Kerem Uzdiyen reviews Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited gangster epic.
This review contains no spoilers.
Did Martin Scorsese follow up on his recent “real cinema” remarks by delivering some really good cinema? Yes, he absolutely did.
The Irishman is the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver who becomes tangled up in the Philadelphia crime scene and forms separate partnerships with union teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and mob leader Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). The film tackles quite well-known historical events that I personally did not know about going into the film; however, I believe this actually made the film more exciting, never knowing quite what to expect.
Scorsese seemingly goes back to the good old ’90s, bringing De Niro and Pesci along with him. The comparisons to Casino and Goodfellas undoubtedly begin before the film does. However, Al Pacino (this is his first collaboration with the director) is not the only update to Scorsese’s cinematic world; while the film mostly takes place in the ’60s and ’70s, the film has a fresh element to it that seems very fitting for 2019. Very few films tackle the past with such loyalty and freshness, and this ultimately separates The Irishman from both its counterparts from the past and films that have come out in the last few years. After years of acting in tepid films or not at all, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci show their maturation into cinema’s older leading men. Scorsese proves that he is as masterful as ever, the film showcasing even more of his signature style than 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
So, let’s talk about the negatives first. Or, should I say, the single negative – and, no, this is not nit-picking a perfect movie, this is actually a bit of a problem. With a runtime of 3 hours and 29 minutes, The Irishman is a very long film, and, being very dialogue-based, it has a rather slow pace until the last act. I will admit, there were times I got bored and had to check my watch to see how much of the film we had gotten through. While the length didn’t bother me too much, the friend I saw it with had trouble sitting through the middle part; consequently, the running time caused him to have mixed thoughts about the film. In all honesty, you could easily cut 30 to 45 minutes from this film and it would be the same, if not better. A film that is too long risks the audience having a hard time following multiple characters and plot points, or weaker arcs being built, which can frustrate audiences. An undeveloped plot strand throughout the film is the relationship between Frank and his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin). In fact, his daughter’s relationship with Hoffa (who becomes Frank’s mentor and possibly best friend) was somehow better developed. Admittedly, I would not have thought of this as an issue if the film was shorter, but it is disappointing considering the film’s length.
Despite it’s long running time, I believe The Irishman will be heralded as a classic, alongside Casino and Goodfellas. The average age of the main acting trio in the film is 77; they are so old that Pesci has barely acted since Casino in 1995. It’s easy to assume that, given their age and experience, Scorsese and some of his old pals would just be having a little bit of fun without giving a lot of attention or energy. However, I was shocked at the enormous amount of effort all three men put into the film and how new and fresh Scorsese’s direction felt. All their talents combine to make the film feel absolutely alive and monumental. I doubt this will be De Niro and Pacino’s last film, but I think they should ride off into the sunset after this one. De Niro leads with subtlety, never stealing the show entirely but always in control. It doesn’t feel like he’s acting at all; he delivers the performance so naturally that Robert De Niro and Frank Sheeran are indistinguishable by the end. The use of de-aging, especially on De Niro’s face, concerned me at the beginning, but the visual presentation of the film as a whole made the obvious visual effect completely fade from my attention.
Now that the Best Leading Actor nominee is out of the way, let’s talk about our two possible Best Supporting Actor nominees. Al Pacino gives a fantastically charismatic performance as the larger-than-life figure, Jimmy Hoffa. The film, along with Pacino’s performance, crafts Hoffa into a character the audience deeply cares about, no matter his flaws. Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian find different ways to show who Jimmy Hoffa is, sticking to a “show don’t tell” approach that lets the audience grow gradually fonder of the character until the very end. The biggest surprise – along with what I thought was the most impressive performance in the film – comes from Joe Pesci. His performance is so nuanced and convincing that it feels lived in, almost like he has been living life as Bufalino for the last 20 years. His commanding presence garners respect and inspires intimidation; while Hoffa comes and goes, Russ is a constant fixture brimming with charisma for three and a half hours. I can already say Pesci is my favourite for the Oscar race come February.
A great writer is obviously necessary to make way for such great performances and Zaillian delivers, perfectly crafting dialogue that keeps the audience captivated for the lengthy runtime. Both the gangsters and the unionists are portrayed in obvious detail, doing justice to the source material (I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt) and historical record. The humour surprised me the most: the film absolutely excels with subtle, clever humour all the way through, making it so much more fun to sit through. I was surprised at how many times I cracked up laughing at a gangster film. The cinematography and production design is also what you have come to expect from Scorsese and his crew – consistently beautiful and grandiose, and always fitting the mood of a scene.
The Irishman is a perfect demonstration of Scorsese’s genius, at no point more obvious than the ending. As this is a no-spoiler review, I can’t tell you much, but the ending of this film is slightly unexpected and memorable, cleverly completing the three hour-plus ride with a powerful demonstration of the ramifications of mob life. The final shot leaves the audience to think about the true message lying underneath, made even more impactful by the old age of its director and stars.
In conclusion, if you have a long attention span, definitely see this film in the theatre. If you don’t have a long attention span, definitely see this film on Netflix. Overall, definitely see this film.