might make for a fitting epitaph if that’s the case. Scorsese has been in the news a lot these days for ridiculous bad-faith arguments that will seemingly never end, but what he should be in the news for is, somehow, pulling off something as incredible as The Irishman.

The Irishman opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 15 before hitting Netflix worldwide on Nov. 27.

See our article about the film’s theatrical run in Montreal here.

Watch the trailer here: