Netflix's The Irishman is the masterpiece I'll probably forget next week

Review: A nearly flawless film by masterful talent, it's a mobster movie at its most mature. It's epic, venerable -- the best version of something I'm bored of seeing.

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Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

In The Irishman, Al Pacino plays legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and Robert De Niro takes on the role of hit man Frank Sheeran.


The Irishman begins and ends in a nursing home, and that feels about right. The film is Netflix's big first outing with famed director Martin Scorsese, who reunites with actors Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci after nearly a quarter of a century to return to the mafia underworld. It adds Al Pacino to the mix in his first film with Scorsese. 

An epic about organized crime in post-WWII America, The Irishman, streaming on Netflix now, is told from the perspective of Frank Sheehan, an Irish hit man attached to some of the most notorious figures of the era. It chronicles the disappearance of union boss Jimmy Hoffa and examines the mob's inner workings and connections to mainstream politics. Spanning decades, the film uses de-aging technology to give its actors in their 70s and 80s the appearance of being in their 30s or 40s (sort of...). 

It's also nearly flawless. 

The performances of the three leading men are all superb. De Niro is understated; he lives inside the role of Frank. Pesci plays against type as so-called "quiet don" Russell Bufalino, exuding a sweetness of nature that's never compromised even as he sets murders into motion. Pacino's performance as Hoffa has the most crackle -- he's a perfect match for the charismatic, fiery union boss. 

Even with its 209-minute runtime, the movie rarely drags. 

And the de-aging technology, thankfully, wasn't a distraction. De Niro was subject to the most manipulation, at one point being reincarnated as his 20-something self in a blink-and-you-miss it flashback to the war. 

The de-aging of the actors is most noticeable in instances where it can go only so far. Early in the film, when De Niro's Frank is first introduced to the mob, he's meant to be a 30-something man. Gone are his wrinkles and gray hair, but his mouth still has the tightness of a senior citizen's. His gait lacks the combustible vitality of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, when De Niro actually was a man in his 30s. And it's subtly disorienting to watch a person with the essence of an old man smile at the christening of his infant daughter. 

The Irishman is already being hailed as a masterpiece. You'll hear no argument on that from me. But it didn't furrow into my brain or nag me with questions I want to answer. It didn't illuminate a facet of the world I've never seen before, other than the concept that even gangsters can end up old and obsolete, their heinous actions meaningless. 

An esteemed group of older white men discovered a tale that resonated with them. That tale is almost exclusively about other white men and their roles in American history, which in this retelling deals almost exclusively with the interactions of yet more white men. 

This particular group is a clutch of some of the greatest filmmakers and talent alive, and so they made a nearly flawless film out of it. If there's any lesson in The Irishman, it's that the gangster-movie genre -- just like some lucky gangsters -- can mature to a ripe old age too. 

But gangster movies aren't required to ignore women -- I submit Lorraine Bracco in Scorsese's own Goodfellas into evidence -- and this one mostly did. The women in The Irishman are narrative chattel, used to move along a scene or help a male character define himself. 

The most crucial female role might be that of Peggy, one of Frank's four daughters. Her character is a foil to Frank's deepening entanglement with the Mafia. As Frank's identity becomes more intertwined with that of the mob, Peggy's growing unease reminds the audience we aren't meant to fall under the Mafia's spell too. 

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But even in this role, Peggy is a cipher. Her point of view is mostly expressed with speechless, lingering looks. Anna Paquin plays the grown Peggy, stepping into the character about halfway through the film after a younger actress plays her as a girl. Paquin, if I counted correctly, has a total of three spoken lines. One of them is a single word: "Why?" Like all the actors in The Irishman, Paquin is exceptional. Peggy's role required communicating volumes with a glance, and Paquin delivers. But this is a movie that isn't much concerned with what anyone other than the protagonists, all men, have to say. 

(That's not to denigrate the contributions of esteemed women involved with this film. The editing by Thelma Schoonmaker is excellent, and producers Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff seemed crucial to pulling off this feature with 309 scenes and nearly 160 shooting locations.)

Peggy also is the only consequence Frank faces for the murders, beatings and bombings he commits. Beside the frayed relationship with this daughter, the only other price Frank pays is growing old, obsolete and irrelevant. That's a price plenty of people pay in old age, and most of them haven't murdered in cold blood.  

But The Irishman isn't supposed to teach lessons. It's an exercise in reflection near the end of one's life. 

The Irishman won't show you filmmaking legends inherently challenging themselves. Even the de-aging technology was permitted by Scorsese only because it had reached a level of sophistication that wouldn't annoy his actors. 

The Irishman wasn't designed to deliver thrills. While film aficionados will certainly get excited by this union of talent, this isn't a mob thriller. The one moment that made me audibly gasp involved an assassination attempt with nothing more threatening than a pellet gun. 

The film's biggest moment of shock is portrayed quietly, clinically. It marks the wave of Frank's moral vacancy cresting. After that, the tide begins to retreat, and Frank slowly finds his life populated by little more than human flotsam -- a nameless sympathetic priest, an unidentified kind nurse, and two nonthreatening G-men who hope Frank will unfurl the truth of what happened to Hoffa now that everyone else involved is dead. 

The Irishman, will, however, let you witness a masterful clutch of men dedicate themselves to a grand production, endowing it with the kind of devotion that's unique to something harkening back to the origins of their bonds to each other. 

My grandfather might be part of that brotherhood, but I'm not. After decades of cinema detailing this same point of view, The Irishman felt like exceptional execution of the same story I've seen a billion times before. 

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Originally published Sept. 27.