When the director emerged as a major creative voice with Mean Streets in 1973, he stood out by telling a story of the criminal underbelly that—unlike the regal Shakespearean tragedy of The Godfather—buzzed with spirit and attitude. Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) was a gleeful rebuttal to the notion of a Mafia governed by honor, focusing on the churning mix of thieves, psychopaths, and wannabes below the imperious bosses. In 2006, his Oscar-winning The Departed took that idea one step further by portraying a system in which everyone, from the cops and overlords to the criminals and grunts, was informing on everyone else. Even most of Scorsese’s recent non-gangster films, such as The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Shutter Island (2010), have been conveyed with hectic, rat-a-tat vigor. But The Irishman is more in the mode of his previous project, 2016’s Silence, a meditative portrayal of Catholic faith being tested to its extremes in 17th-century Japan.
That might sound surprising, given the salacious, possibly self-invented details of Sheeran’s history. A labor official and World War II veteran, he claimed late in life to have served as a hitman and muscle for the Pennsylvania Bufalino crime family—and, most important, to have been directly involved in the still-unsolved disappearance of the former Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa. The Irishman, which is based on Charles Brandt’s much-disputed biography, I Heard You Paint Houses, delves deliberately through this material, covering decades as Sheeran comes back from the war, gets involved with the Mob bosses Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (Keitel), and eventually becomes a close confidant of Hoffa (Pacino).
All along, Scorsese devotes the bulk of the screen time not to bloody action, but to mundane conversation. While Sheeran’s most significant job may be murder, he commits that act only occasionally, and with brutal, rapid simplicity. Most of the time, as Scorsese and his screenwriter, Steven Zaillian, know well, being in the Mob is a matter of ego, masculine posturing, and lies. These dynamics are what The Irishman is most invested in portraying.
De Niro’s performance is subtle and reserved, as has been typical for this later phase of his career. Although the film uses advanced computer de-aging techniques to smooth out the actors’ faces and allow them to play the younger versions of their characters, it’s hard not to notice De Niro’s limited physicality. Even as a Sheeran fresh out of military service, he’s a rickety, lumbering presence, a far cry from the live-wire performer who emerged alongside Scorsese in Mean Streets. But given the hitman’s status as a death-dealing golem the Mob occasionally unleashes on its enemies, De Niro’s creaky movement mostly works.
By contrast, Pacino (also in line with the current phase of his career) is a live wire—a preening, screaming ball of energy. His Hoffa is the chaotic center of most of The Irishman’s action and tension: a man who thrives on power and doesn’t know how to behave as it starts to slip away from him. Even more exciting is Pesci, a longtime Scorsese collaborator who has barely appeared on-screen for the past 20 years. His Bufalino is a million miles from the aggressive motormouth Pesci played in Goodfellas; this is a portrait of real, frightening authority, of a man who never needs to raise his voice to command a room. Watching these three performers tangle with one another is honestly thrilling, no matter how slow the pacing.