One of the elements that keeps fans of Martin Scorsese rooted in his corner is that he seems to always have a solid, and legitimate, reason for attaching himself to films. When he pulls out seemingly odd adventures like Bringing Out the Dead, Kundun, or Shutter Island, they may not win everyone over, but there is something about the idea behind them that is respectable. Love them or hate them, they are… interesting. Fans are even quick to overlook certain irritating facts, like that he won’t stop hiring Leonardo DiCaprio, because somewhere in that five-film run you’ll get The Departed. The Irishman, on the other hand, for all its many positives, feels like a film made simply because the mob itch needed scratching.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book, The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and spans several decades. From his early days as a truck driver and teamster, through his life spent working up the ranks with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) by way of teamster attorney Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano). This ultimately leads to Sheeran’s connection to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and we follow him all the way to his nursing home, where people are still trying to get answers from him.
Scorsese’s grit and “unfiltered honesty as tone” drive the narrative of a man caught up in circumstances he doesn’t mind being caught up in during tough times, but for a film that is well over three hours long, it suffers for its endless hand-wringing and vagueries of inner turmoil. Reveling in the ebb and flow of power within a system more chaotic than it will admit, the film loses sight of elements it seems to think are actually far more important, and they are. Frank may nearly tear out of his own skin at the thought of a certain hit, and these few minutes of acting without speaking are among the best moments De Niro has ever delivered, but his relationship with his family is only ever given a cursory glance. This is a film that says Frank’s family is important to him, and eventually that he is rather unhappy about the absence of one of his daughters from his life, but it leaves it to the viewer to do the work of engaging with that struggle.
Through Frank’s story, which is equally dark and tragic, we discover a man who is floating along like a proverbial piece of driftwood, and he seems largely content to do so. There are hints that his time in the service helped shape his attitude of vague indifference at his circumstances, whatever those circumstances may be, but the film seems to challenge the ultimate impact of fighting in a war, or anything else, on Frank’s persona. He’s an odd character, not simply content to follow orders, but apparently comforted by having orders to follow. But, he’s also the sort of guy who doesn’t have to worry about looking over his shoulder, because he’s savvy enough to know what’s behind him long before anyone thought of getting behind him.
We walk through Frank’s life with him, and if it can be said that there is a point to The Irishman, it is to witness the cost of being Frank Sheeran. When it comes down to that last turn of the screw, which Frank sees coming and tries to avoid any way he can, the film delivers in spades. That’s especially true simply in contrasting Sheeran with Bufalino, who, in a sense that puts us almost in Alice’s Wonderland, dispassionately shrugs at Sheeran as if to say, “Look, you knew where you were.”
Ultimately, though we spend most of our time in and around Frank’s “professional” life, and Scorsese knows how to deliver, it’s the glimpses of Frank’s family that are clawing at us, hoping to be revealed. We see Frank with his wife, and his daughters, most notably with Anna Paquin as the one that severely turns on Frank, and while he gets the opportunity to… mention the fractured relationship, the film never offers any more insight or examination of that loss than you just got here, because I also mentioned a fractured father-daughter relationship and I equally leave it to you to simply imagine such a creature.
It isn’t just that this is lazy storytelling in a film with time to spare. When Frank is tight-rope-walking his way through the characters and nuances of “getting things done” as the mob marries itself to the nation’s largest union, the film and actors involved deliver rich, real characters. The audience knows Frank, and after 45 minutes, can guess how he’s going to handle the next situation, and the casual indifference with which he’s going to kill the next guy he kills. But, when he’s driving with his wife, stopping for cigarette breaks every 15 minutes, or when he’s listening to a news report surrounded by his family, or when Hoffa is giving a speech, everyone becomes a haphazardly-drawn caricature of “50s wife,” or, “hood,” or, “mob flunky pretending to be a regular Joe in front of his family.”
The lack of effort at a broader story kills The Irishman, which here only means that it sits in one pile of Scorsese’s work instead of the other. In much the way that First Man disappointed because you found yourself longing for fifteen more minutes of Claire Foy and less staring at shaky metal, The Irishman won’t stop staring at the ride toward tragedy even while telling you the tragedy’s the thing, and it is.