"The Irishman" opens with a needle-drop (The Five Satins' "In the Still of the Night") and a lengthy tracking shot, lest there were any doubt that this is the eagerly-awaited new film from director Martin Scorsese. But his return to the gangster milieu is anything but a greatest-hits compilation from a filmmaker in his autumn years; as a storyteller and a crafter of images, he remains as bold and as provocative as ever.
This is a movie that breaks any number of Cinema 101 rules, from inserting flashbacks within flashbacks to throwing traditional concepts of pacing and structure out the window. (Please, film students, don't try this at home.) At the age of 76, Scorsese is embracing new technologies with the fervor of Ang Lee (without punishing our eyes with a high frame rate) and indulging in retro fantasy with the keen eye of Quentin Tarantino (without slapping a smiley-face sticker onto history).
And while "The Irishman" is a breathless, gangster's-eye-view of American history from the end of World War II to post-Watergate malaise and beyond, the flash of mob life -- the pinky rings, the stacks of cash -- is ultimately balanced by the finality of death or, in rare instances, aging. (When new characters are introduced, we get an on-screen graphic telling us when and how they will die.) Like another of this year's best films, Pedro Almodóvar's "Pain and Glory," this is an unflinching look at the frequently taboo subject of getting old, of having your knees give out and your teeth go away and your loved ones abandon you over past sins.
Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) has no shortage of sins; we follow his rise in the ranks from meat-delivery driver (who looks the other way when a mobster-restaurateur played by Bobby Cannavale swipes his steaks) to a "house painter," the film's euphemism for a hired killer. (Scorsese bookends the film with the Godardian frame-filling sentence "I HEARD/YOU/PAINT HOUSES," the title of Charles Brandt's book upon which Steven Zaillian's screenplay is based.) Frank is the titular Irishman, but he has the friendship and protection of higher-up Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who ultimately connects Frank with Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Frank becomes indispensable to Hoffa after helping destroy the cars of a Chicago cab company that won't join the Teamsters; lovers of Checker Cabs may need to avert their eyes as these vintage vehicles, or beautifully-rendered CG versions of them, are pushed off piers or set on fire. Eventually, Frank becomes Hoffa's close friend and enforcer, but later there's a tug of war for his fealty; after going to prison, Hoffa attempts to regain the presidency by calling out organized crime's influence upon the union, much to the annoyance of Russell and the guys up the chain from him.
We've seen plenty of Mafiosi rise and fall on the big screen, even in Scorsese's own films, but "The Irishman" never tells its tale in a rote fashion. That opening tracking shot takes place in a nursing home, where an older Frank is telling his life story to no one in particular. His narrative takes us back to a car trip Frank and Russell and their respective wives Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba, doing a lot with very little dialogue) and Carrie (Kathrine Narducci, "The Sopranos") are taking from Philadelphia to Detroit, ostensibly for a wedding. From there, Zaillian's script jumps back to Frank and Russell's first meeting, and even to Frank's stint in World War II, and occasionally forward to the nursing home.
It's a dizzying tightrope walk of times and places, but thanks to Thelma Schoonmaker, the Wallenda of editors, it always works. Each era comes with its own signifiers that allow us to keep track of when we are in the story, from the wives' Pucci resort wear to the luxury cars to the resurrection of such beloved chains as Lum's and Howard Johnson's, which left me craving the former's chili dogs and the latter's orange sherbet.
The faces of our leading men are the other guidepost -- Scorsese and his VFX team have famously de-aged De Niro, Pesci and Pacino to reflect the passage of the decades, and the digital trickery is nearly flawless. (De Niro looks a little waxy in a reverse shot during a conversation with Pesci, but that's the only jarring moment.) The post-production facework never leaps out as fake, and it never stands in the way of three powerful performances: Pesci has spent too long away from the camera, while De Niro and Pacino have indulged in far too many paycheck gigs, so it's exciting to see all three of them at the peak of their powers.
De Niro's Frank fits in his wheelhouse of soft-spoken, shrugging characters who can be pushed to terrifying violence, but the actor takes us deeply into Frank's pain, particularly when we see how his life of crime has turned him into a lonely old man whose adult daughters don't want to see him. Scorsese knows how to play Pacino's bombast like a conductor, never allowing him to go too big or for too long, and to watch the actor explode with anger opposite Pesci's trademark quiet menace is a breathtaking moment of cinema.
"The Irishman" offers one breathlessly exciting sequence after another that immediately feel like part of the canon, from a barbershop slaying that Rodrigo Prieto's camera glides past, showing us a florist's window while we hear the mayhem offscreen, to a sequence in which Frank demonstrates how to choose the right gun for a public slaying and whether or not to go to the bathroom before committing the murder. (Scorsese and Schoonmaker could teach most documentarians a thing or two about explaining process and guiding audiences through the basics of How Things Work.)
If viewers quibble with the film's 209-minute running time, it's most likely going to be for the film's melancholy latter portion, in which Frank and Russell deal with the aftermath of Hoffa's disappearance. This is the section about aging and obsolescence, and most movies, let alone crime movies, leave this part out. It's not splashy. It's not sexy. But it's integral to the story being told here, and it's essential for an older filmmaker to include when painting a portrait of a life, even when it's a life that has been spent in nefarious activity. Decline isn't just an epilogue; it's a key part of the whole process.
This is a movie that's rife with characters, with incidents, with ideas, with history, and as such, it will benefit from multiple viewings. But even after the first watch, "The Irishman" hits hard, and it's a reminder that nearly 30 years after "GoodFellas," Martin Scorsese still has fascinating mob tales to tell, and fascinating ways to tell them.
"The Irishman" premieres on Netflix Nov. 27, 2020.