If Goodfellas marked Martin Scorsese’s peak dominance in the organized crime film genre, The Irishman feels like both his finale and eulogy. At over three and a half hours long, its scope and techno-ambition make up for an ending that, in the vein of Return of the King, never seems to end. Other Scorsese films partook in criminal activity and flaunted their unbashful grotesqueness. This one feels melancholic, literally reflecting on the Mob’s bygone days in the late 20th century. If Netflix wanted another sensational film to dare the Academy into Green Booking them again, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than The Irishman.
After all, Scorsese could have easily turned this into a Netflix miniseries. So sprawling is the tale of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his relationship with the mob that I could easily see a 10-12 episode deal being cut. Instead it’s a film, and a somber one at that. Beside Leonardo DiCaprio and his fellow NYU alumni Harvey Keitel, De Niro is the actor most tied to Scorsese’s filmography. Yet Frank isn’t like other Scorsese characters. He’s not the center of attention, or the “cool gangster” personified. What we have is a workman enduring a long career with the mafia and witnessing the highs and lows of their internal, interpersonal disputes.
This somber tone can be found in how we first meet Frank Sheeran: tracking shot and voiceover in a nursing home. From there, we get backstory. A former WWII veteran, Frank finds work during the 1950’s as a labor union official and Philly truck driver delivering slabs of meat to restaurants. It’s during one of these jobs that he runs into Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) at a truckstop, not yet realizing that he was discussing engine failure problems with the head of the Pennsylvania Mafisio. It’s been years since Pesci was in anything but this out of retirement performance is more than welcome. Unlike the volatile Tommy DeVito, Russell offers a quiet form of menacing: the boss who knows he owns not only the room but the whole goddamn neighborhood. Nothing goes in or out without Bufalino’s approval and, if a worker wants to do something, he must “take care of it himself.”
With the friendship of Russell and his lawyer brother William (Ray Ramano), as well as a few meat deliveries to Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), Frank finds a secondary job doing hits for the mob. Or, as they like to put it, “I hear you paint houses.” It gets the man paid and gains him good favor but, unlike other Scorsese films, this life is not glamorized. It’s a ruthless business that trades bodies for loyalty if deals don’t go their way. Where Robert De Niro usually embodies this ruthlessness, Frank is just the middleman surrounded by bigger fish. Multiple times he encounters situations that seem to be escalating out of control, and all he can do is talk to the people involved. Relaying messages can ease a few burns, but Frank can’t sway a capo’s mind because he’s not at the table making the plans. All he can do is follow orders like in the war and hope business survives another day.
Frank’s “everyman” Mafia status makes him a perfect foil for the big historical name: Jimmy Hoffa. Played by Al Pacino, Hoffa is the union leader of his era, a man whose name and influence were matched only by the White House and, combined with his connections to the Bufalino family, made him an infamous target of the Kennedys. Pacino, with his gruff voice and frequent usage of the word “cocksucker” (it’s to The Irishman what “fuck” was to The Wolf of Wall Street), plays Hoffa as a morally ambiguous, yet larger than life character. This man loves his union, so much so that he’ll butt heads with every capo threatening his status on top without realizing how far they’ll go to keep a certain level of influence.
I’ve gone this far into the review without mentioning The Irishman’s technical selling point: it’s use of de-aging technology. Up until now this tech has only been used in sparse doses, mostly in MCU films like Ant-Man and Captain Marvel to take decades off Michael Douglas and Samuel L. Jackson’s faces. Using it across an entire film, however, is a different milestone altogether. It fits perfectly into the sprawling nature of Sheeran’s story, which spans decades across a non-linear chronology and removes the need for different actors. Younger bodies have colored hair and smoother complexions, while added wrinkles and grey lines indicate their transition into middle age territory. Only when these characters are at their oldest age do we see De Niro and Pesci as they currently are, albeit with a bit of makeup.
It’s still not perfect. The younger Frank, Russel and Jimmy go down the de-aging path, the more obvious certain uncanny valley aesthetics become when you squint. These moments only show up a handful of times, mostly when the actors are asked to do things that break the illusion on their age. One moment where Frank beats up a marketplace owner for hitting his daughter Peggy stands out because it feels like you’re watching a 70 year-old do body movements meant for an agile 40 year-old. That, of course, is the point but The Irishman is trying to convince you that their fountain of youth VFX is total. There’s sadly so far you can go before looking younger runs into the problem of moving like a youngling.
Likewise, the film isn’t perfect. It’s LONG. Like seriously, honest to god LONG. Clocking in at a whopping 209 minutes, this film eclipses Avengers Endgame and attempts to justify its Lawrence of Arabia-esque runtime via extended historical moments. The most fascinating moments involve the Bufalino’s complicated relation with Hoffa in the 60’s, a constant tug of war between men in power pushing the limits of their power while the federal government wants both their heads. My favorite scene involves a conversation between Frank, Hoffa and a mob boss named Tony Pro (Stephen Graham), whose personal beef with Jimmy for a past prison conversation highlights the tension brewing between the Mafia and his union. But there are also numerous conversations and discussions that, while interesting, could easily have been cut. Again, this problem would have become an asset if the film was a miniseries.
Still, this is Martin Scorsese we’re talking about: a man who continues to stand in a class of his own against even the best living directors. Most filmmakers hope to get at least one talked-about masterpiece; Scorsese makes one per decade, sometimes more, and The Irishman might just join The Wolf of Wall Street as one of his best. I wouldn’t go back to it as much as his other films but, if any other director made something of this caliber, it would be their magnum opus. For Scorsese, it’s just another film.
But what a film we have going for us. He’s pulling in more than 50 years’ worth of tricks, reuniting with longtime editor Thelma Schonnmaker and Keitel as Philly crime boss Angelino Bruno. We’re reuniting De Niro and Pacino since 2008’s Righteous Kill and De Niro with Pesci since 2006’s The Good Shepard. This is the whole Scorsese crew telling a film about Scorsese films, a poetic reflection of every genre style the man has introduced to pop culture since he came onto everyone’s radar with Mean Streets. You have your casually masterful cinematography and pop musical accompaniment, but it’s done with the mind of a veteran daring the world to top his genre pastiche.
This ties back into what might be De Niro’s best performance in years. Frank Sheeran is a very loyal man who does the job even as he realizes what the sins cost him personally. There’s always a guilty stare accompanying the crimes: his daughter Peggy, whose presence from child to adulthood always involves looking upon her father after he does something morally wrong. Yet he keeps on doing it out of loyalty, right down to the (presumed) hit on Hoffa that led to his conspiracy-riddled disappearance. I won’t spoil anything, but the build-up is solid. It’s just business, but the cause is a collision between two forces that won’t budge: angry Al Pacino and the Mafia.
This makes me feel torn about The Irishman’s epilogue. Like Return of the King, it sets up multiple points where the writers could easily stop… right before giving Frank even more stuff to do. You know this ongoing continuation is bad when I have to keep looking at my phone thinking “is it over now?” Thematically, however, it feels like Scorsese marking the end of an era for these mob archetypes. I won’t say much- you’ll all find the time to catch this on Netflix come November- but, Sopranos prequel aside, there’s nowhere left to go. Truly this feels like the Unforgiven of Gangster films.
Verdict: 5 out of 5 Stars
The Irishman might not be Martin Scorsese’s best film, but it’s bound to be one of the decade’s most discussed films. Personally, I think he peaked on that ranking a couple decades ago, but it’s yet another reminder of the director’s mastery over the camera. With strong performances from De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, it masterfully delves into provocative themes like loss, sacrifice and power through deconstructed genre clichés and succeeds with flying colors. And yes, it’s bound to win at least one Oscar for Netflix- let’s hope it’s the big one this time.