Among the many beguiling choices in Martin Scorsese’s monumental gangster epic The Irishman is a great switcheroo from its advertised title to the much more evocative I Heard You Paint Houses, the title actually shown on-screen. The mob-enforced code of “painting houses” to signify that a member performs their own hits becomes a point of pride and a kind of personal mantra for Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he narrates – to an unknown audience and, therefore, directly to the film’s viewers – his life as a WWII veteran who finds his coming-home purpose as an East Coast organized crime boss. The alt-title comes from the name of Charles Brandt’s biography on which The Irishman is based, a factually disputed best-seller culled from copious interviews with its subject. The book’s name is taken from a pivotal moment in which Sheeran first crosses paths with U.S. labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Whether Scorsese always intended his magnum opus to officially share the book’s title is unknown. It’s plausible that Netflix, the distributor of The Irishman, forced Scorsese to cede just one aspect of this reported $140 million production with a three-and-a-half-hour running time by changing the title to a generic, easily searchable word. However, the case for the obfuscation could be made within the text itself. Scorsese is indeed playing once again in the mobster crime sandbox, the genre with which he’s most associated (possibly unfairly) since he reinvigorated and recontextualized it with Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995). However, this temporally slippery memory palace more closely resembles Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and Lucino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) – two works whose respected reputations have been rebuilt by none other than Scorsese himself over the years – in constructing a romanticized and historically cagey slow-march-of-time narrative of shifting cultural and political epochs. It’s as if Scorsese is presenting Sheeran as the auteur of I Heard You Paint Houses, refracted through his own film, The Irishman: a head-spinning mixture of perspectives that becomes as complicated as the moral and ethical issues within the film proper and with its very telling.
After premiering at the New York Film Festival and with sporadic theatrical showings before its streaming premiere, critical word-on-the-street has been that this is Scorsese’s “old man picture.” That is, it belongs to a certain kind of late-period auteur film of nostalgic navel-gazing: John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1964), Kurosawa Akira’s Dreams (1990), and, to bring the concept to the contemporary, Clint Eastwood’s The Mule (2018). Labeling The Irishman as such is fair – it could arguably be reduced to “a movie about old men made by an old man” – but that’s to ignore how the propulsive and masterful rock-and-roll mania of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), progeny to the aforementioned gangster sagas, synthesizes here with the contemplative, more overtly spiritual journeys of Kundun (1997) and Silence (2016).
In fact, if it weren’t for its Russian nesting doll structure – presenting a near-death Sheeran in a nursing home, where he recalls a road trip in which he recounts the great markers leading up to, as it turns out, the ultimate culmination of his life of violent crime – the bulk of The Irishman could be accused of being Scorsese redux. However, even when the film rehashes oft-used moves in luring viewers into its seductive web of unfathomable power, violence, and riches, the man who helped define said tropes finds new, more complex ways in simultaneously enthralling viewers and making them complicit in the insidious nature of the gangster lifestyle. One key invention comes early: a freeze frame on the swaggering and enviably cool head mobster Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) introduces not only the man’s identity in on-screen text but also the severe manner of his future murder. The conceit initially elicits laughter, but by the umpteenth time it occurs in the film, its effect changes from cheeky to a bludgeoning reminder of the ultimate consequences of the characters’ off-axis moral compasses. The overriding result for their quest for supremacy outside the law is to end up as a bullet-riddled corpse in a parking lot.
As Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian would have it, the alternative is aging into obscurity and reconciling past glories after one is alienated from any semblance of “normal” old age. Once he becomes an ideal “house-painter” -- one whose former role as a soldier trained him to devalue human life -- this is Sheeran’s fate, and the ultimate question The Irishman poses is whether its protagonist’s self-inflicted tragedy is worthy of sympathy. Until the film’s final third, when the accumulation of his actions finally becomes an unbearable weight, Sheeran is largely a yes-man cipher, propelled into the top ranks precisely because of his willingness to play lapdog to his masters, Hoffa and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). This emptiness is why the much-ballyhooed computer-assisted de-aging works in an aesthetic sense – much like the heavily made-up faces work as a distancing effect through the ages of Colonel Blimp – while not entirely successful. The digitally waxy visages of the younger versions present a great distraction in the first half, as the awkwardly-rendered youthful looks are painted on lumbering old men’s bodies.
However, Scorsese largely skirts around the uncanny valley by utilizing his accomplished performers’ strengths. The director effectively taps the renowned De Niro ethos by requiring a scaled-back recollection of their previous collaborations. The legendary actor is game to downplay any potential pyrotechnics, eventually morphing Sheeran’s blankness into his trademark seething anger layered with an acute, newfound despair. Pacino and Pesci are deployed similarly to bring their own actorly baggage to the proceedings. The former is more obviously in place as the braggadocious International Brotherhood of Teamsters president, before a fall from grace upends his real power in favor of grasping-at-straws paranoia. The latter is a come-back revelation, completely forgoing the manic fireworks that won him an Oscar as the psychopathic Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. Pesci’s previous bigger-than-life turns haunt The Irishman like a specter, eliciting suspense as the viewer waits for the volcano to erupt when, in fact, both the character and the performer showcase a masterclass of simmering restraint.
Being an epic tome on organized crime’s political and cultural influence in the latter half of the 20th century, there are countless figures that populate The Irishman beyond the central triangle of mismatched loyalty and manipulation. Jack Huston, Ray Romano, Steven Van Zandt, Bobby Cannavale, and Jesse Plemons, and others pop up as various lawyers, mob flunkies, and so forth. However, Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin, as the younger and older versions of Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy, stand out as the beating heart of this mostly all-male affair. No doubt that the character’s silence – the two performers have only a handful of lines between them – will raise the ire of many viewers à la Quentin Tarantino’s largely silent Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in his own “old man picture” from earlier this year, Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood. As with many of Scorsese’s most heralded works, The Irishman does lack female representation, but here their relative absence has a purpose. Peggy acts as an audience surrogate with respect to the brutal milieu her father occupies, and Paquin, in particular, stirs up a maelstrom of emotion in single glances where words could come off as screenwriter grandstanding. Scorsese’s never been a filmmaker for that sort of tidy summation – his worlds and perspectives are far too complicated for such pithiness – but when Peggy finally has her moment of confrontation with her father, it’s one of the few times he’s allowed a character to express an existential quandary that could be seen as his own. If Scorsese – one of the great chroniclers of masculine ambition and morality – has ever baldly presented a thesis statement for his work, it comes down to a simple question from Peggy’s lips: “Why?”