It’s finally here. After years of delays, Martin Scorsese has finally released The Irishman. The film, based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, has been in some sort of development since 2004 and has had a slow and rocky crawl to the finish line. But cinephiles were over the moon excited, waiting for the union of some of the best actors of all time working together for the first time. So, how does this gangster epic fair?
For a movie titled The Irishman, it certainly stars an awful lot of Italians. Robert DeNiro shines (sometimes literally) as Frank Sheeran, a union man who also doubled as a hitman for the Italian Mob in Philadelphia. His boss (and father figure) is Russell Bufalino, played here wonderfully by an out of retirement Joe Pesci. Rounding out the trio of leading men is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, who thanks to the larger than life personality of the Union Leader, gets to truely unleash his wild side in this one. Pacino steals the show, going from quiet and subdued in one moment to being loud, boisterous, angry or loveable another moment.
The film chronicles the life of Frank from the 1950s when he was a truck driver all the way to old age. To do this, Scorsese utilized the same de-aging technology you’d find in a Marvel movie. But in those movies, it’s for a scene or two at best. How does it fare for half the movie? Well, mixed if we’re being honest. Sometimes, especially in the 50s, the shininess of the CGI faces can be distracting, especially on DeNiro. His bizarre blue eyes can really pull you out of the movie for those scenes-especially on the close-ups. When the camera opts for a medium shot, it’s not as noticeable but when the camera gets in close for an emotional payoff, the scene can be broken thanks to the CGI. Interestingly, Joe Pesci’s CGI face wasn’t anywhere near as distracting.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the actual movie. If Goodfellas was all about excess and romanticization of “the life”, then The Irishman is the Greek Tragedy. At no point does Scorsese make the mobster life seem lavish or ideal. The film, clocking in at over three and a half hours, showcases the violence, the pain, the misery and the consequences of violent men and how it affects the macro and micro levels of society. Throughout the movie, we meet other mobsters in passing and the movie pauses, showing us how they died and when. All but one died of natural causes.
Frank “paints houses”, if you catch the drift and his job earns him a lot of reputation and goodwill within the Italian mob. In fact, he eventually puts him in contact with Jimmy Hoffa, who is having a few disputes of his own in the south. Frank describes Hoffa as “Elvis in the 50s, The Beatles in the 60s”. Interestingly, Frank’s estranged daughter, Peggy, takes a shine to Jimmy as he’s not directly connected to “the life”, he doesn’t have a silly name or sleeps with a gun. Peggy has grown to hate her father and it’s one of the many aspects that shows how ugly the world can be, despite the allure of money and power.
Of course, having a movie with Jimmy Hoffa in it hopes to shed some light on what happened to him. His murder remains unsolved officially but the movie has a thing or two to say about that. The film also showcases how the Bufalinos helped shape American politics at the time, especially the indirect connections to the Kennedys. “The Irishman”may be Frank, but it also applies to JFK.
Now, did the movie have to be over three and a half hours long? It could have had a few trimmed here and there, especially in the first half, but this is a movie all about the performances. Don’t be surprised if all three of these men get nominations, particularly Pacino and Pesci. Joe Pesci is known for wild, angry and over the top roles but he’s cold, subdued and calculating in this one. He came out of retirement for this role and honestly, it’s one of his best. His character sleeps well at night and never raises his voice. He’s scary without ever actually being a hands-on threat.
Pacino’s Hoffa is simultaneously likeable and tragic. He ain’t as bad, morally, as the other characters in this film but he still uses crime to further his position and in doing so, continues to dig his own grave. Our protagonist is Frank, a man who is told to take people out and he does it, no questions asked. He’s the only Irishman working so closely and so well with the Italians. Frank is a bad man, there’s no way about it, but unlike most people who have been killed in the mob, Frank’s punishment is far worse than being killed. His sins weigh him down and push those he loves further and further away from him. There’s a sadness to his character and it’s one of DeNiro’s best roles. In fact, the Academy will have a hard time not nominating all three of the leads.
In fact, the joy of this movie is seeing all three of these actors work off each other in a film helmed by Scorsese, who brings out all the Scorseseisms in this one. Voice-over narration? Check. Lots of music in the background? Check. Tracking shots? You bet. Scorsese has a very distinct style that’s been heavily emulated by other filmmakers over the years but only Scorsese knows how to frame certain shots and when to make an abrupt cut in the scene. Many people don’t like voice-overs in their films but I find Scorsese is one of the few filmmakers who can make narration feel essential to the movie, rather than exposition dumps.
This is very much a crime epic for the decade. It may be a little too long and there’s some very distracting CGI that can break immersion but in the end, this is a movie about the acting and the directing and in that regard, the film delivers and then some. The second half speeds along and is riveting to witness. This is this generation’s Goodfellas, only this time, instead of being a cautionary tale, it’s a tragic retelling of events. Considering Netflix’s overall track record with movies, The Irishman ranks as one of the best original films you can view on the streaming service.