Calling a new movie an “instant classic” is nonsense. The very concept of a “classic” is predicated on the lengthy amount of time spent reveling in it. To call a classic “instant” is to suggest it hasn’t spent enough time soaking in cultural consumption for us to say anything about its longevity. What’s instant about most films people label an instant classic is the urge to shout from the rooftop about its perceived brilliance. But often, the phrasing — along with the attempt to predict the future of mass artistic taste — is futile. In the case of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, an exception should be made.
In essence, it’s a film we’ve seen several times, and one that cinephiles, scholars, and audiences alike have celebrated, studied, and re-watched relentlessly. It’s peak shape mob Scorsese. If you put all of his crime films into a melting pot — Casino, The Departed, and Goodfellas serving as the meat and potatoes — The Irishman would pop out. That’s why we can say with some certainty that, barring a one-eighty in what we consider cinematic excellence, this is an instant classic.
Having worshiped this kind of Scorsese film for decades, it’s almost as if we’ve already vetted it on a national scale. We can go into it the way we’d go into Michael Apted’s upcoming 63 Up: certain about expectations but unaware of all the wonderful details that will unfold. That’s not to say The Irishman is a carbon copy of its counterparts but that it’s pristine Scorsese magic crafted in the way we’ve come to know and love by a team of his dearest and most impressive collaborators.
The 209-minute epic (besting the 3-hour record holder The Wolf of Wall Street to become Scorsese’s longest film) follows the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro in his first collaboration with Scorsese since Casino), a humble Irish-Philadelphian meat truck driver turned devoted mob middleman turned Hoffa right hand muscle. Frank is a man who prefers to leave his bedroom door ajar not because he’s paranoid, but because he’s open to whatever life brings his way, and he’s wise and even-keeled enough to see it coming and take an approachable stance.
He’s an incredible listener, patient, observant, and sharp, well-suited for his work because of his innate yearning to solve conflict, even if the means are way outside of what most would consider ethical. This is what makes Frank such a complex character. He’s a lovable, sincere, steadfast mediator that wants the best for everyone. He has a keen social sensibility. He’s simple in his traditional value. In Frank’s perfect world there would be no hits because everyone would respectfully observe the hierarchy and take no for an answer when advised to. But that’s not the world he lives in, and the allegiance he claims is to a people and culture that quietly exterminate conflict if it can’t be promptly and apologetically hashed out over red wine and palpable tension in a family owned restaurant late at night.
His story spans around 60 years, from the 40s to the early aughts, and doesn’t necessarily unfold in a linear manner. There’s a through line of chronology that gives it a linear feel, but in actuality, Scorsese bounces around constantly. We meet Frank in a nursing home near the end of his life. He investigates the lens and immediately begins unpacking his story for us, jumping from the 70s to the 50s to the 40s and so on in every temporal direction, pausing every so often to loosely deliberate over his loyalist working man ethic, issues he faced as a result, hits he took out, his family, beloved characters he met along the way, his time in WWII, emotions he felt then and now, et al.
Steve Zaillian’s screenplay (his first for Scorsese since Gangs of New York) adaptation of Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses is so comprehensive of Frank’s life that an attempt at holistic summary seems impotent at best. If there were an outline of plot-descriptive chapter titles, they might read, “Frank Meets Russell,” “Frank Paints Houses,” “Frank Meets Jimmy,” “Teamster Frank,” and “Frank Grows Old.” Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci in his first live-action role in 9 years) is Frank’s home base, his closest friend, confidant, and mentor. He’s also the catalyst for Frank’s life in the mob, which is, to say, Frank’s entire life as we witness it. A little less than an hour into the movie, Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino in his first collaboration with Scorsese), labor union extraordinaire and International Teamsters Union President.
Jimmy takes to Frank’s unwavering fealty and the two become inseparable right off the bat. It isn’t too long before Frank is deeply involved in the Teamsters and the mafia manipulation tactics Jimmy wields to the advantage of his union. Similar to the time spent with Russell (who still plays a major role amidst the more Hoffa-heavy chapters), a third of what we see between the two carries significant narrative weight, another third is comprised of asides or flashbacks, and the last third is playful, effective character development.
The depth of characterization is one of The Irishman’s most glowing achievements, and it’s not just restricted to Frank. Jimmy is as richly drawn as Frank, or Russell, or anyone else. Pacino is absolutely terrific as the electric Detroiter, proving that, as glad as we might be about him and Scorsese finally working together, we’ll always be left to wonder what an entire career collaborating might’ve gifted us. As should be expected for anyone familiar with the real-world Hoffa, Pacino bombastically meets his “cocksucker” quota and rarely brings his voice below a tight shout.
Scorsese and Zaillian infuse little details that make everyone pop off the screen, like Jimmy’s insistence upon shoveling ice cream down his throat in almost every scene, or Russell’s knack for telling “cute” jokes about birdies or other un-mob-like things. Whenever we meet a new mobster, Scorsese freezes on a mid-action shot and slaps a subtitle card with their name and cause of future death just to clue us in on the people Frank and company are doing business with. Most of them were shot in the head sitting in their cars, it turns out. But it’s not dark. The more the bit showed up, the harder the audience laughed.
We’re inundated with intimate one-on-one conversations between Frank and Russell/Jimmy that reveal how exquisitely crafted, interpreted, and portrayed these non-fictional characters are. You thought the De Niro/Pacino encounter in Heat was good? Just wait until you watch the two shoot the shit over the Kennedys in their pajamas or remind each other how deeply they care about one another after one gets socially butt hurt. An early scene of De Niro and Pesci giggling as they speak Italian over dinner and wine in the dimly lit Bufalino restaurant is later mirrored by the two dipping their bread in wine as they chat lightheartedly in less favorable circumstances.
The latter conversation between Frank and Russell is an explicit reference to the Catholic sacrament of communion, and it points to a larger theme that runs throughout the film. Like Irish and Italian mobsters, The Irishman is unbelievably Catholic. Scorsese is drawing from his well of a life lived in the midst of the more traditional yet crude version of the faith practice, in which, at its most extreme, Mass is something to be respectfully observed and the sacrament of confession sets one soul at ease with murder. The opening tracking shot telegraphs the theme by capturing the Immaculate Heart of Mary in its periphery. We sit through several still, prayerful moments between Frank and his pastor.
But more specifically than just being Catholic, The Irishman is penitent. Scorsese is wrestling with the concept of “love, betrayal, guilt, and forgiveness.” Like Mad Men‘s Don Draper, Frank does sickeningly inexcusable things, but remains a character we love, have empathy for, and relate to. He’s calloused to killing, neglectful of his family, and wrapped up in mafia life, but doesn’t crave power or wealth over companionship. He’s one of the only kind, honest, and peace-hungry people among his violent and inhumane breed. Through Frank, Scorsese wants us grapple with complexity of human life in the same way he is, whether that’s through a religious lens or not.
Scorsese’s direction is as sound as ever. He utilizes a dynamic camera, capturing symmetry, underwater shots, slow-motion effects, and more with enthusiasm and poise, never allowing for a lull no matter the mood. He handles the face-aging well and doesn’t shy away from its absurdity, regularly jumping back and forth between De Niro and Russell at various ages opposed to streamlining a narrative that would’ve made it less obvious. The first shot of De Niro’s young face replaces a closeup on De Niro’s extra old face as if to set off a special effects bomb. It looks like a video game for about one minute and almost immediately becomes a negligible detail (enough to make a conversation with a very young De Niro and a very balding Bobby Cannavale seem legitimate).
The 76-year-old director also reminds us why he’s recognized as the pioneer of pop music in film, opening with a do-wop that’ll whet any Scorsesian appetite. His layered storytelling technique works wonders in the hands of longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose work makes The Irishman feel like a companion piece to another auteur epic this year in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Schoonmaker’s quick, puckish cuts serve as the heart of the film’s impeccable comedic timing. Little sayings like, “You charge a gun, but you run from a knife,” or “Now listen, Chuckie, you never want to keep a dead fish in your car” garners bellowing laughter. And the zoo of characters played by friends (Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Cannavale) and newcomers alike (Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano) add to the humor and scope of the story.
If there’s anything to critique about this new masterwork, it’s the underdeveloped conflict between Frank and his eldest daughter, Peggy (Paquin). Almost every single one of her scenes can be summed up by her and her father staring at each other, one in earnest, the other in disapproval. Whether she says more than ten words in total is up for debate. We were reminded earlier this year that the number of lines someone speaks is not always indicative of the role’s significance or quality (Margot Robbie knocked her portrayal of Sharon Tate out of the park and served as the soul of Tarantino’s film while having very little dialogue), but in the case of The Irishman, it seems like Scorsese favored building out Frank’s background over adding depth to Peggy.
In the face of all the film’s brilliance, especially its character development, allowing Scorsese wiggle room for not including more character detail in his three and a half hour saga is fair, but it’s a shame — and perhaps indicative of a larger trend amongst male filmmakers — that the slighted character is one of the only decently strong female roles. His history of devotion and financing in regards to Margaret says he’s very pro-Paquin-in-strong-roles, but her part this time feels more like a cameo nod between friends than the emotional fulcrum it tries to be. Still, The Irishman is a stunning achievement of Homeric proportion and one we’re likely to champion for decades to come.