Martin Scorsese Returns to the American Underworld With Brilliantly Wistful Epic ‘The Irishman’

The Irishman,” grand yet secretive, feels like an immense tour of American history’s underground. The title itself is both a reference to its main character and to another, better known public figure. This is the first feature-length drama for Netflix by master director Martin Scorsese and it is a bold gesture. It runs at three and a half hours, uses groundbreaking digital technology to make its legendary cast young again, and ends by imagining the answers to one of the most infamous disappearances from the 1970s. It is much to take in, but Scorsese is a born storyteller who allows this saga to unfold with a fierce sense of detail. It also deserves its breadth because much of “The Irishman” feels like a director reaching twilight, looking over at the themes and character types that have obsessed his work for half a century.

In the ’90s an elderly man, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sits in a nursing home reflecting on his life. His narration takes us back to the late 50s when as a truck driver he meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who is connected to mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). An Irishman among Italians, Sheeran proves himself as a hitman who can blow things up or whack someone without trouble. Bufalino recommends Sheeran to a particular partner, Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). After Hoffa uses Sheeran to strike at a major rival the two become very close. Sheeran soon finds himself witnessing the inner workings of the links between the mob, unions and even political halls of power. When John F. Kennedy becomes president Hoffa faces the wrath of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and goes to prison, but not before helping Sheeran ascend as a Teamsters official. But as Hoffa grows more hot-headed, especially after a stint in prison, his mafia associates feel he could become too much of a risk to keep alive.

Only on its glossy exterior is “The Irishman” another gangster movie.  Yet it is a dramatic reflection of the artists who’ve crafted it. There is a sense of Scorsese reaching a milestone with this film, after having made along with De Niro and Pesci a body of work astonishing in its breadth. This is the culmination of their work in exploring themes of crime, the immigrant experience and power, going back to films like “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” Scorsese and De Niro have of course amassed an even more expansive catalogue of notable work that includes “Mean Streets,” “The King of Comedy,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” Any filmmaker would die happy having just one of these in their resume. “The Irishman” finds both filmmaker and cast older, experienced beyond any of their peers, and it takes on an almost meditative tone. Famously it still tries to defy age itself with digital technology used to make De Niro, Pesci and Pacino look younger. Although it can be slightly distracting, particularly during a few close ups where a face looks a bit too smooth, it also creates the strange sensation of seeing these veteran actors somehow returning to the past, as if they are revisiting the very personalities that defined them as icons. De Niro is again the pensive, almost likeable man amongst scoundrels, he survives by not saying too much and rarely questions when ordered to kill someone. Pesci however switches gears. The hot-head of previous Scorsese movies is now the wiser, quieter “made guy,” speaking in near whispers while sitting in low-lit restaurant booths.

Beyond crime “The Irishman” is a study in friendship and power, set within a moment in American history whose more famous participants have become mythic. Played by Pacino with his usual flare, Jimmy Hoffa is Sheeran’s link to a wider palette of important events. The other “Irishman” of the title is John F. Kennedy, who the film doesn’t shy away from connecting to the mafia via his father who seeks their aid in stuffing ballots with names taken from gravestones. Sheeran’s deepening friendship with Bufalino and Hoffa places him in the middle of events like the Bay of Pigs invasion, when the Kennedy administration flopped in an attempted invasion of Cuba which the mob hoped would return them to Havana. For buffs of these decades familiar themes are all here including the Kennedys’ persecution of the mob, the idea that in failing to overthrow Fidel Castro the mafia may have then turned its sights on JFK, Hoffa’s own vicious vendetta against Robert Kennedy (played by Jack Huston), who tries to nab Hoffa over the mafia’s domination of organized labor. When JFK is assassinated Hoffa refuses to lower the American flag at the Teamsters’ headquarters, defiantly hoisting it to full peak. Pacino plays Hoffa with the force of a born rabble rouser with an iron will, overbearing with obsessions like punctuality. He’s more subtle than Jack Nicholson’s incendiary version in Danny DeVito’s underrated 1992 “Hoffa.” 

The screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt, beautifully threads the wider themes of history to the more personal, wistful side of Sheeran’s story. He sits in a nursing home in the present, watching the world change on television while younger generations aren’t even aware of who Jimmy Hoffa was. So absorbed in his world, Sheeran never noticed his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) realizes from an early age her father is a thug and killer, eternally terrified of him. His relationships with Hoffa and even Bufalino feel like the kind of bonds formed between men of business who grow as friends, except they are involved in fraud and murder. There are hints of dark comedy in the way Hoffa and Sheeran share a hotel room, or when Sheeran road trips with Bufalino and their wives like any other regular pair of retired couples. Scorsese has never romanticized the Italian gangster figure, he has always portrayed this world as one of sharp, brutal, sometimes darkly goofy personalities. Hoffa will make the crucial mistake of thinking he’s somehow above his mob associates because, after all, he’s a labor leader, not an outright gangster.  

Scorsese has always been renowned for his brilliant energy and cinematic exuberance, and while “The Irishman” has his trademark eye for memorable shots and visceral editing by Thelma Schoonmaker, there is also a change in tone. There’s less of an emphasis on bloody violence and more on the passage of time. Even the music has changed. While “Goodfellas” and “Casino” were set to blistering rock n’ roll playlists, here composer Robbie Robertson of The Band fame provides a mournful, harmonica-driven score. Maybe the master senses this could be the last crime saga of this scope he’ll do with this cast, and fittingly approaches the material with a nostalgic spirit.

Meditative but still bold, “The Irishman” closes with passages that also pretend to explain one of underground America’s great mysteries. Jimmy Hoffa disappeared in 1975. While it’s not hard to guess the kind of associates who had the power to snuff him out, exactly the who and how have remained a topic of intense speculation. Scorsese takes advantage to bring this tale of underworld friends to a climax where complex issues of loyalty and even guilt come into play. In more practical terms, the film’s version of what might have happened to Hoffa doesn’t seem too far-fetched either. 

While some viewers may choose to see “The Irishman” on Netflix (where you can take a breather from its running time), Scorsese envisions its sprawling tale in a way that merits watching it on a big screen. He works again with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who provides lush tones to a world of shadowy men. Rarely do we get this kind of film anymore. Its characters are larger than life but actually lived, real drama is found in its themes of crime and power, and a master director and a legendary cast deliver at the top of their abilities. It’s one of the year’s best films, and a reminder of how lives are being lived even by those lurking in the shadows.

The Irishman” opens Nov. 1 in select theaters and begins streaming Nov. 27 on Netflix.