Anyone who works close enough to power and lives long enough is likely to have seen, and even done, things that might shatter the nerves of milder folks—and put their own souls at risk. Such is the harrowing avowal at the heart of “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s grand and complex, colossal and intimate new movie, which premièred on Friday at the New York Film Festival. (I’ll write a full review when the movie gets its release in theatres and on Netflix, in November.) “The Irishman” is a gangster drama that deploys a mighty cast—headed by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci—in a vast, turbulent, and mournful tale that confronts a wide span of history, thanks to digital “de-aging” technology that enables these actors, now in their seventies, to occupy, astonishingly credibly, about fifty years of dramatic time, from around 1950 to the early two-thousands, in a complex interweaving of its multiple time frames. It runs a minute shy of three and a half hours, and I wouldn’t wish it any shorter.

Written by Steven Zaillian and based on a true story adapted from the nonfiction book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” by Charles Brandt, the movie is centered on Frank Sheeran (De Niro), who’s first seen as an elderly and disabled man, sitting alone in a nursing home, ruminating in voice-over and then reminiscing into the camera but to no one in particular; the aged Frank’s monologue, with his copious and confessional memories, dominate the film. His reminiscences are anchored in mid-1975, when, seemingly innocuously, he and his wife, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba), are driving from their Philadelphia home with another middle-aged couple, Russ (Pesci) and Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) Bufalino, for a Bufalino-family wedding, in Detroit. Another layer of flashbacks fills in the backstory: Frank, around 1950, was a truck driver who happened to cross paths with Russ, who was already a major Mob boss. Quickly taken on for small but sensitive criminal strong-arm jobs, Frank—a Second World War veteran whose combat experiences were inseparable from wanton killing and bureaucratic corruption—finds himself promoted, involuntarily, to hit man, which the milieu codes as his “house painting.”

Then, after about a decade as Russ’s trusted associate, Frank is hired (on Russ’s recommendation) by the real-life labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) as bodyguard and right-hand man. Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters union, was in those days a national figure at the apogee of his power, yet facing threats from other gangsters as well as from government prosecutors, whose numbers would soon include Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Huston). While growing closer to Hoffa and becoming more deeply implicated in his schemes to retain, and, later, to regain power, Frank also remains a central player in Russ’s Mob fiefdom. The crux of the film is the chronicle of how Frank’s loyalties and principles are put to the test.

That test is repeated in a series of quiet confrontations of a mind-bending intensity, in which mortal stakes are on the line; those scenes are the source of the film’s devastating power. The film’s teeming, ravenously detailed, meticulously constructed, patiently and tensely observed sequences seem to howl with the cold force of ruthlessly practical calculation and bitterly gleaned wisdom—and the brutality that will issue from a word and a wink. As characters are introduced, their Mob-related deaths are described onscreen in superimposed titles; several infamous rubouts get vigorous, utterly unromantic dramatizations, as do many unsung killings and maimings. There’s plenty of humor in the film; perhaps the funniest line is one of the shortest, “I do,” which Harvey Keitel, as another Mob kingpin, inflects with an uproarious ambiguity that, nonetheless, shudders with fatal implications. Yet the movie is a tragedy, and De Niro captures the enormity of that tragedy in a pair of infinitesimal gestures: quick glances into camera, indicating to viewers that Frank knows the magnitude of what’s what—and Scorsese makes sure that viewers know it as well.

Scorsese’s de-aging of the actors is more than a stunt; it’s the movie’s moral spine. Time, generations, and age are central to “The Irishman”; it’s the story of its characters but also the story of an era, and it’s crucial to the movie’s affect that its protagonists are played by people who were formed by those times, both culturally and unconsciously. These actors aren’t merely powerful and subtle (the Academy will have its hands full with De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci), or at the very summit of their talent; they are incarnations of the past.

“The Irishman” is filled with incidents and episodes from political history. It also offers a sort of counter-history, an underground Mafia backstory that usually emerges only in gorily picturesque killings and dramatic court cases. Here it is placed at the forefront of American life, as the exemplary, endemic, and ubiquitous mode of corruption. Scorsese depicts the hollowing-out of civic life through the ineradicable rot of gangsterism, from labor to business to government, from family life to popular lore, and suggests that, with such cold monsters at the levers of power, world-historical scandals and legitimized depravities should be no surprise. “The Irishman” is, in this regard, also Scorsese’s own memory-piece. The film is filled with cultural effluvia of the fifties through the seventies, many centered on food (Lum’s hot dogs, Hildebrandt’s ice cream). Associating such pleasures and recollections with the era’s snake pit of gangsterism is meant to dispel nostalgia. In “The Irishman,” Scorsese looks back at the span of his life and times as a tale of terror, loss, and regret.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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