The Irishman is a (literally) massive accomplishment by Martin Scorsese
The first thing you should know about The Irishman is that it should really be called I Heard You Paint Houses. That's the title of the disputed 2004 true crime memoir by Charles Brandt that serves as the source material, and it's also an innuendo — one that is explained in the film's opening moments by a quick cut to blood splattering, Jackson Pollock-like, across the wall of a house after a gunshot. It is the perfect image, and title, for Martin Scorsese's first gangster film since The Departed, and one that even appears misleadingly on not one but two title cards book-ending the movie.
What you probably know about The Irishman instead is that it's long — the final runtime clocks in at a bladder-bursting 209 minutes — and has a legendary cast of actors who are "de-aged" by VFX that took years to perfect. You might have also heard that it is Scorsese's first time partnering with Netflix (the only studio that would fund the gargantuan film), and, if you happened to be on Twitter after the movie screened for critics at the New York Film Festival on Friday morning, that it is getting praised for being very, very good. But what all that doesn't tell you is that The Irishman is every bit as clever, startling, violent, and obsessively purposeful as the colorful metaphor that serves as its alternate title.
Reuniting with Scorsese for the first time since 1995's Casino, Robert De Niro plays Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, a meat truck delivery driver who gradually turns into a hit man for crime family patriarch Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Through Russell, Frank is set up with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, in what is somehow his first collaboration with Scorsese) to be his muscle. Frank occasionally "paints houses" for Hoffa, the Teamsters president, when there are union disputes, but more than anything, he becomes Hoffa's close friend, fending off growing tensions between Hoffa and the Mafia. The Irishman is structured elegantly through two framing devices: an elderly Frank recalling the story at an assisted living facility, and a middle-aged Frank on a road trip with Russell and their chain-smoking wives to Detroit, ostensibly for a wedding.
Although it's plenty clear while watching the movie unfold, the enormous undertaking required to make The Irishman doesn't fully hit you until the credits, when the cast list makes a CVS receipt look short. It took 108 days to shoot 309 scenes at 117 locations with nine different cameras to achieve the final product, which was then processed to rewind De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino's faces to their unwrinkled youth. While this effect is off-putting in the trailer and uncanny during the initial moments on screen, the "de-aged" actors quickly become a natural fit in the film, in large part thanks to the cast's dedication to helping the technology along. "It's [also] about posture; it's about movement; it's about clarity of the eyes," Scorsese explained at the press screening of the acting required to sell the aging. Voice work, too — De Niro's descent into geriatric frailty at the end of the film is particularly astonishing to witness.
While the runtime is a bit of a setback — it's Scorsese's longest movie ever, and God knows it's hard to find a three-and-a-half hour window in one's day already — The Irishman trots right along without any drag or lag. The only shame in the film being released on Netflix after a four-week run in theaters is that many audiences will likely watch the movie on their couches, within hands-reach of any number of distractions. The Irishman isn't "slow" by any stretch of the imagination (it's also one of Scorsese's funniest movies to date), but it's hard to resist temptation when your focus needs to last nearly four hours. And with Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker deploying their usual quick cuts, supplementary captions, and blink-and-you-miss-it visual gags, this is a movie you don't want to accidentally look away from at the wrong moment. You might miss the wood-chipper.
There will always be critics who get up in arms about a movie's use of violence or the "glorification" of the mob, particularly in the depiction of real events like the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (see also: the scandal surrounding the forthcoming Joker movie). And The Irishman won't be immune to that; it walks a particularly tricky line because of the uncertainty around the real-life Frank Sheeran's claims about his involvement with the mob. But while many of Scorsese's films could hitherto be sorted roughly into the separate piles of "crime" and "spiritually probing," The Irishman is perhaps his first to be specifically interested in where the two meet. The 76-year-old director is in no way "returning to form" with The Irishman (his underappreciated last film, Silence, is one of his career best) or rehashing the glory days of Goodfellas. Instead, he has an entirely different and new ambition, one that turns inward and upward at the most surprising times.
For while Pacino and Pesci deserve every supporting actor nomination inevitably coming their way, one of the film's best relationships is actually that between Frank and his daughter, the deeply intuitive Peggy (Anna Paquin, with the younger performances done by a great Lucy Gallina). While it is never overtly centered, Frank's deteriorating relationship with Peggy is the raw, open heart of the film; a scene in which Frank brutally beats up a grocer who pushed his daughter while she stands off to the side is one of the movie's standouts. Who had "Martin Scorsese makes the devastating father-daughter film of the year" on their Bingo card?
But I will leave debates about where in Scorsese's oeuvre The Irishman falls for another day. It's tempting to want to rank it, though — to hold it up beside Goodfellas or Taxi Driver or Raging Bull and compare their respective deficiencies and successes. What I will say instead, is this: The Irishman is Scorsese's biggest work, one that will reward revisits and rewinds, one that might require multiple trips to the bathroom but needs nothing trimmed, one that explores themes that Scorsese has chased for years and also ones that are entirely new. It is a work that unfolds like a question that seems to ask you one thing when it means something else entirely.
The Irishman opens in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 8 and will expand to more theaters in the subsequent weeks. It will be available on Netflix Nov. 27.