When one thinks of the “gangster” film, one think Martin Scorsese; the American director has produced some of the classics of the genre. His last film Silence (2016) was a bit of a slog and couldn’t have been further from his “comfort zone,” as he dealt with Portuguese missionaries in 17th century Japan. That’s not to say that the New York native can’t direct outside of his genre (take Hugo (2011) as an example), but it is true that he best shines when dealing with criminal characters. Thus Scorsese has returned to his classic roots with The Irishman (2019) uniting some of the greatest talent to ever grace the silver screen.
The Irishman is a complex and slowly unfurling true story of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), an Irish truck-driver from Pennsylvania in the 1950s. The story spans the decades of Sheeran’s life as he begins to get in sweet with the mafia, specifically the powerful Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Sheeran eventually finds himself in the graces of famed teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who famously disappeared (presumed dead) in 1982.
The story will remind anyone of a classic mafia film, as it shows the intricacies and complexity of the world in which these characters live in, with innumerable characters, flip-flopping locations, and more murders than one could keep count. No doubt the reflective voice-over by DeNiro’s Sheeran will remind many of the style of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), and yet The Irishman is a much more calculated and slow-burn feature that this earlier 90s film. One reason is that Scorsese’s was given complete creative freedom by Netflix (who put up the over $150 million budget), and thus the film clocks in and three and a half hours. For any audience member that information can seem daunting, even for the caliber of talent attached to this film. However, it can be safe to say that Scorsese’s execution has a viewer rapt in their scene for over three hours. It is only in the finale where the pace seems to languish a bit with teased intentions of wrapping up. Up until then, however, Scorsese is able to utilize the long running time to have his characters breathe between their scenes, making their humanity and relationships all the more congealed. In fact, the majority of the film is about Sheeran’s friendships with Bufalino and Hoffa, making the moral climaxes of the finale and his “choice” all the more heart-wrenching.
Scorsese is able to craft an epic, of the proportions that viewers don’t see in cinema anymore. The majority of blockbusters today seem to think that scale is what defines the magnitude of their story, but the opposite is true. Scorsese understands this, and The Irishman proves its grandeur with the attention to detail that it has; about a character loving ice cream, seeming throwaway conversations about a car smelling like fish, or an argument about traffic. It is in these small gems of scenes that the depth and weight of The Irishman is achieved.
To pair such an exquisitely crafted narrative with the performers that Scorsese was able to wrangle, almost feels like we as viewers don’t deserve it. Pesci came out of retirement as a favor for Scorsese and delivers a contrasting quiet performance in relation to his more famed audacious and hot-headed characters from previous collaborations. Such a turn proves his incredible value as a performer as well as what viewers are missing with his inactiveness. Pacino surprisingly came to this film as his first collaboration with Scorsese; for the protagonist of The Godfather trilogy to have never worked with the “Godfather” of mafia movies would seem a crime (pardon all the puns). Pacino delivers an incredible performance as Jimmy Hoffa, able to capture the disgusting corrupt side of him, his managerial genius, as well as make him endearing to Sheeran’s character as well as to viewers. His role is the showiest of them all, which proves to be prime material for Pacino the performer. Finally, DeNiro delivers one of his most subtle and repressed performances since Once Upon a Time in America (1984), having Sheeran be the pent-up male figure we all figure gangster buffs to be. And yet DeNiro is able to utilize his eyes and windows to peek into the tragedy and conflict of Sheeran, made more apparent with the heart-wrenching final act of the film, which sees him placed in a Judas position that he is incapable of getting out of. It is this final act and its moral deliberations that crown the film and DeNiro’s tour de force.
The Irishman feels like a film that has been plucked from 1970s theaters; and yet its transcendence of storytelling and performance is very much alive and apparent for today’s viewers. Scorsese plays to his strengths, and while this might mean continued misrepresentation on part of minorities and women, such details seem forcefully tacked on to diminish the sublimity of The Irishman. To see so much talent, both behind and in front of the camera, culminate on screen, it feels almost sinful to experience.