Of all the film directors who have been churning out material since the 1970s, Martin Scorsese is arguably the most consistent. He still has a mad swing and is exploring cinematic territory and techniques that feel both old school and fit for the new age.
In his latest, The Irishman, Scorsese takes all the best elements from his filmography — including Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street — and tosses them into a three-and-a-half-hour character-driven epic.
The Irishman is a riveting dissection of humanity and power. Perhaps it was a spiritual domain Scorsese discovered after making his 2016 passion project Silence. Whatever the cause, there’s no doubt a more meditative quality to The Irishman that makes it more than a merely recycled wash of Scorsese’s gangster movies. Surprisingly, the film sees its characters reflecting on their actions, and the story follows them to depths where Scorsese’s formerly would have closed the book.
The film, while layered in character complexity and history, can be briefly described as being about mob hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), recalling his alleged involvement in the killing of American labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). But outside the nutshell are examinations of family dysfunction, conflicting loyalties and the impact of time.
The Irishman is a sprawling narrative that covers many decades, from when Frank was a young soldier at war to an older man living out the remainder of his life, burying regrets and truths about his past. This isn’t a chronological account of Frank’s life. Scorsese and his gifted longtime film editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who deserves an Academy Award for slicing this up) jump around the 1950s to the early 2000s.
Unlike Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, which also embraces an anecdote-within-an-anecdote approach, The Irishman flows more organically and doesn’t get exhaustive. Its stream-of-consciousness style is supported by its butt-numbing length. Even though I’d personally argue that it’s best to see the film in all its glory on the big screen, I wouldn’t blame curious Netflix subscribers for wanting to break up a screening as if they were watching a miniseries. It’s a lot of substance to digest.
Despite its daunting running time, it moves rather quickly for a movie that largely features characters talking. There isn’t much bang-bang as in some other Scorsese titles, but it does have its fair share of moments that show Frank “painting houses” in red. One pivotal scene exhibits Frank’s wrath when he violently drags a store owner out to the street to introduce him to the curb for mistreating his preteen daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina). Frank is a man among men who don’t seem to care too much about consequences; they just want to rule the block and provide for their families.
Much of Frank’s intensity derives from his rapport with Sicilian-born American mafioso Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). What starts as a simple exchange about truck engine parts grows to a bond that serves as one of the film’s best components. De Niro and Pesci go way back, and that real-life friendship shines through and makes you realize how much you miss them creating magic together on screen with Scorsese.
The same goes for Pacino, as well. There’s an internal battle that Frank has going on between honoring both parties of companionship. And to see Pacino teach a master class in yelling through his portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa, while Pesci figuratively eats a Snickers and displays quiet intimidation, unlocks excellence.
There are many first-rate characteristics about The Irishman that make it one of the better films of 2019, including how it handles death and the secrets that are buried with us. That said, it doesn’t hold a candle to Goodfellas — mainly because the women are reduced to be the butt of jokes about cigarette breaks.
Anna Paquin, who plays Peggy as an adult, doesn’t get a meaty part like Lorraine Bracco or Sharon Stone in other Scorsese films. She has a significant emotional role that is comparable to Margot Robbie in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While I understand the reason behind Tarantino’s decision, I wish Scorsese had dedicated more time to better illustrate the turmoil between Frank and Peggy.
The greatest takeaway from the film, undeniably, is the commanding presence of De Niro. Between this and Joker, De Niro is back on the upward climb. How he plays nearly 50 years (with the help of de-aging technology) is remarkable. The glossy digital look may be alarming at first (especially in the first scene when it shows its artificial face), but you’ll adjust to it quickly and won’t notice when the movie finally catches up with the actors’ actual ages.
The Irishman is a marvel to behold. It’s a big journey to embark on, but it’s a rewarding one that deserves badges of Oscar honor.