The Irishman ★★★★½

The Irishman is a behemoth of a movie, one that at three and a half hours could only have been made with the good will granted someone who has reached the kind of cinematic hall of fame Martin Scorsese has with his 50+ year career. It's also a movie that fundamentally is about that kind of lengthy career and the weight of aging. For large parts of it, The Irishman is an entertaining hangout movie that might test viewers' patience, but it's a story that rewards the efforts of viewers willing to stick with it until its extraordinary last hour, when the life of Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) culminates in a gripping series of scenes that find Scorsese asking questions about masculinity, violence, power, class, and legacy that seem to be at the top of mind as the filmmaker approaches 80.

The Irishman tells the story of the real life Frank Sheeran and his personal and professional relationship with famous union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank is singled out early by the Bufalino crime family for his loyalty in refusing to give up the customers to whom he was selling goods stolen from his job as a delivery driver. From there, he becomes the mob's go-to assassin, "painting houses" with the blood of those the Bufalinos deem obstacles. Through Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) Frank meets Hoffa and the two form a close friendship and partnership, with Frank acting as Hoffa's bodyguard and enforcer during his lengthy conflict with the rising Kennedys and his up-and-coming union rival Tony Provenzano.

Scorsese has made a bunch of gangster movies in the past, but none like this one, where any glamour or excitement of this life is sapped from the film in favour of a series of characters whose outcomes seem fated and who operate in this world as if they never had any other option. Sheeran is an interesting character, often subdued, reflective, someone who fits naturally alongside Russell's cool and Pesci's uncharacteristically cerebral performance and in contrast to Pacino's ambitious, boisterous Hoffa. Sheeran rarely feels in control of his own destiny, though he wouldn't likely admit that, and more like an automaton, sleepwalking through a routine and driven by a sense that his capable gifts for violence and problem-solving make him unsuited for any other life, including, it's clear, a domestic one, though he doesn't seem to realise the ways his behaviour and outlook are making his own family afraid of him.

The crime story here is an underworld epic in the tradition of The Godfather or The Wire, but that story is couched in the relationship between these two men. That relationship is so central to the film, in fact, that a case could be made it's the first chunk of the movie, before the two meet, that could be axed for a tighter film. I'm not sure that we learn anything about Frank's character prior to his meeting Hoffa that we don't get through that relationship itself, but that first chunk means more screen time for Pesci, and establishes the role of the crime families in Frank's world and, especially, the role of the Bufalinos in Frank's own understanding of loyalty. With so much room, Scorsese is able to build more powerfully on the themes of what an entire life entails, and to muse on the consequences and the value of a life spent in the pursuit of power and in the service of that pursuit. Frequently, Scorsese will introduce us to a character accompanied by onscreen text detailing the time and method of their eventual death. Scorsese looks back over the kinds of flawed, doomed characters whose stories he has built a career on with a critical eye, as if to ask what the point of it all is even as he seems to acknowledge that the world in which these men operate was always inescapable to them.

The performances here are stellar all around, but especially Pacino as Hoffa and Pesci (who was coaxed out of retirement to work again with Scorsese) as Russell who remind us of their own mastery of their craft. If there's one thing to be grateful to The Irishman for, even if you aren't taken in by its story, it's how the film gives us a trio of capstone performances from Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino—the latter two are particularly special given the downward trend of the once-heavyweight actors' efforts in the recent past. It reminds you of when the pair made classics like The Godfather Part II and Heat, or when De Niro and Pesci used to work with Scorsese in the respective primes of all their careers. The much-mentioned digital de-aging of the main cast to tell the story over decades never bothered me, though I know some people found it distracting and unconvincing. Your mileage may vary with respect to the digital effects, but the performances happening underneath are first-rate.

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