What happens when you grow old? That’s the question lingering in the nursing home in which Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) sees out his days rather like Uncle Junior did at the end of The Sopranos; though don’t expect any after-hour gambling dens where patients’ buttons sub for chips and the only illicit items smuggled in are cans of pop. From his wheelchair and IV drip, Frank recalls his heady past entanglements with the Bufalino crime family, much like the lone octogenarian you see mumbling to himself on visits to your grandma. Of no less importance in the old man’s recollections is the name Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino); unknown to the nurses on the ward, but there was a time – boy was there a time – when everyone in America knew the name HOFFA: President of the Teamster Union, and thought, for a time at least, to have a good chance of being the next U.S. President. And so, in flash backs, voice over, tracking shots, period music, and breaks of the fourth wall – the tricks Scorsese has perfected over his long and singular career – The Irishman unspools, over three and a half hours, with the pace and tension of watching the elderly run for the bus.
To combat the savageries of age – DeNiro being four years shy of eighty (let’s all pause to let that sink in…) – much hoo-ha has been made of the de-aging technology that allows the film’s central cast of old timers play much younger versions of themselves; or much-much-younger-versions of themselves in the case of DeNiro, who we flash back to behind the wheel of a meat packing truck: brill-creamed black hair, hardly a wrinkle in sight. For the most part, the tech works. Not since Boyhood has aging been put to such compelling effect in a film – and in Boyhood the aging was real. But what technology can hide, the mortal body reveals. In one scene, we see young hitman Frank discard his firearms on the seafront only to creak stiffly back across the rugged shingle to his car. You can’t help but wonder with what verve these earlier scenes – where we spend most of the film – would have played out with had its cast been five… ten… years younger. Remember Johnny Boy prowling into Mean Streets to the sound of Jumpin’ Jack Flash? Or Joe Pesci, leaving retirement for the film, in … anything? Such volatility in previous flicks gives way to solemnity here.