The Irishman begins with one of Martin Scorsese's signature tracking shots, and it ends with one too. But instead of taking the viewer on a kinetic journey through a supper club kitchen (Goodfellas) or a Las Vegas casino count room (Casino), these two shots that bookend Scorsese's latest film travel slowly down the linoleum-lined hallway of a nursing home somewhere on the eastern seaboard. It's from here that the film's star, Robert DeNiro, narrates the first-person story of mob hitman Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran from behind a convincing mask of age makeup — a story as long, complicated, and tangent-filled as any octogenarian will tell about their lives if you give them unlimited time.
Sheeran's shown alone, telling his story to the air in the opening scene. And if you had heard that this is Scorsese's film about the life and mysterious death of Jimmy Hoffa, you should be warned that Sheeran's story takes its time in explaining the "How I met Jimmy Hoffa" chapter of the tale.
The entire film, actually, takes its time. Whether it's a symptom of Scorsese's own age (76), that of his stars and longtime collaborators Joe Pesci and DeNiro (both also 76), the ponderousness of the source material, or the free reign he was given by Netflix to make as long a film as he wanted, The Irishman did not leave much on the editing room floor. Gone are most of the jump-cuts and storytelling momentum of his 1990s masterpieces, and in their place are some unnecessarily long scenes and exposition that feels, at times, extraneous. And when you're sitting for three and a half hours taking it all in, you may find yourself wishing there had been a studio executive cracking the whip and demanding a few cuts this time around.
But in its languorous pacing, perhaps The Irishman accomplishes something cinematically that was Scorsese's entire point. This is a film that is as much about getting old as it is about Hoffa. It's as if Scorsese wanted both to remind the world of the hugeness of Hoffa's power and presence in American life of the 1950s and 60s, and to tell a much more universal tale about the arduous, boring, thankless task of living out one's latter days alone.
The scenes of recreated mid-century hotels in Miami and along Interstate 80 (including an intact Howard Johnson's that was likely the same one used on Mad Men) are pure candy for Scorsese fans, as are the costumes and the dimly lit restaurant interiors that take us on Sheeran's journey from union trucker to Hoffa's right-hand man. He's a veteran of World War II who's eventually embraced by a couple of made guys (including Pesci's character, Russell Bufalino) who pay him to do them favors over a few years until one day Russell gets a call from Hoffa (Al Pacino). Hoffa was a client of his cousin, the union lawyer William Bufalino (played by the excellent Ray Romano), and he needed somebody who he could trust to come work for him.
It's here that Scorsese uses Sheeran's story to help illustrate the complicated morass of how the Teamsters Union became almost synonymous with, and very much in bed with, the Italian-American Mafia. Their interests aligned in multiple ways, not the least of which was that Hoffa had sole control for many years over the very deep-pocketed union pension fund, which he was convinced to use to invest in the construction of half of Las Vegas, as Scorsese tells it. And control of that pension fund ultimately becomes the central motive for the Mob wanting Hoffa dead.
There's a circuitous path to get there, and in between Hoffa goes to prison along with some mafia guys, for different reasons — and both sides ended up with a shared hatred of Bobby Kennedy, who relentlessly came after mob bosses and Hoffa alike in his role as attorney general.
Suffice it to say, DeNiro's character is central to the drama throughout, even though the true story of how Hoffa was "disappeared" may never actually be settled. And DeNiro is marvelous in his steady, deliberate portrayal of this underling character who's a far cry from the Scorsese men he's played in the past. Pesci, meanwhile, cuts a less fierce figure on screen than he once did, and his portrayal of Bufalino feels deflated as a result.
Pacino is terrific as Hoffa, and will likely add to his long list of Oscar nominations this year. But apart from adopting a now-you-hear-it-now-you-don't mid-Atlantic accent, there's a lot of familiar Pacino stuff that seeps through, particularly in some of his roaring monologues from the dais. (The New Yorker's Anthony Lane says that Jack Nicholson may have gotten Hoffa's "tenacious bite" a bit more accurately in 1992's Hoffa.)
If there's any obvious weakness to Scorsese's latest epic, besides the need for a few edits, it's that the few women in the story get even less screen time and fewer lines than usual in a Scorsese film. An obvious standout is Kathrine Narducci as Russell's wife Carrie Bufalino — described as being Mob royalty because her family could be traced to a particular town in Sicily. Carrie goads and irritates Russell with her smoking as they and Sheeran and his wife take a long road trip from Philly to Michigan which serves as a framework for the film. But she remains a prop who we never get to know, though she cuts a more distinctive figure than Frank's two wives, who get even less attention.
Oscar winner Anna Paquin is embarrassingly underutilized as Peggy Sheeran — she serves as a moral compass for DeNiro's character as he becomes increasingly tied to the Mob, but she's forced to do so mostly through glares and sober glances, until she's given about three lines in the last half hour of the film. She intuits that her father is guilty of all manner of atrocities, but they never have it out, and she fades into the background like every other woman in the film.
In the end, some of the most haunting and effective moments of The Irishman are, to Scorsese's credit, ones that take their time. A scene where a wheelchair-bound, moribund Pesci plays bocce in a prison yard with several other elderly inmates is one. Another comes a bit earlier when he sits down to breakfast at the Howard Johnson's to tell DeNiro's character that he's going to have to do the Mafia a critical favor that he knows he doesn't want to do.
The source material for the film comes from a 2004 book titled I Heard You Paint Houses — a phrase that refers to the Mob's code for hitmen. Investigator Charles Brandt lays out the story, from Sheeran's own account, of how Hoffa died, and Scorsese very loyally relays this story as if it is the gospel — even though many other Hoffa experts will tell you six other versions of what could have happened. (And investigators who followed up on Sheeran's claims in 2005 ultimately debunked them.)
For the history lesson on the labor movement, and for indelible performances by DeNiro and Pacino, it's a must-see. Film buffs should see it on the big screen while it's still playing in SF — but for everyone else, it'll debut on Netflix on November 27.
'The Irishman' is playing at the Castro Theater Friday and Saturday, and indefinitely at Alamo Drafthouse New Mission.