The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★½

When news started circulating that Martin Scorsese’s return to the gangster genre would be a three and a half hour epic, there was surprisingly a mixed reaction. Surprising because if there was anyone that could pull that off, then it would be Scorsese. And he’s made enough masterpieces in his career that the idea of The Irishman, for me at least, didn’t feel like a huge risk or strange. However, there was much talk about whether or not he could pull it off. Let me reiterate that. There was talk about whether or not Scorsese (the director of Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, Taxi Driver, shall I go on?) could pull off a three and a half hour gangster epic! Months after everyone’s seen The Irishman, we all know that the answer was a resounding “yes, he can!” but I just find it quite funny that the runtime was so controversial.

Cinema and Hollywood have changed a lot, and most of it is for the better when compared to how it was years ago. However, one of the points that I heard about a lot during The Irishman’s marketing and awards campaign was that Scorsese couldn’t get funding because no studio believed that the film would be THAT profitable. Not only does that sound absurd, but it’s also quite shocking. Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, a return to the gangster genre, an awards contender, not profitable in this day and age? That saddened me. However, Netflix stepped up and put another notch on their belt and delivered one of the best films of the year and another masterpiece for Scorsese.

From the daunting opening (“we’re settling in for a three and a half hour film”) to the surprisingly sobering and hauntingly sad close, The Irishman never ever feels like it outstays it’s welcome. Every single scene (yes, even the lesser young man played by old man ones) feel necessary. There’s never a moment wasted in telling a story with a surprising amount of heart, emotion and intelligence. This feels like the complete opposite of Goodfellas while simultaneously feeling like a blood relative. Whereas Goodfellas feels joyous and somewhat glorifies many stereotypical gangster tropes in an entertaining fashion (“I’m gonna go get the papers, get the papers”), The Irishman relishes in the isolated and cold atmosphere presented to Frank Sheeran.

For an example, there’s a job that Frank has to go about doing very late on into the film. He clearly doesn’t want to do it. It affects him deeply and forms everything within the film from that point on. While there are humorous moments sprinkled throughout The Irishman, it is the sucker punch of a final act that you take away from it all. It feels like one of the most mature pictures that Scorsese has crafted, definitely his most mature gangster flick. Instead of showing the exciting aspects of a gangsters life à la Goodfellas, it shows the depressing and brutal outcomes that come from a life of crime. And, debate is up for this I’d imagine but, I don’t think it’s a forgiving film. You may feel bad and sorry for Frank Sheeran by the end, however he’s definitely not a good or clean person.

That comes down to one magnificent performance from Robert De Niro. Honestly, outstanding. Recently I’ve missed good De Niro performances. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate light hearted and occasionally funny De Niro roles, but Frank Sheeran feels not only like it’s one of his best in years, but one of his best full stop. He was also surprisingly fantastic in Joker as well, so I’m just glad that he’s still into acting. Anyway, I think he was snubbed majorly due to not even being recognised for the big awards. While people like to rip on the fact that it’s sometimes obvious that his body movements in the film aren’t that of a young man, people aren’t giving the time of day to the actual craft of acting that he’s providing. Throughout the film, he does give a growth that’s very believable as a character. From a young man, to when he’s at the height of his game, all the way to when he’s an old frail man. It is obvious, not from the CGI but from De Niro’s performance, where his character is in terms of maturity through his performance. Once again I’ll mention the final act. Within the final hour, he displays so much emotion ranging from regret to sadness to hopelessness that you can’t help but be floored by him. It is one of the most believably emotional roles De Niro has ever given.

Beside him is his occasional collaborator Al Pacino, who plays a very Al Pacino role. The news articles were correct, as a young man (born in 2000 raised in Scotland) I had no clue, other than knowing his name, who Jimmy Hoffa was at all. I know that there will be many who are younger, and more intelligent than me, who do know about Hoffa but I’m being honest. So I don’t know whether or not Al Pacino is channeling his inner Hoffa or just releasing the Pacino. Any which way, it’s hypnotising to watch. The amount of energy that he puts into the role is outstanding. He delivers some of the funniest moments in the film, but it is very obvious that he’s not a joke. The amount of power that Pacino can deliver through a simple comment or speech really does display that he’s a character that shouldn’t be messed with if you want to get away unscathed. Hoffa is a side character as it’s most certainly Sheeran’s story, so Pacino shows up quite a bit in and takes over the narrative of sorts for a portion of the film. But he definitely leaves his mark; fantastic performance.

Scorsese even managed to get the one and only Joe Pesci out of retirement. And since Scorsese has given Pesci the roles that fill out his finest performances, well it was very exciting to see what he’d do here. And he’s iconic in this role. Pesci, who could strike me as a genuine gangster any day of the week, gives quite a quiet and subdued performance compared to what we’ve seen from him before; but he’s magnetic and honestly incredibly intimidating. Not to detract from the power that Pacino displays by merely looking, but the looks that Pesci give throughout this entire thing could elevate blood pressure. Even in moments of calmness, like a family bowling night out, you can interpret that Pesci could turn the entire event into a nightmare if he so pleased. Outstanding work. I especially loved Pesci’s calm ruthlessness during a certain conversation with De Niro nearing the film’s climax.

There’s a who’s who of supporting actors and actresses, ranging from comedians to Scorsese heavyweights, but I want to mention two in particular. One being Ray Romano who continues to impress in his renaissance as an actual character actor. It’s bizarre to think that the guy from Everybody Loves Raymond worked with Scorsese and delivered a funny, likeable and surprising performance, one that actually holds up against the main characters. The other being Anna Paquin, who delivers a performance which garnered a little controversy. She plays Frank’s daughter who really disapproves of her father’s way of making money. She gives, quite literally, a silent performance. She doesn’t have much dialogue, if any at all, and understandably that upset people. She’s a fantastic actress, so why waste her by giving her nothing. However, even with few words, I think she gives the most emotionally rich performance in the entire film. Her silence speaks volumes and it’s through her actions, especially near the end next to De Niro, that her performance really punches. While I do think that she got the bare minimum and I would’ve liked a little bit more from her, I can’t say that she’s wasted because she does do an outstanding job for what the film was going for.

I believe that one of the sole reasons that Scorsese’s take on The Irishman never outstays it’s welcome is down to the absolutely absurdly brilliant editing by Thelma Schoonmaker. Honestly, this was the biggest snub this film received during awards season. Scenes flow so fluently through a structure that is far from normal. Whereas most movies take a three act structure, The Irishman takes its cue from something more similar to a novel or play. I could not tell you where act one would flow into act two within a three act structure, this epic goes through almost five if not more acts. And it’s due to that way of editing that I never got bored. We’re never stuck within the same place, mood, or feeling for too long. It’s a constantly moving vehicle. I was beyond impressed that Schoonmaker pulled it off as effortlessly as it seems while watching.

Another intriguing aspect towards this film was the use of de-aging technology to make the actors look younger throughout the majority of the movie. Now, many have already kicked the CGI in this to death (maybe due to what Scorsese said about Marvel but that’s just an assumption), but I thought it was impressively achieved. The first time you see De Niro as a younger man, I won’t lie, you have to settle into it. However, I quickly did and aside from that “fight” scene outside the grocery shop, I don’t think I could ever tell that it was all altered. I mean, Al Pacino never has a scene where he isn’t de-aged, and I didn’t know that until after the film finished! It never dragged me out of the drama and I do think that it’s an interesting step for CGI.

If you didn’t already guess before reading this, or if you’ve already seen The Irishman like I’m sure most have out of pure curiosity if nothing else, The Irishman is a masterclass in gangster cinema. It’s one of Scorsese’s best films in years and perfectly stands up alongside the heavyweights of the sub-genre. Many believed that the time for gangster movies had passed, but this proves that the genre was still alive for at least one more. It’s a daunting watch for sure, but one that’s really worth it. A director openly looking back on the career that made him a household name and almost critiquing it through a wiser eye, actors delivering some of their most mature performances and ones that’ll certainly cement their acting within the 21st century and to top it all of, what seems like a risk for CGI that actually sticks the landing way better than it should’ve. The Irishman deserves all the praise it has received. Also, seeing this on the big screen was the only way to appreciate everything Scorsese has delivered here.

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