Set across multiple timelines, Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) recalls his life and career working both as a union official alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and as a killer-for-hire for mob bosses Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel).
'The Irishman', as much as any movie can be, is defined by your expectations. It's Scorsese, DeNiro, Pesci, Pacino and Keitel together on screen. It's a period crime saga. It's about Jimmy Hoffa, one of the most controversial figures in American history, both in the political sphere and in the underworld. There's the de-aging technology to make DeNiro et al look 30, 40 years younger than they are. There's the fact that it's a Netflix movie, and it's one of cinema's most ardent defenders working with them.
Strip all of that away, all that expectations, and what you're left with is a movie that is deeply ruminative with a stately pace that doesn't conclude with the kind of finesse that 'Goodfellas' or 'Casino' has. Other than the fact that it shares some of the same cast and the director, obviously, 'The Irishman' bares little resemblance to either movie. It has none of the wild, free-wheeling energy of 'Goodfellas', and is bereft of the gilded decadence of 'Casino'. Rather, 'The Irishman' offers an examination of a violent life and its consequences in a way that Scorsese has never fully examined before.
From the very moment we meet Frank Sheeran, we know that he's a man who has no qualms about anything. It's not that he doesn't care, it's more that he simply feels no remorse. It's utterly chilling how DeNiro as Sheeran shoots people straight in the face and calmly walks away, not before describing the planning and intricacies that go into it. To him, it's just work; the same as driving a truck or adjusting a timing chain. Likewise, the people who set him to work are just as matter-of-fact about it. Pacino's Hoffa is magnetic, and you really understand why he was such a dynamic and spirited character in American political life. It's not to say that Pacino dials him up to 12 as was once his wont, but we see how so many people were willing to follow him. Joe Pesci, meanwhile, is more controlled and subtle here than any performance he's given in decades. His character speaks barely above a whisper, but the ominous energy he exudes says far more than anyone ever could.
These three performances - from DeNiro, Pacino and Pesci - form the core of the movie, and what is it to be pulled between two masters. Sheeran's loyalty to them both is the bedrock of his being, but as you'd expect, there comes time when he's forced to choose. The way in which DeNiro approaches his character is so understated that it almost doesn't register, to the point where he almost seems bored by it all, but it's when it builds to the conclusion that we see what Scorsese and Steve Zaillian's script was driving at. If you look at Scorsese's crime movies, like 'The Wolf of Wall Street', the aforementioned 'Goodfellas' and 'Casino', or even 'Mean Streets' to a lesser extent, consequences come either in violent and abrupt ways or they don't come at all. Here, the final act is just that - consequences. Without giving too much away, it's done with such gentle but sustained intent that it becomes devastating after the epic runtime.
There are some caveats, and yes, the runtime is one of them. Likewise, the technical wizardry of making DeNiro et al look 30-odd years younger than they are is another. It's not that it looks hokey or cheap, it's more that it almost becomes distracting at points and you find yourself trying to figure out whether it's just hair dye or the CGI. Likewise, the mannerisms of DeNiro as a younger man looks off because, well, he's a 76-year old man playing a 40-something man and it looks really obvious that he's 76. It's distracting in parts, sure, but on the whole, it's done that well that your eyes just adapt and accept what you're seeing, even if you know DeNiro didn't look quite like that at the age they're portraying him.
If this is to be Scorsese's final chapter on crime in America, it's by far his most introspective. There is nothing lurid or intoxicating here, it doesn't offer up organised crime as endless parties and quotable scenes - save for maybe one tense moment with Stephen Graham about being late to meetings. Scorsese shifts from montages to slow-motion, almost baroque scenes where an action plays out over minutes instead of quick cuts and every grimace and movement is caught and preserved for all memory. At over 200 minutes long, you'd imagine the story would run out before the movie does, but Zallian's script keeps the balance finely tuned between big character moments and understanding the impact of their actions in the larger world, all while examining itself from afar, when the movie shifts forward to a retired Sheeran explaining it all.
There's so much to take in 'The Irishman', and for all the talk of the technology, the runtime, the actors assembled, what you take away from it is really something surprisingly soulful and intimate for a crime movie. It may not be what you'd expect from all of the pieces involved, but it is a fascinating and entertaining experience.