The Irishman

Armed with a massive budget, an all-star cast, and total creative freedom, Martin Scorsese delivers a career-defining 209-minute epic crime film that’s less daunting and more purely entertaining than you’d expect. The Irishman is reminiscent of his other gangster pictures, like Goodfellas and Casino, but the propelling force here is character rather than plot, which makes the film more emotionally and thematically rich and prevents it from feeling like a tedious retread of familiar material. Taking a different, more restrained approach than much of his previous work, Scorsese makes one of the best films of his already legendary career.

Robert De Niro plays Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a truck driver who becomes inducted into the Italian mob by Russel Buffalino (Joe Pesci) and eventually serves as right-hand man to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Surprisingly, the general plot is that simple. Aside from a framing device within another framing device, the story isn’t needlessly complicated and the web of characters is easy to track as Scorsese focuses on those directly in Sheeran’s trajectory. Reducing the amount of mental gymnastics the audience needs to go through in order to follow the story is imperative so the 3.5 hour runtime doesn’t feel exhausting.

Though the narrative spans decades, Scorsese opts not to go the Godfather Part 2 route of casting different actors to portray the younger counterparts of our main characters, instead using CGI to de-age the cast for flashbacks. There’s been a lot of talk about these visual effects and, admittedly, it is somewhat jarring initially, especially the first time we get a glimpse of a young De Niro, but either the uncanny valley wears off or the CGI improves as the film goes on, because after ten minutes or so, it’s barely noticeable, let alone distracting. Ultimately, keeping the same actors throughout ensures a consistency in performance that the film needs, especially with actors of that caliber.

The Irishman is destined to garner some awards attention, especially for the performances, which are uniformly fantastic. Picking a favorite of the bunch is a tough task, especially with many actors putting in some of the best work of their careers, and Pesci coming out of a nine-year unofficial retirement for a role to which he’s perfectly suited, but it’s Pacino who really steals every scene he’s in. Since his Oscar win for Scent of a Woman, some of his performances have been grandiose but shallow, featuring a lot of yelling and not much else (fear not, there is plenty of yelling here), but we see a more muted and softer side of him in Hoffa. As the film hinges on Sheeran’s friendship with Hoffa, Pacino’s performance is just as crucial as De Niro’s; we need to understand what drives both of them and, of course, the dynamic between the two is electric.

The Irishman plays like an amalgam of Goodfellas, Casino, and The Wolf of Wall Street, though it is less of a standard rise-and-fall story and somehow even more brilliantly paced than any of those. At just shy of three and a half hours long, it runs the risk of feeling lopsided or uneven, but you don’t even need to be a particularly patient viewer or have an interest in mob movies to barely notice the hours and feel like the film is breezing by. Much of this is due to the script by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball) which deliberately structures and focuses on specific events in Sheeran’s long career that shaped him as a character. Giving the audience a full view of Sheeran’s life makes the journey more emotionally compelling. There’s not a wasted minute or any clearly excisable scene, and by the end, we’re left wanting more of these lively characters.

The most striking thing about The Irishman is how tender and human the film is. Sure, it’s about hitmen so there’s plenty of deceit, ruthlessness, and startling acts of violence, but at its core is the story of a man grappling with his past and coming to terms with the consequences of his decisions. He’s chosen a life of crime, and with that comes a suffocating atmosphere of death. Since the film opens with him as an old man, we know that most of the people he encounters, friends or enemies alike, will eventually perish, whether by old age or a flurry of bullets. This surprising and emotionally resonant sense of introspection mirrors Scorsese’s own self-reflection in making the film which serves as a culmination of his previous work.

With The Irishman, Scorsese operates in a mode that feels refreshing and unique. It’s directed, shot, and edited with such an even-keeled approach, it would border on monotonous or bland in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s more immersive, unpretentious, and character-focused than much of the director’s previous work, and serves as a perfect onscreen depiction of an era. If The Irishman turns out to be Scorsese’s swan song, it is a fitting conclusion to a spectacular and varied career, but let’s hope he leaves the door open for more.


B+ Middleburg Review

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