Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a man who paints houses, with blood. Not literally — it’s mafia slang — but he’s a man who does jobs and cleans up after them, tossing telltale guns into an oil-dark river at nighttime, washing his hands and moving on. “I heard you paint houses,” says union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), one day. More jobs commence, keeping Sheeran busy; too busy, maybe, to think too much about what’s happening to his soul.
“The Irishman,” a three-and-a-half-hour epic from the great Martin Scorsese, masterfully unfolds Sheeran’s story, from his chance encounter, as a young World War II vet, with Pennsylvania mafia don Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) to his lonely last years, many decades later, fading away in a nursing home. But it’s not told in that order; instead, different threads from Sheeran’s life are intricately swirled together, forming a taut, tight rope, of the sort you might use for hanging. “The Irishman” is long, to be sure, but it’s never less than compelling — Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, all in their mid-to-late-70s, are each carrying a lifetime of work, with practiced ease.
This is, of course, familiar territory for Scorsese, who’s made numerous films exploring the world of organized crime; no one’s better at showing us a cavalcade of men with leathery voices and averted eyes, following them down dark hallways and sidewalks, sitting with them in dusty-lit Italian restaurants or startlingly ordinary middle-class living rooms, watching as fat envelopes get slid across a desk’s well-worn surface by gold-ring-adorned hands. Mobster after mobster crosses paths with Sheeran and Hoffa; Scorsese shows us, in onscreen notes, their eventual fate. With one exception (a man “well liked by all,” who died of natural causes), all met violent ends — a reminder, in case we’re finding this movie too entertaining, of prices paid.
The violence in “The Irishman” is both horrifying and briskly dispatched; it doesn’t register much to Sheeran, so it isn’t dwelled upon. But one early scene, in which Sheeran brutally batters a shop owner who’d been rude to Sheeran’s young daughter Peggy — with Peggy, horrified, looking on — resonates. A grown-up Peggy, later in the film, is played by Anna Paquin, who has almost no lines (you’d think, in three and a half hours, time could be found for her to speak a bit more?) but conveys a haunting sense of something broken. Sheeran’s not a man given to self-reflection; the silence of his daughter does it for him.
You watch “The Irishman” — in a theater, or on Netflix, where it will lodge starting Nov. 29 — with a sense of time passing; it’s the sort of leisurely, old-school film that doesn’t get made much anymore, and you wonder how many more movies Scorsese and his stars have left to make. In its quiet final scenes, “The Irishman” feels like an elegy. A man looks back on a life, alone and silent with himself, pondering the stories he’ll carry to his grave. “Usually three people can only keep a secret,” he rasps, “if two of them are dead.”
★★★½ “The Irishman,” with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin. Directed by Martin Scorsese, from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. 210 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language and strong violence. Opens Nov. 15 at Cinerama, Crest Cinema Center and iPic; begins streaming on Netflix Nov. 27.