An old man sits in a nursing home, talking to — who? Us? An interviewer? A priest? Nobody? Doesn’t matter. He’s telling us about his life as a murderer. He’s confessing. This is a Martin Scorsese movie.
“The Irishman” is 3½ hours long and it stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and — working with Scorsese for the first time — Al Pacino. You probably think you know what you’re going to get: an exuberant, damning gangster epic on the order of “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” You are wrong.
Based on the memoirs of Frank Sheeran, a self-confessed hit man (more on that in a moment), “The Irishman” builds inexorably to a final act haunted by old age and regret. It’s the ultimate fusing of Scorsese’s two sides, the wicked delight he takes in illustrating human sin and the concern he has for the human soul. And even though it takes a while to get there, the movie is a masterpiece, one made by a man counting down his own years as if they were rosary beads.
Sheeran is played by Robert De Niro with a lumbering gait and no interest in standing out from the crowd; Frank’s the kind of guy you don’t notice until it’s too late. In the film’s first hour, set in the post-World War II era, the actor has been digitally retouched to appear younger; the effect is not 100 percent convincing — De Niro looks vaguely colorized — but you roll with it. A veteran of the Italian campaign, where he learned the language and how to kill a man, Sheeran’s working as a truck driver when he makes the acquaintance of Russell Bufalino (Pesci), an understated, almost courtly crime boss of the northeastern Pennsylvania crime family.
These early scenes are intercut with the older Sheeran and Bufalino driving with their wives to a wedding in 1975 Detroit, and while we suspect the two timelines will converge, we don’t yet know how. For the most part, “The Irishman” is concerned with Frank’s slow, steady, simultaneous rise in the mob and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. There’s none of the brio of “Goodfellas” or the Vegas pizzazz of “Casino” — no showoff Steadicam trips through the Copacabana. The filmmaking here is quietly observant, verging on blandness. “The Irishman” is all business, yet in its very granularity and the ease with which Scorsese puts it all on film, the movie’s utterly absorbing.
Eventually a door opens in the story and Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) walks in. He’s the head of the Teamsters, a nationally known figure, and he’s everything men like Frank and Russell are not: loud, outgoing, easy to rile. Your best friend or your worst enemy. One of Frank’s young daughters, Peggy (Lucy Gallina), takes an immediate shine to him, and she doesn’t like anybody. (More on that in a moment.)
“The Irishman” is about male friendship, among other things — about the difference between acquaintance and something deeper. About how a man like Frank can betray an acquaintance and go about his day — because he’s a sociopath — while a more meaningful connection might foul up his radar. But you only see that through the movie’s cracks, which widen as the running time and the years roll on. Scorsese fills the screen with killings and clandestine sit-downs, minor goons and big cheeses, and it seems that Frank Sheeran was just about everywhere in the 1960s and ‘70s: helping run guns to the Bay of Pigs (for E. Howard Hunt, no less) or at Umberto’s Clam House the night Crazy Joe Gallo got killed. Maybe he knew a thing or two about the Kennedy assassination.
The real Sheeran’s memoir — he died in 2003 — is titled “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which he says was mob-speak for “So you’re a hit man.” You should take the book’s contents and Sheeran’s claims with a cargo container of salt; many people have. But Scorsese isn’t interested in whether this “really happened,” or where Jimmy Hoffa went when he disappeared off the face of the Earth in July 1975. I don’t even think he cares that Pacino doesn’t much resemble the real Hoffa. He wants us to see the slow erasure of humanity in the title character and his colleagues, and to consider how men who have no conscience aren’t actually alive — can’t even be called men at all.
This is why Peggy shrinks from people like Bufalino and even her own father: She correctly senses they’re dead inside. Some of the early reviews for “The Irishman” have dwelled on the fact that women are largely absent from the film and that the most important female character has hardly any lines of dialogue. But Peggy, who’s played as a grown woman by Anna Paquin, doesn’t need to say anything to become the moral center of this movie. As a child she has seen Frank beat a neighborhood grocer to a pulp for daring to chastise the girl; she has seen him pack his gun for “business trips.” We are meant to look at him through her eyes, and in that look is a judgment even Frank can’t hide from. (The other major female part goes to Welker White — the drug-running baby sitter of “Goodfellas” — as Jo Hoffa, as warmly gregarious as her husband, if not as quick to detonate.)
Pacino is in full-on ham mode here, which works because Hoffa was a ham — a man made to live in the public eye. He visibly wilts when he goes to prison for jury tampering and fraud in the mid-1960s, and he emerges like a conquering bantam, ready to reassume his place at the top. In his absence, though, the mob that was always behind the scenes has moved to take control of the Teamsters and its lucrative pension fund; Hoffa’s maneuvers and his running beef with Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) threaten to upset the apple cart.
It’s around here that “The Irishman” tightens its grip on both Frank Sheeran and us. As expected, Scorsese fills the screen with lesser mugs and pugs: wiseguys with names like “Skinny Razor” (Bobby Cannavale) and “Sally Bugs” (Louis Cancelmi), men like Anthony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Angelo Bruno (the director’s longtime lucky charm, Harvey Keitel) who don’t have to raise their voices to flex their power. In this company, Frank is a mere factotum, a company man, which is how De Niro plays him. This may be the least showy performance in the actor’s career. It’s also among the most tragic.
Speaking of performance, a word about Joe Pesci: Russell Bufalino is this film’s most subtly persuasive figure, a mob boss in whom moral rot has so entwined with the banal taking care of business that they’re fused. The actor has played some of the more memorable devils in film history and he won an Oscar for one of them, Tommy DeVito, in “Goodfellas.” He more or less retired from the screen 20 years ago, and his reappearance here, in a role less flashy but more profoundly bone-chilling, is a reminder that he is a national treasure.
A word, too, about Netflix, which funded “The Irishman” when no film studio would and where the film will debut on Nov. 27. The company is to be commended for allowing one of our greatest filmmakers to fashion an autumnal epic at the length and budget he desired. But this is a movie, not a miniseries, and it deserves to be seen in a moviehouse rather than at home, where social media and bathroom breaks will dilute the hushed, steamrolling power of its moral and spiritual calculus.
As is common in a Scorsese gangster movie, “The Irishman” often stops what it’s doing to introduce us to one made man or another, their names and crimes identified in onscreen type. This time, though, we learn the dates and manners of their demises as well, because this is a movie in which death stalks us all. The final moments are both pitiless and some of the most emotionally devastating in Scorsese’s catalog, as age and infirmity cut out the legs from under men who once thought they were invincible, and even an insensate hulk like Frank Sheeran has to look around, see he’s alone, and try to come to terms with his sins. He’s hoping to negotiate with God. The silence Scorsese leaves hanging on the other end of the line may pursue you for a long, long time to come.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Steven Zaillian, based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” by Charles Brandt. Starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Anna Paquin. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 209 minutes. R (pervasive language and strong volence)