Even without the now almost ubiquitous modifier toxic in front of it, masculinity has become a dirty word. That’s as true in the world of film as anywhere else. White male directors–Who needs them? White male stars? Ditto. Old white male directors and stars? Let’s not even go there.
The stories of white men have been told to death. And here comes Martin Scorsese with yet another film about gangsters obsessed with guns and status, a story in which women are mostly relegated to the sidelines. The Irishman may be the last thing you want to see right now.
Yet even if The Irishman takes place almost completely in a world of men, it’s all about the limits of that world–and about how even the most thoughtless and ruthless men somehow long for women’s approval, even if they can’t, or won’t, admit it. Scorsese has never bought into facile readings of masculinity: In Taxi Driver, a loner’s fantasies of heroic vigilantism push him beyond his limits. The Wolf of Wall Street is a burlesque of American male greed. The Aviator shows us a dashing, ambitious capitalist whose eccentricities morph over time into crackpot paranoia. Scorsese’s 25th narrative feature inches into even subtler realms. The Irishman is a late-career masterwork, a picture that couldn’t have been made by a young man, or by anyone without Scorsese’s range of experience as a filmmaker. It’s an antidote to men’s insistence on their own superiority and power, and a reminder that old age, if we’re lucky enough to see it, eventually brings us all to our knees. The Irishman is about everything life can take out of a man–even one who thinks he has everything.
Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapted The Irishman from Charles Brandt’s 2004 potboiler I Heard You Paint Houses, about a lower-tier Mafia figure, Frank Sheeran, who claims he killed Jimmy Hoffa, the onetime Teamster president who went missing in 1975 and was finally declared dead in 1982, though his body was never found. (The book’s title refers to alleged Mafia code for discreetly approaching a man who’s willing to kill, for a price.) The picture unites three actors who have worked together before in various permutations, though never all in the same film. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci–all in superb, layered performances–play characters whose arc spans the 1950s to the early 2000s, which means their faces, appropriately weathered in real life, required extensive digital de-aging. In their younger guises, the artificial marble smoothness of their skin is distracting at first, but you learn not to notice it. These actors, de-aged, don’t even fully look like their younger selves; their faces are semi-new creations, more like sketches made from memory than images we can fact-check by revisiting old movies.
The Irishman opens in the early 2000s, as an aged Frank, played by De Niro, begins recounting, from his nursing-home wheelchair, either the truth as it happened or a series of tall tales. He flashes back to 1975, and then further back, to the mid-1950s, when, as a delivery-truck driver, he meets Russell Bufalino (Pesci), the boss of a small but mighty Northeastern Pennsylvania crime family. Pinched and miserable, Russell commands rather than earns respect. With his creased brow and perpetual scowl, he could be a tortured gremlin out of Dante’s Inferno. He takes Frank under his wing and launches him in a new line of work: rubbing guys out.
Frank accepts these jobs with more equanimity than bluster, but they do give him power and a sense of purpose. And in the course of his work–a career packed with colorful, crooked men, most of whom end up prematurely dead–he eventually meets Hoffa (Pacino), an affable guy who thinks in big loops and speaks in even bigger gestures–the air around him vibrates with his big-boss energy. He’ll get the job done, whatever it takes, consorting with mobsters as needed.
Frank becomes Hoffa’s unofficial sometime bodyguard and a close friend: each man is welcomed into the other’s family, absorbed into whatever warmth is there. It’s not until the movie’s end that you understand how golden this time was, for both of them. If women mostly drift around the periphery of The Irishman–Hoffa’s wife Josephine is played by Welker White; Frank’s wife Irene by Stephanie Kurtzuba–they’re also the near-invisible network that keeps the men going. And the most defiant force in The Irishman, one that pits the three male characters in a stubborn and destructive triangle, is a woman, Frank’s daughter Peggy, played as a girl by Lucy Gallina and as a teenager and grown woman by Anna Paquin.
Peggy is a sensitive soul who knows what a bully her father is; she keeps her distance, and it pains him. But if Peggy despises her father, she recoils from Pesci’s Russell. With no kids of his own, Russell longs to earn her affection: in one of the movie’s most searing scenes, he presents the young Peggy with a Christmas gift–ice skates, plus a generous chunk of cash–that repulses rather than delights her. Her disdain crushes him, only reinforcing the one behavior that works for him: bullying. His life has no meaning unless he’s in control.
Hoffa, garrulous and avuncular and gruffly kind, also adores Peggy, and she loves him back, seeing him, with at least partial accuracy, as a champion of the little guy–not as the kind of man who, like Frank or Russell, might crush that guy under his boot. Paquin is wonderful here: she turns Peggy’s disgust and revulsion into a kind of bristly radiance. No wonder she’s one of the most powerful characters in the movie, albeit one with relatively few lines. Both Frank and Russell see how easily Hoffa’s charm works on her; how could they not resent it? What’s coming is a betrayal of Shakespearean proportions, and it’s a daughter’s love–or withholding of that love–that helps set off its destructive vibrations.
For the first 2½ hours of its 3½-hour runtime, The Irishman is clever and entertaining, to the point where you may think that’s all it’s going to be. But its last half hour is moving in a way that creeps up on you, and it’s then that you see what Scorsese was working toward all along: a mini-history of late–20th century America–and its machismo–as filtered through the eyes of a small-time guy who needs to believe in his own importance and capacity for decency.
The Irishman is a ghost twin to another Scorsese movie, one that also featured De Niro and Pesci: the 1990 Goodfellas. In places it has the same freewheeling jauntiness, though not nearly as much macho swagger. Guys like the ones we meet in Goodfellas live in the bluntness of their present. Today’s virile, angry energy is all that matters. Who cares what happens tomorrow?
But The Irishman, digging deep into strata of betrayal and regret and loss, is affecting in a way Goodfellas is not. An old man couldn’t have made that movie, just as a younger one couldn’t have made this one. The Irishman is all about the tomorrow that a young man with power never has to think about, a tomorrow that’s here before you know it. The world is his–until it isn’t.
This appears in the November 11, 2019 issue of TIME.
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