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De Niro, Pesci And Pacino Are At The Top Of Their Game In 'The Irishman'

Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro play friends — and mobsters — in <em>The Irishman. </em>
Niko Tavernise
Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro play friends — and mobsters — in The Irishman.

Martin Scorsese has made so many terrific crime pictures that you would be forgiven for doubting whether he had another one in him. The great surprise of his haunting and elegiac new movie, The Irishman, is that it doesn't play like a retread so much as a reckoning.

It reunites Scorsese with Goodfellas actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, but while his earlier mob classic had an exhilarating energy, The Irishman is suffused with loss. It feels older, wiser and infinitely sadder. There are still wisecracks and double-crosses and whackings aplenty, but there's no kicky thrill to the violence this time — just a harsh aftertaste of emptiness and futility.

Since the movie spans several decades and runs 3 1/2 hours, that's admittedly a lot of futility. But The Irishman is a richly involving experience. Its measured pace is entirely gripping, and its gorgeous images are well worth seeing in a theater if you live near one of the few venues where it's playing (before it hits Netflix on Nov. 27). On a big screen, you might notice some of the minor imperfections of the "digital de-aging" technology that Scorsese uses to make the actors look younger in different time frames, but you stop noticing them after a few moments as the illusion takes hold.

De Niro stars as Frank Sheeran, the Irishman of the title, and the movie is essentially his account of his life and crimes. Shortly before his death from cancer in 2003, Sheeran claimed that he had killed Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, who had gone mysteriously missing in 1975. One of his former attorneys, Charles Brandt, reported that claim in his biography of Sheeran, I Heard You Paint Houses, which serves as the foundation for Steven Zaillian's screenplay.

But Sheeran, narrating his story from a retirement home at the age of 82, has a lot to tell us before he gets to that point. He takes us back to the 1940s, when he was a Pennsylvania truck driver who managed to ingratiate himself with local mafioso Russell Bufalino, wonderfully played by Pesci in a long-overdue return to the screen.

Sheeran becomes Bufalino's most reliable hit man: Desensitized to violence by his World War II military service, he kills efficiently and doesn't ask too many questions. He's so good at his job that Bufalino soon introduces him over the phone to Hoffa, played by Al Pacino.

Before long, Sheeran is handling Hoffa's dirty work as well, and in their bond, we see the insidious ties between unionized labor and organized crime. The Irishman compresses a lot of tumultuous history: There are reenactments of famous mob killings, drive-by references to events such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, and even a brief nod to the conspiracy theory that the mob ordered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

But for all the movie's historical sweep and its colorful supporting turns by actors like Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale and Harvey Keitel, it's the three central personalities that make the movie so engrossing. Scorsese is fascinated by the codes of loyalty that bind Sheeran, Bufalino and Hoffa — and also by the petty rivalries and power struggles that threaten to destroy them.

De Niro, Pesci and Pacino are at the top of their game, in part because they aren't simply rehashing the iconic gangster types they've played before. Pesci makes Bufalino quiet and calculating — the complete opposite of the short-fused goodfella character that won him an Oscar.

Pacino gets to go big and boisterous without tilting into bombast. He pours enormous affection into the role of Hoffa, a man of simple pleasures — he loves ice cream more than anything — and old-school habits, as we see when he unleashes hell on someone who shows up late to a meeting.

As for De Niro, he gives a quietly chilling and finally wrenching performance as a man who dutifully aligns himself with evil. The last third of The Irishman slows to a riveting crawl as it reconstructs what may or may not have happened in Hoffa's final hours. Scorsese draws out the tension to an unbearable degree; he wants us to feel in our bones the horror and gravity of what it means to take someone else's life.

I haven't yet mentioned Sheeran's wives and children, which is fitting, since he mostly treats them as afterthoughts. Scorsese doesn't make the same mistake. Sheeran's daughter Peggy, played at different ages by Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin, becomes the movie's moral center. Peggy doesn't say much, but her silence cuts right through all the movie's male bluster. With every withering stare, she offers a brutal judgment of her father and the ghastly, corrupt world to which he belongs.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

NPR News
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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