The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

There was a time when De Niro could do seemingly anything: Johnny Boy, Vito Corleone, Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin, whatever. Now he is older and fatter and there are clear limits to what he can do with his voice and body. He also has alimony to pay and a Tribeca-based empire to manage, so his mystique has been watered down by lazy performances in bad movies. But occasionally a good movie comes along where he shows that, within his current range, there is still no one with deeper talent. Here he plays the least charismatic, least expressive, and (with the arguable exception of Rupert Pupkin) least self-aware character Scorsese has ever built a movie around, and he carries you from beginning to end. Frank Sheeran doesn't know what he feels or why he feels it, but feelings lurk within him, and De Niro is in touch with both the feelings and the wall in front of them. There are many scenes where he does little more than clench his jaw, shrug, and/or shift his eyes, but these precisely-calibrated gestures hint at the feelings that are trying to break through. De Niro gives us just enough of them to keep us with Sheeran, and even to care about this failed, pitiable man, but he knows the wall is stronger.

Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street are about men who revel in the spoils of crime before falling back to earth. At the end, their main regret is that the glory didn't last longer. Frank, for all his trouble, gets only a modest middle-class life where he is always on call; proximity to power; and a best friend who he dutifully murders when told to. At best, he has moderate comfort and a tenuous sense of belonging, which are important things, but also no better than what most of us who don't kill for a living get. The earlier protagonists' downfalls were the films' acidic punchlines, but here, Scorsese so brutally lingers on Frank's final years that he makes us watch the guy buy a coffin for himself.

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