REVIEW: The Irishman

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Thursday, January 30, 2020

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Steven Zaillian (screenplay), Charles Brandt (book)
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
Runtime: 209 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Needless to say, Martin Scorsese’s reputation speaks for itself. Many of the high points in his large but staggeringly consistent body of work are famous crime epics, most notably Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Starring possibly the three most renowned actors from the best films in the genre, The Irishman evokes memories of the gangster classic of old including his own works. Robert De Niro (The Godfather: Part II, Goodfellas, Casino, Once Upon a Time in America), Al Pacino (The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, Scarface), and Joe Pesci (Goodfellas, Casino, Once Upon a Time in America) are, remarkably, brought together on screen for the first time. Obviously, the pieces of a masterpiece are all here: a master director, elite veteran actors, a large budget, unlimited runtime, and fascinating historical subject matter. However, a whole film is never just a simple sum of its parts, but it is how those parts are put together…so don’t accuse me of being a Scorsese fanboy.

      Adapted from the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman is the story of WWII veteran Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) who goes from being a truck driver to a guy who “paints houses” (i.e. shoots people in the head and their blood covers the walls) for the Bufalino crime family. This drastic transition in life stems from a chance encounter with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the powerful but soft-spoken head of the Bufalino mafia, after Frank’s truck breaks down one day. Russell not only employs Frank but truly befriends him and his family as well. Soon after Frank is absorbed into the business, Russell introduces him to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the demonstrative head of the Teamsters Union which is financially tied to the mob. Similar to Russell, Hoffa befriends Frank and his family as well. The relationships that Frank has with these two men are the central elements of the plot as political events and criminal activities abound within the context of the mafia, union, and national US politics.

      Robert De Niro and Al Pacino eat up their roles in the best way possible. Putting the nostalgia for their career-defining roles to the side, the two of them play off each other and are distinctly engaging in how they deliver their lines, control their expressions, and present their characters’ personalities. Joe Pesci is shockingly dexterous at playing a measured and level-headed character which is completely out-of-line from the stereotype for which he is known. The supporting cast features no shortage of skilled veteran actors such as Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, and Ray Ramono. The sharp script from Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) gives the talented cast a chance to entertain at every turn as the dialogue-heavy interactions are what comprise most of the hefty runtime. In particular, I enjoyed how the screenplay reincorporates ideas and previously spoken dialogue for added effect later in the movie.

      At its core, this movie is the story of the sociopathic Frank, and his character reminds me more of Travis Bickle from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) more than any other mobster he has portrayed. He is most assuredly a despicable human being, but he is humanized in an believable manner. He is presented as a former soldier deeply disturbed by what he experienced and did during a war that apparently blanked out his moral compass. It makes sense why a person with Frank’s background is willing to become a mafia hitman especially with the friendship, loyalty, and top cover that Russell offers. Even when it is impossible to feel empathy for him as he reflects on his life, you understand the emotions he is having because of how well his character is realized.

      My biggest concern going into the movie was that it would be too similar to Goodfellas or Casino. Yes, the structure is once again narration by a criminal about criminals, but the movie feels a lot more like a historical drama. The story spares no detail covering the history of the Bufalino crime family and the Teamsters Union in relation to the time period of the 1950s through 1970s (there are more than a few Kennedys mentioned). Learning about the morally abject characters within a historical context gives greater information to the pressures of the situations in which they find themselves. Be sure to take every piece of history presented with a grain of salt (many people are skeptical of the source material’s accuracy) because the entire plot is a depiction of Frank recounting his life story in his old age; the unreliable narrator is very much in play.

      The film definitely saunters but is never boring. That being said, I think it could have been edited down closer to the three-hour mark without substantial loss of scope and resonance. However, I am conflicted about the length because despite all that is in here, I do feel as though the family component to Frank’s life, specifically the relationship with his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin as an adult) is a bit underdeveloped for the emotional sticking point that is made late in the film. I am not sure how this could have been improved without more time dedicated towards it, hence my dilemma.

      As expected, Scorsese brilliantly composes every shot of this movie which features top-notch period production design. I am not sure how to correctly describe the excellence of the visuals, but, on top of Scorsese and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto choosing optimal angles and lighting, the right things are always in the right locations in the frame whether those things are there to enhance the setting, balance the colors in the scene, keep your eyes slightly distracted while characters have a lengthy conversation, etc. You could call it a masterful display of mise en scène, but I think I will just say that everything looks really really good. For the most part, the camera work and editing are restrained as Scorsese lets every scene breathe while the actors capably bring the script to life. As he has shown throughout his body of work, he knows precisely how to choose and place music (and silence) to perfect the atmosphere and energy of the presentation. Very few directors can make a movie that is over three hours entertaining for its entire duration, and Scorsese is one of them.

      Scorsese makes the simplest scenes interesting. As strange as it sounds, the length of the movie is in many ways part of its appeal as you are getting an overdose of Scorsese doing what he does best. As you would expect, the conversations are the most entertaining scenes; the organized crime usually involving homicide is something that just kind of happens. The matter-of-fact way that Scorsese treats the mob’s morally reprehensible actions normalizes the behavior so that you understand just how ingrained this way of life is for those in the business. Frequently, the name, date, and cause of death pops up in text underneath a minor character the last time you see him on screen which further cements this point.

      Finally, I have to talk about the technical elephant in the room: the digital de-aging. The technology used to drop several decades off the leading trio’s ages is impressive but far from seamless to say the least; it stopped being distracting for me after about a half hour. My immersion was really only broken whenever de-aged De Niro has to do any remotely physical acting such as when young Frank goes to violently kick the crap out of another man during which De Niro’s advanced age is clearly and humorously apparent. Additionally, the CG blood splatters which are distractingly fake and lazy when everything else feels so meticulous.

      The Irishman is Scorsese remaining at the top of his game where he has been since the 1970s. Not quite as tight, profound, thought-provoking, or emotionally resonant as his best films, but it presents a fascinating story while giving an abundance of excellent scenes maxing out the talent of the accomplished individuals who made the genre famous in the first place. If crime movies or historical dramas are your thing, definitely check it out. If the runtime is not digestible, watching it in multiple sittings is forgivable.

RATING: ★★★★

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