The Irishman Review: Scorsese’s gangster epic is like watching history unfold
From Goodfellas to The Wolf of Wall Street, director Martin Scorsese has devoted his life to creating films full of passion and his love for filmmaking. Scorsese has pretty much become the godfather of gangster films to most people as films like Mean Streets, Casino, The Departed, and Goodfellas are what many people associate with Scorsese when his name gets brought up. Personally, I’ve always found too much familiarity with the way he handles dialogue in his mob movies and have always found more appreciation for him as a filmmaker when he takes his talents to more unique films like Shutter Island, Cape Fear, and Hugo. All of this is what’s made me both anxious and a little worried with the highly anticipated release of The Irishman.
As the film’s release came closer, I just kept questioning if the film could live up to the hype that’s been built. With the news that the like of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement for this film, would be together on-screen and all the awards buzz the film had been getting, the expectation was set for The Irishmen to be one of Scorsese’s best. However, the runtime, de-aging effects, and my overall lack of excitement for the story had me worried that the film just wasn’t going to live up to the talented visionary that Scorsese really is. Thankfully, The Irishman, mostly, proves me wrong with how Scorsese creates a compelling and detailed crime epic.
The film follows Frank Sheeran (DeNiro) as he recounts his time working as a hitman in the mob and working under union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Throughout his life, he’s met all of the players and knows everyone’s games, but garners such a strong loyalty to those around him that he’s never say who they are or what they do. This sworn to secrecy and the friends he accumulates throughout the years create ripples in his relationships with his family and friends when he can’t always protect those around him from the dirty work he does.
Watching The Irishman is almost like watching a piece of history at times with how Scorsese creates authenticity throughout. Maybe other than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the film is the most carefully calculated movie in how it recreates the atmosphere and look of its time. The use of news clips from that time help weave together the story and events that surround Frank’s story and all the cohorts and enemies he runs into throughout his life. Scorsese also does a great job building the history of some of the smaller characters of the film through very detailed monologue from Frank and a nice little junk of text that comes up detailing how they met their end. Doing this shows how grim the mob life can really be and the cutthroat nature of Frank’s life. Not to mention, it did get a laugh out of me when one person was “well-liked” enough to be able to just die of natural causes instead of a knife in his back.
The Irishman also shows Scorsese in a different light in creating a gangster epic as he trades the more humorous wise guy dialogue for some more mature and meaningful dialogue that delves into everyone’s distinct personalities. Perhaps it’s because of the strong script from Steve Zailian or that the life of Frank Sheeran, as described in the book “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and the Closing of the Case on Jimmy Hoffa” by Charles Brandt, reflect the grim aging of a crime generation. Either way, the film’s story that revolves around Frank has a very powerful effect on viewers and I loved how the film digs into the idea of remembering Jimmy Hoffa and times changing. Even the way that the film weaves through different historical events with JFK and Jimmy Hoffa really hooks you into what’s happening, which is pretty significant considering how hard you can feel the film’s three and a half hour runtime, and you feel like you come away with something when it’s all over.
There’re definitely moments, though, that can feel lost on viewers and the structure of the film can be a bit all over the place – especially in the beginning. There were even moments where I questioned the importance of some scenes and felt that they even could’ve probably been cut out or cut down just to cut something from the fat runtime. Personally, I also kind of wished that Scorsese structure the film into chapters or something like that to make it more manageable for Netflix viewers because even for me watching in the theaters I kept thinking how distracted I’d be sitting at home because of the slower pace and tone of the film. I think breaking it up into chapters would just give the film more structure and make it a much easier watch in one sitting. Although, Scorsese is bigger fan of making his movies to be viewed in theaters, so it’s no real surprise for him not to give Netflix viewers any “special treatment” when making his films and it’s more of a thought for me than a slight against the film.
The real highlight of The Irishman has to be the performances from DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino. While there’s definitely a little too much familiarity with DeNiro’s performance compared to other performances he’s given, he’s still great here as Frank. Even for all of the bad things he does, there’re times where you feel remorseful for the situations he’s put in and how it affects him later in life. DeNiro captures the weight that the secrets and loyalties that Frank has perfectly, and the final moments of the film are chilling because of how real DeNiro makes them feel. DeNiro also brings a strong physicality to the role with some tight action scenes that are excellently captured through Scorsese’s strong direction. It’s also just a treat to see Pesci, Pacino, and a lot of the other cast that isn’t seen as often anymore. Pesci delivers a very subdued, yet strong performance as Frank’s friend Russell while Pacino gives my favorite performance of the film as the passionate and stubborn Jimmy Hoffa. The way their stories are intertwined are great as their opposite personalities but heads with Frank in the middle and how it all leads to the real-life disappearance of Hoffa is suspenseful and kind of heartbreaking with how it connects to Frank.
Because of the old age of all three of these actors, there’s some digital de-aging done to make them look younger and, for the most part, it looks great. Pesci’s is spot on and while DeNiro looks like he has synthetic skin and glass eyes sometimes in the beginning, it looks good most of the time. This trio of stellar performances is definitely award-worthy, but it would be criminal to not acknowledge the great performances from the rest of the cast. Seeing the likes of Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Sebastian Maniscalco, and many more not only on-screen again, but give such great performances is such a treat. Not to mention, Anna Paquin’s performance as Frank’s daughter Peggy is strong, even for just being a small part of the film, as her silent disapproval of her father leads to some strong emotional moments in the film’s final moments.
While The Irishman doesn’t hit the same legendary marks as Scorsese’s other mob movies, it’s still one of the strongest films of this year. It’s vividly detailed with the history it shares through the eyes of the mob’s middleman and touches on legacy and loyalty in a haunting and heartbreaking way through DeNiro’s top-tier performance. It’s a gangster epic that’s truly epic in every sense of the word and shows that Scorsese’s still got plenty left in him.