The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★★

“The time is now
The time to stand and cheer
‘Cause better times are here to stay
Oh, yesterday is over
Tomorrow’s on its way
But look what’s new
And made for you today

A strange and unexpected thing happened when I first watched Martin Scorcesse’s The Irishman. I sat down, having prepared myself for what I knew was a three hour and thirty minute movie (ha, and we all thought Endgame would be the greatest cinematic test of our bladders this year). So I did my dues, got in that “you’re about to watch a long movie zone,” made myself comfortable as possible, and pressed play.

The movie played, and then finished. And as I sat there, watching the credits in stunned silence, I did something I've only rarely done before. I immediately rewatched the whole thing.

The Irishman is Martin Scorcesse’s autumnal masterpiece, a grand finale better than anything we could have imagined. It’s a career capper that began with the mean, wet-behind-his-ears punk in Mean Streets, the peak game of Goodfellas, and now, the regretful old man, one who looks back with perspective; too late. It is, quite simply, a perfect film, the best original release Netflix has ever given us, and the greatest grand finale one of cinema's most respected voices could have hoped for.

And I was worried about this film! I really was! Netflix has an unhealthy habit of taking tried and tested directors, and getting the worst out of them. Dan Gilroy, director of Nightcrawler, went to Netflix, and what did he shit out? Velvet Buzzsaw. The visionary behind Moon and Source Code, Duncan Jones, made Mute under Netflix’s watchful eye. And while you might not like David Ayer’s films themselves, you can’t deny that Fury and End of Watch were made with great technical skill. What did he do under the Netflix banner? Fucking Bright.

Beyond the Netflix problem, though, I saw another potential issue with the casting. Joe Pesci I wasn’t worried about so much as curious; he went into semi-retirement after Lethal Weapon 4 some twenty years ago, and his only acting credits since then were a cameo in Robert De Niro’s spy movie, a drama with Helen Mirren, and a Russian animated film (he plays Mosquito). Speaking of the man himself, though, it was Robert De Niro who I was actively dreading. He’s been coasting for a while now, and while I think his later-day career has a few real gems scattered here and there - I really like him in Silver Linings Playbook, for example - I can’t deny that his turn in Bad Grandpa was a career low to end all career lows. It’s one thing to embarass yourself in stupid comedies that no one will ever see, but it’s entirely another to do it in a Martin Scorcesse film. And Al Pacino’s been Shouty Pacino for quite some time.

But it was the de-aging conceit that really stopped me cold. We’ve seen a rise in this technology over the years, and I’ve yet to be assured of its veritability. Just this year, we saw it in Captain Marvel, for two supporting roles, and Gemini Man, for the main antagonist-turned-protagonist. Now, I didn’t like either of these movies very much, but I will say that each of them had a handful of times where the effect really worked. But this wasn’t de-wrinkling a supporting character for some of the runtime; this was restoring the youth of the three main characters, for most of the movie.

And yet, it all works. All of it. There's not a single moment of this movie that took a wrong step. If I had to put my finger on why, I'd say that it's because it's made with purpose. Unlike something like Gemini Man, there's a purpose behind these great leaps in technology. I'm reminded of Hugo, STILL one of only three movies that actually felt like it benefitted from a 3D format (the other two being Gravity and The Walk).

Thematic purpose is the main reason the digital de-aging worked for me. Again, this will change from person to person, and I can see why; it’s never bad, per-se, and there’s no one moment where the effect full-on fails, but there are instances here and there where it becomes noticeable that, while everyone looks younger, they’re still moving like they’re old men. But as the film went on, it faded away, because the storytelling and the peak characterization took over. Scorsese’s directing is much more subtle and restrained than it’s been in the past; there isn’t a whole lot in the way crazy camera maneuvers or long takes. But, again, there's a reason for that; this is a story of reflection and regret. And it's not like it's "boring" - it literally never is - but even I was surprised by how extraordinarily engaging the material was, as Scorsese’s grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking remains as solid as ever.

It’s not just that it’s an all-star cast that gives the film its unique power; it’s an all-star cast where everyone is operating at the very top of their game. This is the best thing Al Pacino has done in years. Scorsese ingenuously doesn’t try to reign him in, and instead hones his energies in a direction that works. His over-the-top loudmouth persona is what makes his character, with Scorsese focusing his tendencies into an empathic, layered performance.

I had no idea how much I missed Joe Pesci until I saw him in this film. He’s not lost an ounce of his screen presence in the interim between his last film and this one. Ditto to Harvey Keitel, though he’s been working pretty steadily this whole time (the last chronological thing I saw from him was Isle of Dogs).

But the main character of this film is Robert De Niro, and he carries the film with the kind of power that makes his career slump all but fade away. He’s as good as he’s ever been in this film. He begins as something of an emotionally closed-off enigma, before slowly but surely morphing into a withered husk of a man, trying and failing to contain his emotions (there’s a phone call conversation that happens towards the end that might be the finest piece of acting in 2019 so far). There’s a fine but deliberate difference between “deliberately restrained but 100% commited De Niro” and “sleepwalking De Niro” and this film proves it. I’ve not seen him try this hard in what feels like forever. It really is something.

But lets not discount what an impeccable script this is. Steven Zaillian (you may know him as the sole screenwriter for a little movie called Schindler's List) has the cadence of a Scorsese movie down, expertly spanning several decades of this one man's life, making sure we understand the underlying psychological machinations of his mind that drive every action he takes. It takes more than one man to make an epic of this nature, after all.

Still, in the end, this is Scorsese's movie. The Irishman is a reflective masterpiece; I’ve heard it described as a movie that begins with the director of Goodfellas, and ends with the director of Silence. I’d actually go so far as to say it’s better than either of those films, or at least more impactful. If there were any arguments that "Netflix movies don't count as real movies" that persisted even after Okja came out, this should finally put that silly idea to bed. It is, quite simply, a perfect film, epic and era-spanning and still steeped in human regret and pathos.

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