Three years ago in these pages I interviewed Martin Scorsese about his adaptation of the Shūsaku Endō novel Silence. At the end of our conversation, I asked the director what was next for him. Scorsese sighed. He was exhausted from making the film, he confessed, and wasn’t sure he was up to any more. Then he offered a sly grin. Robert De Niro had been whispering in his ear, he said. “De Niro and I, we’ve had this project in mind about an old hit man—a true story. It takes place in the 1960s. It’s about the price you pay for a life that you lead, and a sense of good and evil.”
And so comes The Irishman, produced by Netflix with a reported budget of $160 million. Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian—the two collaborated on 2002’s Gangs of New York—have based the film on the 2004 nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, presenting the life of Frank Sheeran, a high-ranking Teamster official known for his ties to the mob. As an old man, Sheeran (who died in 2003) boasted that, alongside his Teamster duties, he had served as a hit man, adept—in a gruesome metaphor that formed the book’s title—at “painting house walls.”
The Irishman follows the careers of two men, Sheeran and longtime Teamster chief Jimmy Hoffa, from the 1940s to the 2000s. (Chronicling this sweep of time is made possible through the interventions of VFX technology—CGI touchups that make actors look younger, digitally “de-aging” them.) De Niro’s Frank is a World War II vet, truck driver, and petty thief who, through a chance meeting, becomes a trusted henchman for Philly mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). With Bufalino mentoring him, Frank gets a union job, rises in the Teamster hierarchy, and ultimately lands as confidant and friend to Hoffa (Al Pacino, in what incredibly is his first-ever appearance in a Scorsese movie). Scorsese and his lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker steer deftly among different time frames; a narrative spine is provided by a 1975 road trip Sheeran and Bufalino are making, with their wives, from Philly to Detroit to attend a wedding—and also to visit Hoffa. With De Niro narrating in voiceover, the movie ranges back over Frank’s career and family life, and forward to his eighties, alone and ailing in a nursing home.
The Irishman is long, but its three-and-a-half hours fairly fly by, a tribute to the effectiveness with which Scorsese and Zaillian sympathetically engage the experiences of multiple characters over many decades. In addition to the aging of the actors, superb period-piece details and a background tapestry of news stories all create a near-perfect blending of personal story and social chronicle, working together to draw forth the reality of time’s passage, with it mixed mercies and cruelties. A movie that draws you in this fully can go on a long time; it feels less like an entertainment than like life itself.
Throughout much of the film, De Niro wears a default grimace, as if assailed by a bad odor. That odor could be Sheeran’s discomfort at his own actions, which culminate in a crass and violent betrayal. Good mob lieutenant that he is, his is not to question, but to act; loyalty, rather than ethical deliberation, is his stock in trade. Does Frank’s complicity bother him? Hard to tell. The Irishman reminds us how effective De Niro—who has played voluble roles aplenty in his career—can be when he’s not saying very much. Frank possesses the quiet person’s advantage, by which simplicity can pass for depth. (When Frank does open up, what comes out is hilarious; in one scene, he muses about why he prefers to be buried in a crypt, since “you’re dead, yes, but it’s not as final” as being buried in the ground.)
While De Niro’s character sits at the center of the film, Pacino’s Hoffa is the tragic figure, and the more compelling one. As various conflicts with the mob mount in intensity, Hoffa’s insistence on defending his own personal fiefdom (“This is my union!” he snarls) eventually transforms mere turf protection into something more, something like a commitment to a principle that—amid a life of moral chaos—might even be worth dying for. Addressing a union rally, Hoffa whips the Teamsters into a frenzy with a rousing refrain of “when anything gets done in this country, a truck got it there!” The scene captures brilliantly the point at which demagoguery and passionate political commitment blur together. In recent years one might be forgiven for feeling that Pacino has jumped the shark as an actor, playing roles with a gravelly voiced, shouting braggadocio that approaches caricature. But the role of Hoffa allows him to take these energies and plow them back into nuance, delivering a mesmerizing performance that lets us see once again the actor who is fine-tuned enough to play Shakespeare.