Review: The Irishman

Image: Netflix

Watching The Irishman hurtle through its 209 minutes with sophistication and panache confirms what we knew for a long time: Martin Scorsese is still one of our greatest living filmmakers. Returning to his favourite thematic playground, and putting three of the most iconic gangster movie actors of all time on screen together, Scorsese was setting himself up to fail. There was no way he could have announced a film that would have created more room for him to disappoint. But it’s good, of course it’s good. Saying so now it seems entirely obvious that The Irishman was going to be great – this is Martin Scorsese after all. With this film his place as one of the most consistent, important and downright best filmmakers in history is assured.

The length of Marty’s latest venture has been much-discussed, but the film whizzes by in much the same way his early 90s classic Goodfellas did, telling years worth of story with a panache that adds an exuberance to heavy material. Stylistically, Goodfellas is perhaps the best reference point for The Irishman, with this film continuing Scorsese’s trademark bluesy soundtrack and long, dynamic camera takes that began with Mean Streets and were mastered in Goodfellas. Yet The Irishman is more sprawling than that film, and much much sadder. Where Goodfellas expertly showed the seduction of mob life and its subsequent crumbling with paranoia and excess, The Irishman is more concerned with lasting melancholy and regret than sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

Like Goodfellas, this film houses an array of amusingly-named gangsters who are introduced on screen for a brief period each, adding texture to Scorsese’s distinctive gangland environs. Yet here, when each ‘colourful character’ is introduced they are accompanied by when and the manner in which they will die. It is a device that is both savagely funny and helps to build the all-pervading sense of death and the inevitable inability to win in this game that loom large over The Irishman and mark it out from Scorsese’s other work. Just as his stars have greyed over the years, so too has the tone.

Such a grand emotional heft to The Irishman is partly achieved by the epic sweep of its story. The film’s narrative follows several decades in the life of real-life figure Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as the Irish-descended gangster of the title as a chance meeting with mob boss Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) changes his life forever, igniting a chain of events that see Sheeran go from working-man truck driver to one of the most notorious assassins around. In amongst this is his blossoming friendship with famed union boss Jimmy Hoffa and a strained relationship with his daughter. As tensions rise between Hoffa and the Buffalino crime empire, Sheeran finds himself caught in the middle and an intense drama of friendship and trust comes to the fore.

To tell the era-spanning tale Scorsese employs boundary-pushing de-aging technology that is used more extensively here than ever before. The technical wizardry caused the film’s budget to skyrocket, and therefore prohibited Scorsese from getting the film made for several years. His decision to use it is vindicated here, proving a largely seamless tool that allows Scorsese to ‘youthify’ his leads rather than cast multiple Sheerans, Hoffas or Buffalinos. On De Niro, who is de-aged the most excessively for some flashback scenes to World War II, it is slightly more noticeable and a tad distracting. Yet once your eyes have adjusted the technology is forgotten, and the presence of the three American grandees is felt.

De Niro carries the weight of the film’s tragedy, the necessary lynchpin of Scorsese’s epic tale. Yet it is the other two who are the more eye-catching, with Pacino bringing an almost boyish enthusiasm to the proud, stubborn Hoffa. Pesci, meanwhile, emerges as perhaps the greatest triumph and seems headed into a battle with Pacino for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He plays against type here; there is no flying off the handle or head-in-a-vice savagery from Russell Buffalino. Instead, he is a wise fatherly figure to Frank, resembling the old Don Corleone in his reserved yet unbending control over proceedings.

There is a staggering quality to the supporting cast, so much so that it feels a tad wasted. Yet they all do enough to register as superb adornments to the three-hander at the core of the story. A roll-call of acting talent that get barely any time on screen includes Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin and Bobby Canavale, with Stephen Graham and Ray Romano afforded a bit more room to breathe. The latter, transcending his comedic roots, proves a natural fit for the world of the suit-wearing criminal in one of the film’s surprise highlights.

As expected, the level of filmmaking on display is utterly magnificent and highly distinctive. The dynamic, absorbing way in which Scorsese tells a story is instantly recognisable and he employs it to great effect here. Despite this very much being a Martin Scorsese picture, credit must be given to writer Steven Zaillian for keeping such a vast story streamlined and well-paced. The Irishman never rushes, and never drags, pitching itself perfectly as a violence-charged, moody drama rather than a conventional crime thriller.

Having been met with near-universal acclaim, The Irishman is being discussed as one of Scorsese’s best films in years and in the same breath as his greatest work. Only time will tell whether conventional wisdom will place this film among Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas atop the director’s magnificent tree. What is notable, however, is that The Irishman comes across as a less flawless work than those films. Most notably is the complaint that the emotional side of the story feels slightly lop-sided, with Sheeran’s more moving character beats all coming later in the film, and therefore feeling less well-earned.

Unlike most Scorsese leads, Sheeran is a hard man to root for, with little time dedicated to his decision to join the criminal underworld or his own moral justification for hired-gun killing. The depiction of how the characters get from their initial criminal relationships to their tragic endings is superb, probing their pride and masculinity to uncover how a desperate need to prove their worth and strength leads these men to betray themselves and each other. It is in the early stages, as Frank embarks upon his criminal journey, that motive and sympathy seem lacking. We get some justification later, but it is never fully explored.

This approach works better if you are familiar with Scorsese’s other films. In Mean Streets, in Goodfellas and elsewhere, Scorsese has shown us how organised crime seduces and then corrupts – morality stories that play out in mafia playgrounds. He has no interest in doing that again with The Irishman, instead dedicating time to depicting a slow but near-total moral corrosion. As he has done before, Scorsese is adding new textures to his ever-expanding portrait of the mob, and for that he should be applauded. Yet taken as an individual film, The Irishman feels somewhat weaker for this approach.

These are of course minor gripes with a film that is made with such mastery both in front of and behind the camera. Compared to other mob movies, The Irishman is not that high on big-scale incident. It is a mature, reflective work that relies on its director’s ability to absorb an audience from the opening shot. To make a film that is so long, so grand and, often, so slow and quiet but that compels for every minute of its runtime so that it passes quicker than most 2 hour films is Scorsese’s greatest achievement here. It may not be his best film, but The Irishman is unmistakably Scorsese – the work of a master of his craft making art in such an energetic yet elegant way that audiences may never tire of it.

Andrew Young