Martin Scorsese’s 3 1/2-hour gangster epic “The Irishman” isn’t the masterpiece many critics are calling it, but I do like it more than anything he’s directed in a long time. It’s more melancholy and deeply felt than, say, “The Departed,” “Goodfellas,” or “Casino.” Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, its three stars, all give performances with flashes of their best work. But there’s an aspect of the movie, common to all of Scorsese’s organized crime films, that I find troubling. To wit: Just how sentimental should we be about coldblooded killers?
There are a lot of them in the film. First among them is De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, an Irish American trucker and petty crook who rises in the ranks of the Philadelphia Bufalino crime family to the favored position of hit man. (In mob vernacular, he “paints houses.”) He is introduced in a long, languorous tracking shot in a nursing home. His intermittent voice-over narration then takes us through flashbacks spanning more than five decades. (The film utilizes de-aging technology, to mostly serviceable effect, on the three actors.)
We briefly take in his service as a soldier in Italy during World War II, his meetup in 1950 with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), his marriages, his children, and his hit jobs. Then, momentously, his fraught friendship with Teamster chief Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), whom he protects as a bodyguard until ordered to kill him. (Although the people portrayed in the movie, written by Steve Zaillian, are real, the facts in Charles Brandt’s 2004 nonfiction book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” on which the film is based, have been much disputed.)
Unlike those earlier Scorsese gangster movies, the violence here is comparatively subdued. Frank’s hits are staged as wham-bam events. In one, the camera is mostly focused on a bouquet in a flower shop window. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the cruelty and pitilessness still come through loud and clear. And yet Scorsese wants us to comprehend these killers apart from their killings – as tragic figures caught up in a web of violence of their own making.
He is trying to expose the depredations of these people, but he can’t hide his affection for them. Part of the problem, of course, is that we feel emotionally close to his actors. De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci have such built-in audience rapport that no matter how horrible their characters behave, we are, not unwillingly, on their side. Our long and happy history with them is a species of sentimentality that the film inevitably mainlines.
Unregenerate murderers are people, too. And if one is crafting a work of art, to deny them their humanity is to deny reality. (Shakespeare knew this; so did Dostoevsky.) But it’s really not all that difficult to make movie killers sympathetic. It’s done all the time, even in far greater films such as “The Godfather,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” and “The Wild Bunch.” The more difficult achievement here would have been if Scorsese, surveying the havoc these men wrought, maintained a hard edge of horror.
To his credit, he does show us, if too briefly, the toll Frank’s violence takes on his daughter (played by Lucy Gallina and, as an adult, by Anna Paquin). But the regret Frank feels by the end, which he cannot even bring himself to confess to a priest, has mostly to do with offing Hoffa, and not with the many others he dispatched. He has no qualms about killing per se.
When Frank in his old age says, “You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there,” the autumnal tone rings false. What about all the people he murdered? Time passed awfully fast for them, too.