The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s newest film that will be released exclusively to Netflix on November 27th.
I am fortunate to have caught a screening in a limited theater. Here are my thoughts:
Firstly, The Irishman is loosely based on a true story. Primarily being told in flashback (ranging from the early 1950’s to the mid 1970s), the film focuses on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank Sheeran, a truck driver, gets involved with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his Pennsylvania crime family. Sheeran climbs the ranks and eventually becomes a professional hitman who works for highly famous labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa. That is really all that needs to be known prior to seeing this. It also helps to be familiar with a few of Martin Scorsese’s rise-and-fall biopics (most notably Raging Bull (1980), GoodFellas (1990), Casino (1995)) prior to viewing to adapt it its unique fast paced execution and the general dynamic of Scorsese and De Niro/Pesci.
The Irishman is a stunning epic in every sense of the word. It is perhaps up there with the most ambitious and fully realized projects Scorsese has taken on to date. Yet it doesn’t sacrifices a sense of intimacy, never straying away from its central characters. I would consider it to be a swan song to an era of New Hollywood crime films and the actors involved (I would consider primary examples of this to include The Godfather (1972), Scarface (1983), Once Upon A Time In America (1984), Scorsese’s own GoodFellas (1990), etc.). It also feels like a goodbye from Mr. Scorsese himself (even though he claims he has more films under his belt).
It’s the most emotionally sensitive mob story Scorsese has told. While GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995) had high levels of non stop energy, this one replaces a bit of that high energy with a sense of contemplation. It begs us to observe these mobsters behind the scenes of their deeds and assess the true fate of their morality. This is something of a spiritual shade Scorsese has often explored in his previous films but never before has he fully infused it into his mafia tales. Despite having a GoodFellas pacing style, the violence feels more tragic and less exciting here than any other Scorsese mob film. It’s reminiscent to the tone of The Godfather films. All of these actors being in their 70s, it’s likely the last time we’ll ever see this particular brand of gangster filmmaking from the respective team. Scorsese seems heavily reflective on his own filmography and offers a further examination of the many themes he’d explored throughout his filmmaking career. That in itself contributes to the distinctive atmosphere of the film.
Many will be intimidated by its 210 minute run time (which is noted to be the longest running time of a feature length Hollywood film since Once Upon A Time In America (1984). However, no need to worry. Scorsese paces this so naturally that it feels consistently engaging and doesn’t ever become exhausting to watch. I can’t think of any way I’d want it to be trimmed; every moment feels necessary and gripping. With age, I feel like Scorsese has increasingly become more confident in not worrying about the length of his films and would rather do whatever it takes to tell his story properly. I imagine a director achieves that level of confidence with over 50 years of filmmaking experience under their belt. I like to imagine Scorsese found a full sense of artistic freedom working with Netflix that he’d always been seeking throughout his career and was adamant on not restraining himself in any way.
Above all else, every actor involved is beyond amazing. A huge shout out goes to the three titans involved: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. All three of these actors give performances that rank every bit as strong as their greatest work. Having not been in a highly memorable role since Jackie Brown (1997), Robert De Niro is back to remind us once again why he’s a legend of acting. It honestly feels beyond good to finally see De Niro work with Scorsese again (they hadn’t worked together since Casino (1995)). Although he’s at an elderly age, De Niro is as wonderful as he’s ever been. It’s officially the year of his comeback, with this and a memorable supporting role in Joker (2019). Joe Pesci comes out of acting retirement to give one last memorable performance. And it’s one of his greatest works to date. He plays completely against type here. This is nothing like the crazy loud mouth Pesci you’re used to from the GoodFellas days. It’s something completely different. Most of all, it’s Al Pacino that steals the show as Jimmy Hoffa. Pacino brings this larger than life character to screen flawlessly and commands your full attention with every moment he’s in it. His presence is largely felt even when he’s off screen. It’s honestly my second favorite role of his after Michael Corleone in The Godfather films. It’s so great to see him in a Scorsese film after all of these years of fans dreaming of this collaborating happening. Even better to see so many scenes with him and De Niro sharing chemistry. Imagine their brilliant scene together in Heat (1995) stretched out to nearly the entire film. That’s the kind of cinematic magic you’re getting here. All of these actors deserve nothing but the highest praise for their masterful work in this.
It also must be mentioned that the use of CGI is actually really good here. I haven’t been the biggest fan of Scorsese’s use of CGI in recent films but it works effectively here. It’s primarily invested in de-aging all of these actors. A $35 million budget nearly went entirely into this process. It really does look like we’re getting a younger version of these elderly actors, although it may take a moment for some to fully acquire to it. It’s used in a way similar to Forrest Gump (1994) where the CGI is used to further enhance the films distinctive world by accurately recreating history.
Martin Scorsese strikes back with one of the greatest achievements of his entire filmography, which spans back over fifty years. It’s some of the most perfect, original and beautiful storytelling the man has ever done. It’s a film that’s deep, pure, entertaining and honest. It’s a film that deserves to rank as one of the greatest to come out of this decade and sits as a natural conclusion to the aforementioned New Hollywood gangster films. It’s every bit as masterful as those films too. Don’t let the dull poster fool you into thinking this is a boring film about grumpy old men. It’s anything but boring!