Martin Scorsese opens his new movie The Irishman with a long tracking shot, the sound of vintage doo-wop music on the soundtrack and a man reflecting on his life with the mob—and it's almost like he's daring you to start comparing it to Goodfellas. Returning to the world of gangsters is a risky proposition for a filmmaker who has done epic work in that milieu more than once already, so there had to be a compelling reason for Scorsese to want to return to it, and for the famously big-screen-loving Scorsese to agree to a deal with Netflix, the only entity that would finance it. What is there that's new to say about the glamour and chaos of organized crime?
It shouldn't be surprising that Scorsese finds plenty new to say, and in a way that's actually in fascinating conversation with his earlier mob-themed films. Where Goodfellas might have focused on physical, existential threats of that world, The Irishman is about something potentially even more brutal: what it feels like to lose your soul.
Adapting Charles Brandt's nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses—the expression is a euphemism for someone who kills people—The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), a World War II veteran from Philadelphia who works his way from small-time scams as a truck driver delivering meat, to connecting with a local organized crime boss named Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci). Despite not being Italian, Sheeran earns his way into the Mafia inner circle, proving himself reliable and trustworthy. Ultimately, that includes meeting and befriending Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the flamboyant Teamster's Union president who allowed the mob to use the union's pension fund as a lending bank.
The Irishman spans 60 years over the course of 209 minutes, and Scorsese earns every bit of his epic scope. He provides a rich context for how national events from the 1950s to 1970s impact mob activity, like the feelings of betrayal when attorney general Robert Kennedy became an anti-organized crime crusader. Mostly, he's able to explore the depth of the relationships between his characters, from the friendship between Sheeran and Hoffa to the antagonism between Hoffa and mob boss Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Every action in The Irishman has a sense of consequence built on a specific history, and we watch that history build to the point where the inevitability of certain consequences becomes clear.
We also get to watch three of the greatest actors alive do their thing, and it's impossible to overstate how remarkable that experience is. Joe Pesci, mostly retired for the past decade, crafts Russell Buffalino into a character radically different from the live-wire persona most closely connected to the actor. There's a wonderful weariness in his matter-of-fact pronouncements, using "it's what it is" to convey impending murder as more akin to an emotionless law of nature than an act of aggression. Pacino, meanwhile, offers another reminder of how electrifying he can be when he's in top form, capturing Hoffa as a larger-than-life, referring-to-himself-in-the-third-person character who can't fathom the idea that his threats to expose mob activity—tossed around when he wants support for taking back the Teamsters' leadership after a prison stint—won't have consequences. They're two of the best screen performances of the year, allowing the stars to show shades that emphasize the depth of their range.
That DeNiro fellow is no slouch, either, and his performance provides the quietly devastating center for how Scorsese blows up any lingering notions that he glamorizes the mob life. It's the story of a man facing the fallout of becoming a monster, with such sad resignation that it's almost possible to find the monster deserving of sympathy. The pivot point for this understanding involves Sheeran's relationship with his daughter Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina; as an adult by Anna Paquin), who silently observes the reality of who her father is and what he does. Peggy gets almost no dialogue, but her judgment—and her choice to distance herself from her father—cuts to the heart of what Sheeran loses by virtue of the choices he has made. Goodfellas might have been a cautionary tale written in lightning; this one is written in the silence of a dying man sitting alone.