Directed by Martin Scorsese, The Irishman stars Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a truck driver turned hitman and enforcer for the Philadelphia mafia lead by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) throughout the 50s and 60s, and most notably working for the powerful Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
A long development process had delayed audiences from seeing the next Scorsese film. I have been intensely looking forward to this since it was first announced as I Heard You Paint Houses. When casting with Robert De Niro, my mind was blown at the prospect of him working with Scorsese for the first time since 1995’s Casino. Then Al Pacino, who had never worked with Scorsese in his five-decade long career. And finally, Joe Pesci, long-thought retired since 2006, back on screen one more time.
And then there was the 209 minute runtime and the $159 million budget. This price tag was due to extensive visual effects to de-age the main actors down to their 40s and 50s, some down to their 30s, causing the original financiers to back out, leaving Netflix with the opportunity to swoop in and add it to their service. This makes Netflix’s strategy to have the next Scorsese movie under their banner a double-edged sword, with hundreds of millions of households being able to see a film from one of cinemas greats, but no guaranteed wide theatrical or physical media release. All of this background info luckily never affects the actual film itself.
The Irishman plays like a perfect wrap-up to the series of gangster and crime movies that Scorsese has worked on since 1973. Starting with Mean Streets, a wild and energetic film that showed the madness of youth on the streets of New York. This continued with gusto in Goodfellas, which ended on the idea of finality and eventual corruption of one’s nature if you last too long in this world of crime. Casino carried on the themes of Goodfellas, adding to the idea of what happens when you go too long and too far in this business.
And now, in 2019, The Irishman. A film that explores the inevitability of ageing and death, that everyone in this world is either dead or left to die alone. It’s frank and to-the-point and shows a massive creative arc for Martin Scorsese since he began.
This is a long and exhaustive look at the life of a man who thought he was doing the right thing by his family by doing whatever it takes by any means necessary. Murder, theft, extortion, torture, violence in all forms, whatever someone out there was offering money for, he would do it. Frank Sheeran lives his life without a conscience until it’s too late and it’s all slipped through his fingers. Robert De Niro found this story, connected with the sadness and brutality, and pitched it to Scorsese, so this is just as much De Niro’s project as it is Scorsese’s. He is just as good as you want him to be, and even better sometimes, single-handedly erasing those big black marks on his resumé and turning out a layered, empathetic and fantastic performance of someone who thinks his actions are right.
In supporting performances are Pacino and Pesci as a larger-than-life union boss and a ruthlessly intelligent and quietly dangerous mob boss, respectively. Pacino, much like De Niro, erases away the garbage he’s been in the past decade (mainly Jack and Jill) and turns out his best performance in many years. Sure he’s given the free range to yell and terrify other characters which no-one does as well as Pacino, but Hoffa is a petulant child in adult clothing, fighting anyone who says a bad word to him or refusing to talk to “rivals” when they’re in the same room, and Pacino plays this and the pathos of a man who thinks he’s supported by everyone around him, but is in fact quite alone brilliantly. Pesci has not missed a step during his retirement, bursting on the screen with darkness and intrigue which I did not expect but loved every second of. He has been sorely missed and commands every scene with a danger and intellect that is unparalleled.
This is a film about big powerful men swinging big powerful egos around, clashing into one another, blowing things up, being stupid with money, and getting themselves killed left, right, and centre. Scorsese finds time and gives a voice to the women in their lives, showing how the wives, girlfriends, and daughters, have helped these men along their way, but are barely shown real love by the end. The most captivating performance is Anna Paquin who plays the adult version of Sheeran’s daughter Peggy. With only two lines in the whole film, her reservations and eventual rejection of her father’s apparent lack of a soul is one of the film’s biggest and most important moments, and Paquin plays it perfectly, reminding us why she won an Oscar all those years ago.
One guarantee with each Scorsese film is it’s going to be one helluva production. Director of Photography, Rodrigo Prieto, shot the majority of The Irishman on film, which is one massive achievement seeing as most of the shots of actors require the de-aging effects captured by three-separate cameras. How the main camera flows around a scene or stays perfectly still on a tremendous image is the stuff that Scorsese can make into a visual symphony, aided perfectly by long-time editor and master of the craft Thelma Schoonmaker. The period-accurate production design by Bob Shaw and costumes by Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson suck the viewer into the worlds of the 50s and 60s, making everything feel like it was shot in the era it was set, never breaking the illusion.
Where The Irishman falters is in its length. The story is necessarily long seeing as it explores the complex life of a man and all the insane details found along the way, but certain scenes could have been shaved, with whole sequences or subplots being better served by a smoother integration into the main plot. This bloat makes you keenly aware of each hour passing by. You feel engaged in where things are going, but several times the scenes feel like something to get through rather than being an essential element. This isn’t the most refined or well-polished film by Martin Scorsese, but it still left me heartbroken. There was something about the raw honesty found in the last 30 minutes that broke me apart and made me realise that this might the very last time all three of these acting giants, along with a small but no less-important role played by Harvey Keitel, will be on-screen together. In that way, I’m glad that this might be their last expression as storytellers.
The Irishman might be tough to sit through in one sitting for general Netflix viewers at home, but it is no less important. This is ultimately a reflection and meditation on the lives of men who never stopped to think of the consequences of their actions, who used power like a drug, and either died in horribly violent ways or they slowly descended into a spiral of dementia, loneliness, and crushing Catholic guilt. What is the point of God’s love if you can’t remember the words of prayer or if you ultimately don’t deserve it due to the horrible sins you committed without consideration of humanity? This is Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci thinking about where they’ve come from, where they could have gone, and what is waiting for them in the future. It’s scary, sad, and inevitable. Thankfully, they are storytellers, brilliant ones, who will continue to make things like The Irishman until the day they are no longer here.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
Writer: Steve Zaillian, (based on Charles Zandt’s book, I Heard You Paint Houses)