The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★½

Martin Scorsese has now directed six gangster films, but he hasn't made another film, let alone another gangster film, like The Irishman. Not only is it his biggest film in terms of length, it's also his most sombre and meditative (and considering his last film was Silence, that's saying something).

What's also impressive is that he continues to be able to draw from real people and events for material. His subject this time round is Frank "the Irishman" Sheeran, who first becomes acquainted with the Pennsylvania underworld as a delivery driver in the 1950s. Befriended by kingpin Russell Bufalino, he quickly establishes himself as more than just a hitman, and it's not long before he's met Jimmy Hoffa, the famous leader of the Teamsters Union who becomes his closest friend. It's when Kennedy is elected president that things become complicated. Angry at the increased government interference in his business, Hoffa loses his regard for the favoured traditions of his affiliation with the mob, becoming more and more of a liability in the process. We know that he notoriously disappeared in 1975, and The Irishman's explanation of what happened to him doesn't come as a surprise.

In fact, not a great deal surprises us about the world of Martin Scorsese gangster films at all anymore, and the director knows it. He knows that we won't buy the freewheeling youthfulness of Mean Streets or the vicarious glamour fetish of Goodfellas or Casino or the thrilling moral labyrinth of The Departed, because we've been there and done that. The Irishman is something new: a story of ageing, anachronistic men navigating their memories of a world so much a part of them that they can't leave it behind even when most of its denizens are long gone. As the characters get older, the film becomes more mournful, more concerned with death, and it puts us in mind of the longevity of Scorsese's relationship with his favourite genre. If at this stage in his career (and his life) we're watching gangsters having strokes and finishing their days in old people's homes, it can only mean one thing: that he's putting this stuff to bed once and for all. Such is the sense of loss, finality and physical resignation that we feel at the end of this lengthy tale.

In order to convey these weightiest of themes, Scorsese ensures that the film is as devoid of flourish as possible. The cinematography is more stately, the camerawork less ostentatious, the colours more muted and the violence more dampened than ever before, and that's not even talking about the soundtrack, so much a force for buoyancy in Scorsese's past films that it's quite shocking how unassuming it is here. That's not to say the film is dull, however. For me, the moment when it springs to life is with the appearance of Al Pacino as Hoffa. This marks the first time he's worked with Scorsese, and the director draws from the actor a magnificently stimulating performance. Robert De Niro, in the role of Sheeran, is just as good, if far more melancholy, and it was nice to see Joe Pesci back for one last go, while the presence of Harvey Keitel, the actor whose association with Scorsese goes back the longest, adds an elegiac touch.

Don't go and see The Irishman if you're hoping for a return to Scorsese's stylistic roots, or even much of a fun time. Do go and see it, however, if your faith in him as the greatest filmmaker alive today has remained strong, and you're convinced he's still got it in him to produce yet another masterpiece. Personally, I'd be fine if this put the lid on his output, not because I don't think he's capable of anything as good, but because nothing would have The Irishman's significance.

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