By Glenn Heath Jr.
Time waits for no gangster. At the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s colossal new film “The Irishman,” aged mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) has already learned this lesson. But that doesn’t stop him from reminiscing about a life that went from being a blue-collar ex-G.I. to one of the most feared killers in the Italian mob.
Past experiences, both violent and melancholic, have an inevitable pull on the present in this sobering 3.5-hour epic. Wheelchair-bound and languishing in the corner of a nursing home, Sheeran almost seems inspired by some unspoken responsibility to confess through flashback. And confess he does.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” Scorsese’s newest examines how Sheeran became an integral figure in the Philadelphia-based Italian crime syndicate run by Russell Bufalino (a disturbingly reserved Joe Pesci) during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Despite being an outsider, he was welcomed into a select club that no one escapes unless it’s in a body bag.
Memories overlap and unspool seamlessly sometimes out of order, but Frank’s role as a silent but deadly witness to history remains constant. Like with so much of Scorsese’s filmography, loyalty and betrayal are flipsides to the same coin. When flamboyant Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) enters Frank’s orbit, the tension between these impulses grows untenable.
Scorsese has been in the news lately for his (correct) assessment of Marvel’s death grip on cinematic artistry, but people should be focusing equally on this latest masterpiece that lays bare so many of the raw emotion and reflective nature that typically define his non-crime pictures (“Age of Innocence,” “Silence,” “Kundun”).
“The Irishman” (opening Friday, November 15) has plenty of assassinations, long tracking shots, and pop music cues one would normally associate with vintage Scorsese, but its most wrenching moments are the ones of silence, like when one character stands over the body of his murdered best friend before rushing out the door.