Martin Scorsese is the best there is at what he does. The 76-year-old is one of the greatest, most honored living directors; he's a tireless promoter of cinema around the world; and he's someone who has been able to buck the trends and produce multiple late-period masterpieces (Silence, Wolf Of Wall Street) that will be analyzed by film scholars alongside the likes of early hits including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Mean Streets. And I have no doubt that his latest film for Netflix, The Irishman, will warrant just as much passionate consideration.
Here's a general overview: The Irishman is a melancholic mob masterpiece about moral decay. It's partially a mix of Scorsese greatest hits, and partially a meditation on the corrosive nature of living life as a criminal. More so than any of his other remarkable mafia films, it follows that thread far longer, and more critically than before. (Scroll way down for a longer review, if you don't mind spoilers.)
Scorsese was joined by stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and producers Emma Tillinger Koskoff, and Jane Rosenthal at the New York Film Festival this morning for a showing of the movie plus a Q&A, in which they all expanded upon making the film, and how Scorsese ended up reuniting with his longtime collaborators De Niro and Pesci.
"Bob and I have wanted to work together since we did Casino, which was 1995," Scorsese said. They initially talked about making a movie out of The Winter of Frankie Machine, a novel about a retired hitman which De Niro was attached to star in around 2006. Screenwriter Eric Roth recommended De Niro read I Heard You Paint Houses, the memoir by Charles Brandt about Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, which became the basis for The Irishman.
"When Bob presented the book to me, I could see he was very strongly attached to the character. And we didn't have to say much," Scorsese said, noting the project first started to take shape around 2007.
"I'm just happy we all finally got to do it, because it did take a long time," said De Niro. "The way Marty wanted to do it, we're lucky to have the people to put up the money..." "Because we couldn't get backing, for years," Scorsese chimed in. "Ultimately, it was [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos." The key to making the film, he said, was coming up with a way to utilize the de-aging technology without it getting in the way of the acting (like having "tennis balls in their faces," as happens with many big CGI-heavy productions). Producer Jane Rosenthal added, "The wait between the time we did the test and were actually shooting was actually positive for the picture, because the technology kept evolving, kept changing, kept making things simpler."
Still, it took over a decade from conception to screen, which meant everyone had to make sure they were on the same page: "We had to check in with each other," Scorsese said. "As you get older, people grow differently at times. You grow separate, away from each other. This was not the case. We kept coming back, coming back. We still had a telepathic way of working together, particularly with certain characters." The film ultimately spanned 117 locations, 309 scenes, and utilized more than 400 extras during the 108 day shoot.
Pacino said he was particularly amazed at the de-aging technology, especially when he was shown a test clip of a de-aged De Niro doing a scene from Goodfellas. "I said after it was over, wait a minute, isn't he old or something? How'd he do that? He's such a great actor. I thought, wow—he's Meryl Streep!" When De Niro watched that test footage side-by-side with the original Goodfellas clip, he said, "that could extend my career another 30 or 40 years!"
Scorsese noted he had never gotten to work with Al Pacino before this, despite the two meeting several times over the years to try to find a project together; they first met in 1970 while Pacino was directing the play Rats. Pacino talked at another point about how he would listen to Jimmy Hoffa in his headphones while on set to capture his voice, while Scorsese thought he was listening to music.
While Scorsese seemed more than happy to carry most of the conversation load during the chat, Pesci was hilariously taciturn. "I'm wondering if you could talk about coming aboard this project, it's been a while since you've appeared in a film, I think the last one was Bob's film The Good Shepherd," moderator Kent Jones asked. "No," Pesci responded to much audience laughter. "I don't know what to say." When asked if he was pressured into joining the film, he said no, to more laughter. "I just do whatever he tells me to," he added, referring to Scorsese.
The audience portion of the Q&A was blissfully short, with just two questions asked. The first was about some of the aspects of Brandt's book which was left out of the film, particularly certain things having to do with the JFK assassination (which, to be fair, is hinted at in the movie). Scorsese said they made a decision early on to not focus on what he referred to as "conspiracy theories."
"What we wanted to deal with was the nature of who we are as human beings. The love, the betrayal, forgiveness, all of this," Scorsese said. "I didn't want to muddy up the emotions and power of what [Sheeran] was going through, and what [Pesci's character Russell] Bufalino had to deal with, and of course, Jimmy Hoffa's sense of, 'I'm above the law.' Nobody's above the law."
"It's the life that they're in, and they're human beings. [Frank Sheeran is] not a psychotic, in that sense. He's a human being with feelings. What we were interested in is that he finds himself at the most important part of his life in a moral conflict," he continued. "How does a good man live with himself after that?"
"What happens if we know the truth of that time? Will our lives change now?" Scorsese said. "What does it do to us as human beings, or say to us about our society now, about being above the law, and being reckless, as Joey Gallo was and as Jimmy [Hoffa] became."
The second person asked about the resonance of The Irishman with our current moment, which set Scorsese off on a two minute response about a certain complacency that spread around the country post-JFK's assassination, and the danger of ignoring "the true dark forces that are in our nature" and that "can easily take over." He alluded to "certain forces at work" who aren't just gangsters, and touching on the themes of the film, concluded, "so it becomes about power. Power erases everything else. Money isn't everything, it's power. And as you know, they'll do anything to keep the power."
The film is long as hell (209 minutes!) and is filled with a lot of classic Scorsese-isms, but it really, truly doesn't drag, thanks largely to the mesmerizing performances of its three towering leads, all of whom do some of their best work ever. Al Pacino, making his Scorsese debut as Jimmy Hoffa, practically steals the film, whether he's walking around in pajamas, yelling at teamster meetings, or eating ice cream (and he eats SO MUCH ice cream). He's flamboyant and electric, but unlike some of the more unhinged Pacino performances (think The Devil's Advocate), he's able to find a balance with this one. His take on Hoffa is that of a charismatic man who understands his weaknesses, including stubbornness and pride, but also can't stop himself from indulging them.
Joe Pesci plays older mobster Russell Bufalino, a character who is sort of like the inverse of Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas. He's a mob lifer who is more phantom than hellhound, and Pesci's utter stillness at times is haunting, especially considering how rarely Pesci acts these days (this is his first onscreen role in almost a decade). And after years of slumming it in terrible productions that wasted his talents, De Niro is fantastic as mob enforcer Frank Sheeran, who carries the film through all the various time periods.
As for the rest of the cast, Ray Romano is very fun as mob attorney Bill Bufalino, and Stephen Graham, who was so good as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire, plays mobster Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano on a similar wavelength, and is the movie's other secret weapon. Harvey Keitel shows up as Philadelphia crime boss Angelo Bruno in what is really just a glorified cameo. The female cast members sadly do not get as much to do, which is disappointing—it's especially sad because Anna Paquin's character is seemingly so pivotal, and yet barely sketched out (and uh, has like two lines?).
As for the de-aging technology... it wasn't terrible! I'm happy to say there were no "uncanny valley" moments where I was taken out of the film by it. There is a purposefulness to using it here instead of having other actors play the characters at younger ages. At the same time, there were times when De Niro was playing a younger version of himself but still moving like an older man, and early on, I sometimes wondered exactly how old he was supposed to be (like when Pesci referred to him as a "kid" but he looked, generously, like he was in his mid-40s).
Overall, the film is both sadder and funnier—I can't count how many times the entire theater burst into laughter during the film—than any of Scorsese's previous mob epics. But the thing that is resonating most with me hours later is the unspoken, overwhelming sense of regret that hovers over everything. There are few vicarious thrills compared with the likes of Goodfellas and The Wolf Of Wall Street. This is a movie about old men reckoning with their own destructive decisions.