The Irishman | Martin Scorsese | NYFF 2019
Martin Scorsese returns to the gangster genre with his new film The Irishman, based on I Heard You Paint Houses, Charles Brandt’s biography that chronicles the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. Scorsese has nothing to prove about his mastery of this genre, yet the director finds a way to deliver aspects that definitely dip into the well of his “greatest hits,” while also giving a slightly more somber and reflective look at the toll that this life of crime eventually has on those who participate in the mob world.
Any new Scorsese is a must-see event but The Irishman is on another level because he reunites with both Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since 1995’s Casino and it’s the first-ever Scorsese and Al Pacino collaboration – if you can believe it. In an era of predominately big studio tentpoles about superheroes or Jedi, this is the sort of old-school main event that used to dominate multiplexes. It’s so rare that pure star power can sway audiences to devote their time and money. With a weighty runtime of three-and-a-half hours, Scorsese asks for a lot of your time and he most certainly earns it in a fashion only he could deliver.
When we first meet Frank (De Niro), he’s an old-timer in a senior home recounting his past as a young man and how he started working for the powerful and well-connected mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Scorsese proceeds to jump back and forth between this period and one during their latter years – specifically a road-trip with their wives to attend a wedding. As fate would have it, one of their wives’ many smoke breaks brings them back near the gas station where they first met many decades ago, and we soon discover just where they’re really heading to and how they got to this point in their lives.
Frank slowly but surely rises through the mob ranks, thanks to his trustworthy no-nonsense demeanor and his ruthless killing ability from his time in the army during World War II. He gains the love and friendship of Russell and soon joins Russell’s circle, which features characters played by Scorsese regulars – both old (Harvey Keitel) and new (Bobby Cannavale and Ray Romano). All roads lead Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), who shows up almost an hour into the film but changes the entire dynamic as we know it. Hoffa was a well-renowned labor union leader and President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters who soon has a hand in helping President Kennedy get elected. Frank spends a lot of time by Jimmy’s side and the two form a true friendship and bond that the rest of Frank’s crew doesn’t. The thing is, Hoffa is a notorious hothead who will lose his cool if you show up to a meeting late, or under-dressed in shorts, which is what happens in a hilarious sequence between him and Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham; Hellboy & Rocketman), a rival union leader who Hoffa constantly butts heads with.
Coming into the film, you expected some graphic violence and the game of chess that is the world of mobsters. These elements are all there in Steven Zaillian’s screenplay. But what caught me by surprise was how consistently funny the film is from start to finish, finding plenty of humor in the mob world, from why it’s essential to take a pee break before committing a restaurant hit to the back and forth banter as Hoffa guzzles down ice cream. That’s not to mention some clever onscreen text to give us details about the future fate of smaller side characters, a clever move that pays off handsomely.
The film, of course, lays on the triumphant shoulders of its big three cast members, and all of them are as terrific as they’ve been in years. De Niro shifts back and forth between the cold-blooded killer required to a more quiet and reflective character. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Joe Pesci on the big screen and he delivers a performance so good that you forget that he ever left. But the true scene-stealer is Al Pacino who completely dives in as Jimmy Hoffa, going all-in on a bonkers performance that sees him chew the scenery, but in the sort of way that only 1980s Al Pacino once could. It’s easily the best performance of his career in a long time.
Outside of the “wise guys” reunion with Scorsese and his crew, the talk of the town is The Irishman‘s intimidating runtime and the de-aging technology that makes De Niro look like a young 20-year-old again. At first, the look of young De Niro is jarring, giving off a bit of an uncanny valley feeling. But eventually you settle in and you start to forget about it as Scorsese’s storytelling is just so riveting and absorbing. There are plenty of odes to films of the past, both by other directors and Scorsese. There is so much here that it could’ve easily gone awry, but it’s expertly edited together by Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and shot strategically by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto to best utilize the technology at hand.
Considering the runtime, the movie does move surprisingly well. Sure, the pace is mostly kept at a consistent leisurely pace which may cause some elements in the middle to hit a snag or two, and the script would’ve benefitted from giving a bit more dimension to the female characters – mainly Frank’s daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin). She knows a lot more about her father’s line of work than she should and this causes a slow rift in their relationship. However, Paquin isn’t given much to say here, but it’s hard to deny the impact of scenes when she hears news of another mob-related death and knows that the one responsible is eating cereal right in her kitchen. And as believable as the de-aging technology can be, there are still quirks to work out and no matter what you do, you can’t help make these older acts move more quickly and lightly than their younger selves certainly would.
For better and worse, Scorsese dove deep into themes of rumination and reflection of one’s choices and devotion in his 2016 picture Silence, and these themes come back to play in the film’s rather sobering final stretch. While previous gangster efforts mostly focus on the present and lingering consequences of one sticking with a life of crime, The Irishman shows the long-lasting impact and finality of one’s devotion to this lifestyle, and it provides some surprisingly emotional moments. Frank had to make some hard choices to keep the peace within his world and although it may save his other family, his real one is the one that crumbles under the weight of his choices, doomed to never come back together in the same way.
We all know that Scorsese could have made another Goodfellas in his sleep. He’s an older and wiser filmmaker, and The Irishman benefits from this new framing that gives us plenty “greatest hits” elements of his gangster flicks that we’ve come to expect, but he also supplies some weighty themes and questions that make us stop and wonder at what the cost of such a life is on not only the person, but those around them, and his very own soul.
The Irishman opens in limited theatrical release on November 1st before coming to Netflix on November 27th.