What qualities are we picking up on when we call a movie “epic”? Is it primarily about the span of geographic or temporal distance, a simple matter of runtime, the number of characters depicted, or the weight of their actions on the film’s broader world? What most will likely find vexing about Martin Scorsese’s long-in-development opus, The Irishman, is that despite its sprawl it is emphatically un-epic. Over its three and a half hours, virtually none of its characters evince any measurable change or growth; the action is largely episodic, and even shifting period details are kept strictly on the periphery; we feel nothing for either the victims nor perpetrators of mob violence. The Irishman is a many-layered nesting doll where every layer is identical — and identically hideous — yet it is not without purpose.
Scorsese shows his cards early. In the film’s “present-day” (which we can surmise as roughly the early 00s), an elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro) begins to tell us his life story — first in voiceover, then in direct address to camera. Even as a storyteller guiding us through his own life, Frank is seemingly no longer cogent enough to even stick with a consistent mode of narrative delivery. A real-life World War II vet turned truck driver turned high-level mob enforcer, Frank’s life (the details of which are derived from Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, the veracity of which remains a matter of some dispute) would seem to possess the scope and dynamic range we tend to associate with the rags-to-riches-to-ruin mob stories Scorsese is still most widely known for.
Yet, as we move from Frank’s humble beginnings shifting slabs of meat around at the behest of mobsters in the Bufalino crime family (especially Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino) to more lucrative and violent work, there’s no grandeur, no glamorous upward mobility, no speeches about This Thing Of Ours. Frank simply kills and intimidates on-demand and largely without thought, like someone checking off items on a grocery list. Even when Al Pacino swaggers into the movie as the infamous (and infamously “missing”) Jimmy Hoffa, the higher stakes never translate into rising action. Frank’s trajectory is a straight, flat line from one ghoulish task to another, in service of nothing more than accumulation.
For those looking to scrutinize The Irishman’s costly reliance on digital de-aging technology to render the younger versions of its principal cast: in truth, after the initial shock of De Niro’s first de-aged appearance, the effects are fairly seamless. There are none of the dead-eyed, uncanny-valley effects that earlier stabs at the same effect carried (think back to the opening sequence of Tron: Legacy), though there’s a slight glassiness to some of the skin textures on De Niro in particular. At any rate, after a scene or two passes, the effect ceases to be a distraction, which is perhaps the ultimate compliment.
What viewers are far more likely to take issue with is the movie’s complete abandonment of traditional three-act structure; instead, Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian favor a parade of craven behavior and violent acts loosely scattered across a couple of decades, with the only obvious markers of time coming from the aging effects and daughter Peggy’s progression from childhood (where she’s played by Lucy Gallina) to adulthood (Anna Paquin). In a move that is perfectly reflective of the movie’s concerns, Peggy is the moral center of The Irishman, yet she’s never more than a peripheral figure. At every stage of Frank’s life, she’s the only person in his orbit who never excuses his behavior nor feels comfortable profiting from it. Yet, there’s also a strange kind of realism in how she treats Hoffa — a figure nearly as venal and corrupt as her father — with warmth; she witnesses Frank brutally beating a man in her childhood, but she never sees Hoffa do anything untoward, and Frank is on some level forever damned by this simple gap in perception.
Even when Pacino’s Hoffa enters the scene, with the JFK assassination and the associated murmurs of a conspiracy that necessarily follow, there’s never a sense that we’re getting wrapped up in a grand narrative in which Frank is a secret, key player. What’s radical about The Irishman is how it renders seemingly huge, seismic events as just more banalities to endure and make small situational adjustments around. Frank never reflects on his actions, what they might mean, or the crucial role he winds up playing in events that have a social impact far beyond his own life; he simply gravitates towards those willing to use him as a blunt instrument, and then does as he’s told. He behaves more like a corporate functionary than a traditional, self-aggrandizing movie gangster.
This dynamic plays out all the way until Frank’s twilight days, which take over the movie’s final stretch and end up as the sneaky punchline to the entire project. Scorsese has been repeatedly accused of glorifying immorality; while this accusation has never held up to much scrutiny, The Irishman makes plainer than ever that Scorsese is one of the most overtly moralistic filmmakers we have. The Irishman has no interest in making these characters’ trespasses seem worthwhile or even particularly interesting. Frank is a spiritually empty yes-man, practically an automaton, and there is no reward waiting for him at the end of his days, no sacred brotherhood to keep him company. There is only a casket to select and days to count down. Even Frank’s most seemingly laudable quality — his loyalty to those who have lifted him up, materially speaking — seems more a product of laziness than anything else.
The cumulative effect of The Irishman’s 210 minutes is that of a purging, a cleansing counter-argument to the stylistic grandeur of Casino and Goodfellas. There are no Rolling Stones needle drops, no scenes of creative bloodletting, no clever editing schemes. In their place, there remains only one man’s attempt to make his long life of amorality add up to anything at all. (That’s not to say there aren’t dazzling, formally inventive moments, especially one involving a set of car bombings.) In the movie’s most shattering scene, Frank is shamed into calling a close relative of someone he’s killed; it’s the one and only time he’s forced to come face to face with his own actions. De Niro’s stammering, pathetic, ineffectual offers of condolence are as fine a thesis statement as The Irishman is willing to offer: the world is full of bad actors with nothing to say. Sometimes they even get their own movies.