Throughout Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s (The Departed) mobster epic The Irishman, many of the film’s shady, real-life characters are introduced to audiences by two facts appearing on screen in text form: their name and cause of death. No surprise, many of them meet their demise from a bullet to the back of their head.
These grim citations are a stark reminder of the criminal underworld on which Scorsese has built his reputation as a director over the past half century. But they also serve as a bit of irony, since one of the main subjects in The Irishman, teamster leader and mob associate Jimmy Hoffa, is legendary — partly because his whereabouts remain a mystery after he vanished in 1975.
In The Irishman, Scorsese and Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) run with a theory based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by homicide prosecutor and investigator Charles Brandt. In the book, Brandt chronicles the life of labor union official and mafia hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, who confessed on his deathbed that he assassinated Hoffa — an admission of guilt rejected by many historians.
However, that event is only a small portion of the sprawling, 209-minute Scorsese saga following Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he rises in rank, from a small-time crook stealing meat from delivery trucks to a trusted assassin working for crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Later, Sheeran becomes acquainted with Hoffa (Al Pacino) and is drawn deeper into the syndicate.
Spanning 60 years, The Irishman must first be commended for its technical achievements. The special effects used to de-age De Niro, Pesci and Pacino into younger men are incredible. Although similar processes were used in past films — last month in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, for example — the degree to which Scorsese’s drama executes these feats of visual precision are more breathtaking, groundbreaking and surreal than anything that’s come before.
Beyond that, De Niro, Pesci and Pacino lead some of the best ensemble acting of the year. Pacino’s supporting role as Hoffa is a master class in conveying the perfect balance of attitude, restraint and humor and is his finest work in decades. It should easily earn him a ninth career Oscar nomination and his first since winning the award in 1993 for Scent of a Woman.
Although it might feel familiar, The Irishman is unlike any of Scorsese’s other high-profile mobster pictures. It benefits from a deliberate pacing and less-violent approach in comparison to films like Goodfellas and Casino.
The Irishman is currently playing at San Antonio theaters. It debuts on Netflix November 27.