The Irishman follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a mobster and teamster who — according to the much-disputed story he told to Charles Brandt on his deathbed — was instrumental in the disappearance of union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) in 1975. It doesn’t particularly matter how true the story is — it’s a man writing his own legend, making sure he writes himself into history before he dies.
Frank has been a soldier his entire life; he learned in the war how to follow orders, to kill quietly and cleanly, and so that’s what he continues to do. He becomes a hitman for the mafia, deadly and efficient. Each kill is rapid, utilitarian, a pop and then a thud as the body falls to the floor, Frank stepping around them and into the night. The rare fistfights are either brutal or comical — the sound design is purposefully dull, making you feel each punch as it happens. This is not a gory film — everything is as it has to be, as it actually is in the mob.
Near the beginning, Frank says that when he was in the war he could never understand why men destined to be executed did such a good job digging their own graves. He watches men do this in the mob, too; sees his friends hurtle almost blindly towards their own destruction, ignoring every warning he gives. There’s an inevitability to the narrative, a force driving it towards the climax we already know is coming, but when it finally happens, it underwhelms. The climax of Hoffa’s story is subdued, almost simple. Everything runs smoothly. Still, this is the only time Frank seems unsure of an order. It becomes the only thing he regrets.
The last act is where this film really comes into its own. We reach the time we’ve been seeing flashes of for two hours — Frank in a nursing home, still unable to reckon with his actions. What had been a saga about friendship and loyalty now becomes something else entirely, recontextualising the rest of the film within the frame of old age. Scorsese is showing us the consequences, finally, of the violent lives he has so often portrayed. Frank has outlived his own story, the world has spun on without him. His contemporaries slowly die off in prison and, in the end, he and God are the only ones left who know what he did.
In the first cut back in time, you certainly will notice the de-aging — flashing from De Niro now to the smoothed-out version is jarring, especially since it doesn’t look anything like he did when he was young. Now, he has a stocky, shambling physicality, a stark contrast to the live-wire mania of his performances in the seventies and eighties. I was glad, though, that there was no real attempt to recapture his very particular youth — it would have been uncanny at best to see a full resurrection.
This is De Niro’s ninth film with Scorsese, Pesci’s fourth and, astonishingly, Pacino’s first. Each lead actor suits their characters down to the ground, even though they are not necessarily the archetypes they’ve become known for. Frank in particular seems to be much closer to De Niro’s real personality than many of his most famous roles. In The Irishman, this reserved nature makes him somewhat of a cipher — even the narration is matter-of-fact, removed of any emotion about the work he does. Joe Pesci, too, is understated — there’s none of the hot-tempered chaos of Tommy from Goodfellas in Russell Bufalino, but the stillness of his performance only adds to the sense of pure danger. Pacino also slips beautifully into his role — Hoffa is a politician, so it’s all impassioned speeches and performative bravado, but Pacino adds that buried insecurity that he does like no one else. Hoffa’s entry is late, and his exit is early, but he makes an immense impression on Frank and on the film.
The Irishman is about the aftermath of a man’s choices, the impact on his life at home, on his friendships. It’s not about money, or women, or drugs, or even rage, really — it is, above all, about what we owe to the people we love. As in many of Scorsese’s later films, one of the central questions is what it means to be a good parent. Frank protects his children the only way he knows how — through violence — but that alienates them from him, makes them afraid of their own father. From the beginning of their relationship, Russell is desperate to be loved by Frank’s children — he and his wife have been unable to conceive, we learn, and he is clearly grieving this fact. He tries everything to get Frank’s daughter Peggy to like him, but nothing works. She remains scared of him, either seeing through his kindness or simply associating him with her father’s entanglement with the mafia. Hoffa, then, represents her father’s move towards a more respectable role — in her eyes, he’s a champion of the people, and she loves him as much as she despises Russell. The fight for power at the centre of the film is played out in the battle for Peggy and Frank’s loyalty — Hoffa wins one, and Russell, in the end, wins the other.