Considering that I was able to watch Martin Scorsese's new gangster epic from the comfort of my couch – and after a full plate of Thanksgiving leftovers, no less – the personal astonishment of Netflix's The Irishman wasn't that I made it through all three-and-a-half hours in one sitting. It was that, with only a couple hours' break, I then proceeded to watch all three-and-a-half hours again. This probably says more about my movie-fanatic lifestyle, couch-potato nature, and social-hermit leanings than I should publicly admit. But there you have it: I think Scorsese's latest (also playing, on the big screen, in a limited run at Iowa City's FilmScene) is a genuine masterpiece, even though it has aspects with which I could quibble and I wasn't entirely crazy about its two central performances. This, however, is Marty's show. And he puts on a helluva show.
With its screenplay by Steven Zaillian, The Irishman is based on a factually disputed nonfiction by Charles Brandt titled I Heard You Paint Houses (“painting houses” being Mafia slang for murder). I presume that's the title Scorsese would have preferred for his adaptation as well, given that he places the capitalized words “I HEARD,” “YOU,” and “PAINT HOUSES” on individual title cards (with no mention of the movie's actual title) in the film's first minutes. This could, I suppose, be read as a barely veiled eff-you to whomever among the Netflix suits insisted on the name change. But I prefer to think of it as Scorsese's early admission that despite questions surrounding the book's legitimacy, he's taking the work at face value, and imagining that protagonist Frank Sheeran – who worked for decades as a hitman for Pennsylvania's Bufalino crime family – was responsible for the 1975 disappearance (i.e. murder) of famous/infamous Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. Only the dead know the truth for certain. But it feels, now, like maybe we do, too.
Long before Hoffa enters the picture, though, The Irishman introduces us to Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who's first shown as an elderly, wheelchair-bound octogenarian in a retirement facility. He begins recounting his expansive tale to us – or rather, to an unseen visitor whose identity won't be revealed for three-plus hours – and in short order we learn of the Irish-American's early stint as a truck driver and low-level enforcer, and how his accidental encounter with Mob leader Russell Bufalino forever changed his life. Russell is played by Scorsese favorite Joe Pesci in his first film role in almost a decade, and the actor is so off-the-charts phenomenal that I'm tempted to say he's forever changed my life, too – or, at least, my lifelong perception of the guy's talents. There's almost no trace of the profane bulldog of Raging Bull, or the terrifying (Oscar-winning) live wire of GoodFellas, or the slapstick goon of Home Alone, or the spirited wisenheimer of My Cousin Vinny. Pesci, here, rarely speaks above a stage whisper, and at half his usual speed to boot, because Russell Bufalino is a man who doesn't have to talk loud or fast for anyone. It's a thrilling performance, fierce and funny and roiling with quiet menace, and Pesci is so effortlessly charismatic that it makes perfect sense that, months after their initial acquaintance, Sheeran would trade all other employment opportunities for the chance to do dirty work for Russell full time.
A word about The Irishman's early, getting-to-know-our-players scenes, because you've likely heard about the computerized de-aging effects that have been employed to occasionally shave decades off De Niro, Pesci, and, eventually, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. (De Niro's normally brown eyes have also been digitally altered to a more Irish-appropriate blue, an effect that didn't bother me at all given the distance between my couch and average-sized computer monitor. Those seeing the film on the big screen, even a bigger screen, may feel differently.) At first, there was a bit of Uncanny Valley awkwardness in seeing middle-aged versions of actors in their mid-to-late 70s, and for better or worse, bodies don't lie; when De Niro's Sheeran is traipsing over a rocky beachfront or running to his car, his facial features may suggest 40, but the man still moves like someone who long ago passed the half-century mark. I gradually adjusted to the weirdness, however, and it didn't take me out of the overall experience. At least not nearly as frequently as Pacino's portrayal of Hoffa did.
For the record, after Sheeran is recruited by Russell to be the Teamster leader's de facto bodyguard and traveling companion, Pacino has a number of extraordinary moments in The Irishman, and he certainly nails the verve and gusto with which Hoffa rallied and incited his union masses. But I never really believed Pacino in the role for the same reason I never really believed in Tom Hanks' Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: All I saw was the actor, not the character. Hanks has played so many salt-of-the-earth nice guys, and, by all evidence, is such a salt-of-the-earth nice guy, that it just felt like Tom Hanks himself was guiding us through the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Similarly, Pacino has been doing his braying, showboating, “I'm gonna take a FLAMETHROWER to this place!!!” routine for so long now that his incessant, ultra-loud-and-then-somehow-louder screeching as Hoffa feels all too predictable, and sadly indistinguishable; replace the words he's saying, and he may as well be doing Scent of a Woman or Any Given Sunday or Angels in America all over again. Pacino is wonderful whenever the script grants Hoffa an understated or contemplative bit, and he's exceptionally tender in his fatherly bond with Sheeran and grandfatherly bond with Sheeran's eldest daughter Peggy (played as a youth by Lucy Gallina and as an adult by Anna Paquin). Too much of the actor's screen time, though, is spent with him amping the intensity to 11 when an eight or nine would've been far more effective.
My issue with De Niro's performance is an opposite one. He doesn't do anything wrong, per se, and his portrayal of the 80-something version of Sheeran is close to flawless, including his resigned mumbling of the man's voice-over recollections. Yet despite numerous examples of fine work since, you'd have to go back maybe to Scorsese's 1991 Cape Fear to find a legitimately exciting performance on De Niro's résumé. And while Frank Sheeran, as a character, isn't exactly built for excitement, the role also falls too neatly into De Niro's now rather limited wheelhouse: He shrugs and grimaces and occasionally barks, and what he does isn't much different from what De Niro impressionists have been doing in standup sets and talk-show appearances for more than 20 years running. Unlike Pacino, I do buy the actor in his role here – there's weight and meaning behind what Sheeran says and, more crucially, doesn't say. But a 210-minute drama should have more than “solid” as its performative center. It should have someone capable of variety and mystery and surprise, and as first-rate as he oftentimes is here, De Niro doesn't deliver much in the way of any of that.
Scorsese sure as hell does, though. There's no denying that The Irishman generally plays in a more somber, meditative key than GoodFellas, Casino, and The Departed, and it should. Between its moody portent and on-screen epitaphs for one peripheral figure after another, the film is practically a lamentation for all those lives lost amidst the gangster-pic thrills of those previous releases. And yes, from the casting to the song selections to specific patches of dialogue, the movie sometimes feels like a Scorsese's Greatest Hits package – even an American Mob Movie Greatest Hits package. (I'm positive that, in the scene of Sheeran's and Russell's first meaningful sit-down, I heard echoes of Nino Rota's iconic Godfather theme, albeit in an arrangement for harmonica.) Yet the director still keeps you, at all times, on your toes. The protracted tension and dread leading to Hoffa's eventual killing is superbly sustained, and Scorsese stages a number of public executions – plus a public beating in front of Sheeran's young daughter Peggy – with equally masterful, nerve-jangling confidence. Nearly every sequence, though, percolates with suspense, even when the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's camera is locked on a single, unmoving, unforgettable image.
Will Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (a superb Stephen Graham) continue to suffer through the latest of Hoffa's indignities or go on the attack? Will Sheeran agree to an impossible assignment or, for the first and potentially last time, finally rebel? Will the ignition key placed in the car of Hoffa's wife (Welker White, the lucky-hat-wearing babysitter from GoodFellas) lead to her explosive demise? Scorsese's latest is deadly serious stuff, but it also shows its helmer in an adventurous, even playful frame of mind – I particularly loved Russell's intro to a flashback involving the “fairy named Ferrie” that Pesci himself portrayed in Oliver Stone's JFK. And for all of the unhappiness presented over The Irishman's you'll-barely-notice-the-length length, the movie is also suffused with joy.
It's there in the forceful, committed performances, with the supporting cast boasting a treasure trove that includes Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Domenick Lombardozzi, Paul Herman, Louis Cancelmi, and onetime Scorsese muse Harvey Keitel. (Anna Paquin, uttering all of seven words, is magical in her ability to silently detail precise emotions, Peggy's lack of spoken dialogue underlining the silent horror at the film's heart.) It's there in the exquisite production design and, as always, Thelma Schoonmacher's seamless editing. It's there in Zaillian's incandescent script, the best Scorsese has worked with in over a decade. It's there, dammit, from the first shot to the final image of a barely opened door – an invitation to both look inside and, perhaps, to finally choose to look away. The Irishman may be the last gangster flick Martin Scorsese ever gives us. It's hard to imagine that anyone could possibly require another one.
Two days after Netflix unveiled The Irishman on its streaming platform, Amazon Prime gave its subscribers another autumnal Oscar hopeful in The Report, writer/director Scott Z. Burns' dramatic procedural about the efforts to release to the public thousands of pages documenting the CIA's “enhanced interrogation” techniques employed in the months and years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The two movies really aren't meant to be compared, and probably shouldn't be. But this isn't an apple and an orange. It's more like an apple and a two-hour PowerPoint presentation with Adam Driver and torture flashbacks.
Driver, as is oftentimes the case, is the best thing about the movie. His tireless government wonk Daniel J. Jones isn't given any credible depth, or literally anything in the way of a life outside his basement office, but the actor at least makes his readings of endless exposition sound recognizably human and, even more impressively, close to spontaneous. That's something you can't say about the rest of Burns' well-meaning but presentationally exhausting offering – a film that speaks, or rather shouts, to the choir with factoid after political factoid without providing emotionally gripping reasons for the words to be heard. Despite the talents of such alert, engaging professionals as Annette Bening (playing Dianne Feinstein), Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Matthew Rhys, Tim Blake Nelson, and a quite-good Corey Stoll, the actors are more or less stuck lobbing declarative statements at each other for the span of two hours. And the picture, skillfully edited though it is, is so bereft of cinematic reasons for being that I almost looked forward to the scenes of prisoners being treated heinously – and then, when they arrived, immediately felt ashamed of myself, given that they were as abjectly uncomfortable to watch as the rest of the movie was tiresome to watch. Heaven knows The Report isn't torture. It's in many ways the complete opposite: occasionally diverting and always smart, and the perfect movie for the sleep-deprived.
For reviews of Knives Out and Queen & Slim, visit "Blades of Glory."