Martin Scorsese’s 3.5-hour mob epic The Irishman is an elegy to male friendship and a tragedy of divided loyalties, centring on union functionary Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and the story of his increasingly fraught role as intermediary between the Philadelphia mob and Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
The accuracy of Sheeran’s published memoir is widely disputed, but in this dense script by Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York), it hardly matters.
The film is best savoured — and makes most sense — as a late-career exploration of some of Scorsese’s life-long obsessions: the moral codes and shared triumphs of men, and the particularly masculine hubris that inevitably corrodes the most ironclad bonds.
Told in flashbacks across several decades (helped along, but not always believably, by a process of de-ageing that looks like digital airbrushing), the film is thick with melancholy, even for Scorsese, who has made a signature style out of first-person, voiceover-led films about male loss.
Themes of grief and nostalgia are recurrent in the 76-year-old’s work, from his gangster movies Goodfellas and Casino to his 1997 Dalai Lama biopic Kundun — a work infused with the mournfulness of exile, that he completed just after the death of his mother.
In The Irishman, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa is presented as part of the same tectonic shift in American politics as the assassination of JFK and the decline of the American mafia.
Sheeran, who laments that no-one knows who Jimmy Hoffa is anymore, recalls this history from a wheelchair at a nursing home, anonymous and unnoticed, except by a young priest and a couple of FBI agents who pry him for confessions and remorse.
In an early flashback, we see him as a young man hauling meat on the interstate when he has a life-changing encounter with a quietly spoken gangster, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci).
Before long, via some fluid camerawork and typical Scorsese needle drops (doo-wop grooves, crooner ballads) we pass through the highlights of a burgeoning mob career: the beatings, shootings and courtroom drama.
It’s the ’50s and Sheeran is a returned soldier with no skills beyond those learned in battle, so his new life provides an opportunity to earn extra for his family. Except there’s barely a glimpse of domestic bliss or even gratitude. The common places associated with family life — the dining table, lounge room, marital bed — don’t figure in Sheeran’s fondest memories.
Scorsese, instead, returns to the confused and later-disapproving gaze of his eldest daughter, Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin) — a stare that might as well be a force pushing her father out the door.
In the world of men, Sheeran finds sanctuary in a restaurant called the Villa di Roma — a mob hangout with heavy wood furniture and sepia lighting where several key scenes unfold, including his introduction to Philly boss Angelo Bruno (an arms-length Harvey Keitel, with narrow eyes staring through cigarette smoke).
It’s here that Scorsese picks out a significant, novelistic detail involving a house speciality that resembles a Panettone fruit cake, which Sheeran and Bufalino rip apart with their hands and dip into dessert wine.
When they enjoy this delicacy for the first time, Sheeran takes the opportunity to reveal he speaks some Italian, which he learnt during the war, and it triggers a further flashback of him shooting unarmed German POWS — an episode that establishes him as someone who can take orders, no matter how odious.
The cake makes an appearance decades later, in one of the film’s many time shifts, when both men are decrepit and old, and, like Proust’s madeleine, it unlocks precious memories of the mafia clubhouse as a long lost, idyllic home.
But the mafia is not Sheeran’s only surrogate family, and Bufalino isn’t his only benefactor.
Sheeran ends up as Jimmy Hoffa’s bodyguard at a time when the union boss is still in lock step with the mob, and discovers the Teamster leader is the opposite of the cautious, guarded Italian.
Al Pacino plays him with patrician bluster and avuncular charm (thankfully, not a mix that comes across as overacting here) — equally at home addressing a rowdy union meeting as he is giggling with Sheeran’s daughter Peggy over ice cream sundaes.
When traveling on union business, the men share the same hotel room and talk into the night in their pyjamas.
It’s a disarmingly tender image of pastel-hued vulnerability and friendship, in stark contrast to the bare-knuckle politics of the outside world (a vision that recalls a touching scene from the classic 1954 French gangster film Touchez Pas au Grisbi, in which Jean Gabin and Rene Dary also bunk down together in flannelette).
When eventually it becomes clear Sheeran must choose between Hoffa and his mob sponsors, the dilemma is like nothing he’s ever dealt with.
As a witness to some epic moments in history — from the Bay of Pigs debacle to the Kennedy assassination — his role has been that of an unassuming foot soldier and sometime-peripheral player, following simple orders.
But in The Irishman’s gripping final hour, his new choice vexes him. As underworld justice gathers terrible momentum, Scorsese’s direction is powerfully restrained, even as Sheeran and others become visibly more troubled.
We know from the beginning of the film that things are likely to end badly, because in this world they always do.
Scorsese repeats a simple visual idea throughout the film to remind us that many of his characters will face a grisly end, superimposing the dates and manner of their violent deaths in ghoulish dot points across freeze frames.
These historic annotations remind us that the film itself is an act of remembering, and this history — these lives — are already over.
As a cinematic obituary to the 20th century, it’s also a memorial to a certain type of male power.
Sheeran mourns the passing of the era, but the film’s conclusions are more circumspect.
As feminist critics like Juliana Schiesari have rightly observed, the history of movies has traditionally privileged the grief of men, casting their melancholy in a heroic light, while seldom affording the same indulgence to female protagonists.
To The Irishman’s credit, Sheeran’s reminiscences are not presented uncritically, and the good old days, it becomes clear even to him, perhaps weren’t so good after all.
In the final devastating stretch, various emotional strands are drawn into a jagged weave of confusion and remorse, of love that’s both genuine and misplaced, and even of resignation.
Scorsese manages to fashion a moving work that’s empathetic and also boldly critical. He makes us see Sheeran’s melancholy until it’s no longer heroic or romantic. Until Sheeran’s daughter, the one with the disapproving gaze, refuses to even look at him.
The Irishman is in cinemas now and streaming on Netflix from November 27.
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