The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★★

So grateful to be able to catch this on the big screen ahead of the streaming release even with its daunting 3 and a half hour run time demanding a no-fluids morning. A lot of the conversation around The Irishman a few months back centered around the runtime, even over one of the greatest gangster movie casts ever assembled. A film really has to earn a runtime that long so I won't argue people were wrong to have reservations but I can't imagine anyone's still arguing that length is an issue after watching the masterpiece that is The Irishman.

Scorsese has crafted an intimate epic with a complex narrative structure that feels steeped in the iconography of his own gangster films even while it deliberately subverts them. The film cuts between three narratives: a near death Frank Sheeran (De Niro) in a nursing home reflecting on his life, a road trip Frank took with Russell Bufalino (Pesci) to a peacemaking summit with Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), and Frank's rise through the ranks of the local crime circles. While the nursing home and road trip stories take place over a year (ish) and a few days respectively Frank's origin and subsequent climb covers many years and concludes when the road trip begins.

Rather than trying to cast different actors for different time periods Scorcese has the actors digitally de-aged and playing their younger selves. Some found this offputting in the trailer and I was on the fence myself. While watching the film I not only didn't think it was an issue but really found it to be surprisingly effective. It is not an accurate rendering of what De Niro looked like but it's not trying to be. The broader shouldered De Niro we see here has a world-weariness and lumbering physical demeanor that feels truer to the character of Frank. Less de-aging is necessary for the older characters Pacino and Pesci play but it works there too.

Many are referring to this film as a sorrowful "funeral" for the gangster genre that wrestles with the films before it, a puzzling take from the outside. How can a gangster movie with De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci starring with Scorsese directing not be a total blast? The Irishman is fun, and funny, but it's also undeniably devoid of the glamour and stylized violence we've come to expect. Where something like Goodfellas lets you live the high of mob life then brings it crashing down around you The Irishman is carefully designed to frontload the decline and prevent the high.

Part of this is obviously because of the structure that introduces us to a presumably lonely Frank in a nursing home wheelchair before his younger self. The more interesting ways Scorsese achieves this are stylistic decisions peppered throughout. The most inspired of these is the use of name cards with cause of death to introduce many of the characters. "Shot in the head eight times in his driveway, 1981" is an example of what you might find under a new character's name. The first of these played to big laughs in my theater but as more and more unceremonious deaths are spelled out it takes on a genuine sadness. These men that seem so invincible will all meet the same fate as those they have killed.

When The Irishman is showing the many hits of the film it's done in a way that sucks all the fun out of the violence. It's visceral and startlingly fast, over before it begins and featuring no music and no dialogue between victim and killer. Even the most conventionally "cool" scene of the film, a narrated process of elimination to select the best gun for a job, has a detached quality to it that prevents it from registering as badass. Most of the time we don't even know why someone is being killed but it's never a decision Frank is making. He's "made" in a sense but never even sniffs a position of real power.

It may be this lack of true wealth and success that drives the sorrowful final act of the film but even that plays second fiddle to his shattered personal relationships. Frank can't walk, has daughters that won't talk to him, no real material wealth, and for what? All those people died, does he regret all of them or just one clumsy phone call afterwards? In the end a desperate grasp at religion provides some of his only companionship but even he probably doesn't believe he could be headed to salvation. The stunning final scene provides the most touchingly succinct depiction of true loneliness I can recall and cements The Irishman as one of the year's best.

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