Though a master filmmaker who’s worked in every genre while serving as an impeccable scholar and activist, Martin Scorsese is often considered as a man who makes gangster movies. Which is to say that “The Irishman,” a new Scorsese gangster project that re-teams him with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since “Casino,” has quite a bit of expectation to live up to. So let’s get this out of the way up front: “The Irishman” isn’t “Goodfellas.” It isn’t “Mean Streets” or “Raging Bull” either. “The Irishman” is a slower, weightier film, with a quieter and more cumulative kind of bravado.
Scorsese establishes his ruminative tone with the opening sequence, a first-person-seeming tracking shot that moves through the corridors of a rest home. The implication of this moment, similar to that of the opening shot of “Psycho,” is that we could settle on any of many stories. We happen to land on Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a man with white hair in a wheelchair. After years of paycheck sludge, De Niro has his stature back. His eyes communicate a wealth of regret. On the soundtrack is the song that will become the anthem of “The Irishman”: the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.”
Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian, adapting Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” organize Frank’s recollections within an audacious structure that captures the freewheeling nature of memory. “The Irishman” is composed of several temporal loops. Frank remembers a road trip he took with Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a powerful Italian mafioso, and their respective wives along the East Coast to attend the wedding of a daughter of Russell’s cousin, Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano). Within this framework, Frank recalls how he first met Russell, Bill, and eventually the legendary Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). There are also recollections within these recollections, as “The Irishman” becomes a slipstream in which decades bleed into one another with shocking suddenness. Frank, Russell and Jimmy can age decades from one shot to the next, a device which powerfully communicates the speed of time.
The recollection concept frees Scorsese in other fashions too, as he isn’t held to traditional notions of cause and effect. As Frank becomes a killer for Russell, and a liaison between the Italian mafia and Jimmy, the film evolves into a dizzying and fanatically detailed tapestry of meetings, killings and betrayals that includes the Kennedys and Fidel Castro, casually suggesting American Camelot to be an illusion. America is a place of business that’s moral only when convenient, and ruthless pragmatism has a way of eating at someone like an acid. We gradually notice the conventional scenes that are being withheld, especially moments of domestic life. We don’t see them because Frank barely experienced them.
In “Goodfellas,” the murders have a strangely exhilarating, almost sexual energy; in “The Irishman” they are quick, banal, awkward and pitiful. Scorsese’s timing in these scenes is exquisite and terrifying — he consistently throws you off your axis of expectation. “The Irishman” might offer an alternative, and plausible, history of America, but it feels as if Scorsese is more directly wrestling with the implications of his own legacy.
“The Irishman” is to the early work of Scorsese what “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” was to that of John Ford. In each case, a master filmmaker is confronting the sensory pleasures of his medium, staging a reckoning.
Though pitched as an epic, “The Irishman” is an intimate film — one of faces, dinners and meetings, mostly between men. As in Scorsese’s other best movies, it’s the little textures that seep into your bones. Russell and Frank enjoy dipping crusty bread into wine — we see this ritual often, and the last time we see it, when both men are old and in prison, this ceremony is authentically heartbreaking, a testament to friendship slipping away into frailty and death. When we see Frank on crutches late in “The Irishman,” it recalls Joseph Cotten’s astonishing exit in “Citizen Kane,” another movie about the cost of American ambition on the psyche.
Every element of “The Irishman” serves a moral, poetic purpose. The publicized running time, 3 ½ hours, allows us to feel the sheer length of men outliving their relevancy. “Goodfellas” ended when it became unpleasant, when the party bled into hangover. “The Irishman” keeps going and De Niro and Pesci’s performances become daringly vulnerable. The equally publicized use of computer imagery to de-age the actors, allowing them to play the same characters over decades, allows us to see the old, lonely men that were always living within these characters, waiting to emerge.
“The Irishman” returns Scorsese to his roots, but this time those roots have been tended with existential pitilessness. This film merges the procedural obsessiveness of “Casino” with the ascetic anguish of “Silence.” It might be a masterpiece. Time, as always, will tell.