Unfortunately, I do not live in a city important enough to have “The Irishman” playing in an actual theater, so much to the dismay of director Martin Scorsese, I was forced to stream the film on Netflix… at home (Insert ominous music and thunderclaps here)! Inarguably, my actions are an affront to the almighty, but alas, sacrifices had to be made, and thusly, I trekked on to see Scorsese’s new creation in suboptimal conditions. And, since I was not able to see “The Irishman” in theaters, the film was viewed by many before I was able to do so myself when it was available to be streamed last week. Oh, forgive me for my insidious indiscretions!
One would be forgiven if they believed “The Irishman” was going to be the second coming of “Goodfellas” since all promotional materials pointed towards a high-octane ultra-violent thriller in the same vein. While the similarities on the surface are undeniable, “The Irishman” is a far more introspective take on the genre. The film explores politics, personal relationships, conscience, purpose, and consequences. This is not 3 hours of adrenaline and hedonism but a contemplative take on violence and the impact of one’s actions.
Martin Scorsese is one of cinema’s most talented filmmakers, and while he has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can make fantastic films of all genres, he returns to his roots with “The Irishman”. The story is a crime drama about notorious Philadelphia mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he works his way up the ranks and eventually into the service of legendary Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), as well as the unsolved mystery of Hoffa’s murder. As Sheeran forms strong relationships with Hoffa and crime boss Russell ‘Russ’ Bufalino (Joe Pesci), he continues to push his family farther away.
De Niro’s Frank is the movie’s main character, yet the way the film is structured, the three main actors each effectively dictate sections of the narrative. While the story is always about Frank, told from his perspective, Russ is in control of the first third, Jimmy the second, and Frank the final third. Frank, as an underling/bodyguard, is always controlled at the behest of the more powerful figure he is with, and it isn’t until the main plot is over that we really see him become his own man instead of the soldier everyone expected him to be.
The final act, which is more of an epilogue to the story of Frank, Russ, and Jimmy, is arguably the strongest. You could make the case that the film could have cut the last half hour or so and it would still have been a complete narrative, but these moments provide genuine insight and heart. I will not discuss the specifics to avoid spoiling the ending, but we are given a glimpse of what happens after the fact that is rarely ever explored in films. At this point, the plot is concluded and the characters are just left to deal with the fallout of what they have done. It is the ending that completes the vision of Scorsese and differentiates the film from many of its predecessors.
Much has been made about the use of technology to de-age the actors since the main cast plays these characters over the duration of multiple decades. I can safely say that with the exception of one brawl scene in the first act, the illusion used to make these actors seem younger is practically flawless. The technique is mostly used on De Niro and sparingly on others. The single exception I mentioned is startling in contrast, but it is not because the technology failed, rather the natural difficulty associated with making a 76 year-old-man physically move like a man in his 40s.
The trio of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino deliver tremendous performances. Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa is vintage with his deep, raspy inflection painted all over flamboyant and charismatic speeches. Scorsese said he thinks it is a shame that people today no longer remember who Jimmy Hoffa was, and Pacino’s performance certainly does the man justice. De Niro is much more somber and understated. He is burdened with a larger responsibility than the rest of his co-stars. While the intensity he is known to bring to his roles (as well as that face he always makes. You know the one I mean) is present, he displays a balance of heartlessness and sympathy which culminates in a thoughtful and complex character.
But even with the praise rewarded to both of them, Joe Pesci’s performance is my personal favorite. Although he is effectively retired from acting, there is no evidence of any rust by delivering a performance that goes against the grain. Russ is not the typical loud, over-the-top role that won him the Oscar in “Goodfellas”, but a restrained, calculated leader with influence. You fear him, but not because he is unpredictable, rather unshakable. You respect the dynamic power he possesses while simultaneously fearing it. What I find even more moving are the very subtle ways he expresses affection and humanity, which occasionally shines through the cold façade he puts up.
The supporting cast also pulls their weight. Specifically, I find it to be a treat to see Ray Romano play Joe Pesci’s cousin in a production of this quality. If you grew up on the actor’s sitcom like I have, it is just so easy to root for him. Anna Paquin plays an adult version of Frank’s daughter Peggy, and while she isn’t heavy on dialogue, her very presence communicates more meaning than you can find in entire films. And throughout the story, we are also introduced to gallery of colorful mafia figures that the film immediately discloses how and when they met their demise. It is a running gag that seems like a dose of dark humor but in reality, helps punctuate the eventual realization we are supposed to make.
Despite the obvious quality, it is unclear to me if “The Irishman” will have the same legs as some of Scorsese’s other works. The runtime is a big factor that certainly handicaps the film’s re-watchability, as well as the more serious and thought provoking aspects. But I am completely comfortable admitting that I could be misreading audiences. It is unfair to compare it to films that have had decades to build up a legacy and following, so only time will tell if this will achieve the same impact. But, if the conversation surrounding a film upon its public release is whether or not it can maintain its praise for decades like “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “Casino”, or “Goodfellas”, I’d say that film is pretty, pretty good. “The Irishman” did not end up being the film I expected it to be, but I think it might be better in the long-run because of that.
I give “The Irishman” a 9.4 out of 10
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 3 Hours and 28 Minutes (Damn!)
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