Martin Scorsese is all over the news these days. The outspoken filmmaker, perhaps overdoing the gatekeeping of his truly astonishing and encyclopedic love of cinema, has drawn the praise of traditionalists and the ire of geeks, nerds, and the new wave of Hollywood storytelling with his critiques of Marvel films.
Despite all that press about what cinema is—whether you feel its respectful commentary on a cherished entertainment institution, or you think an old man is yelling at clouds—the 76-year-old legendary director that is Martin Scorsese still gets to make movies in his image. With his complete control, in what he sees is the “right” way, and release them to the public for judgement. And what does he do with his latest feature, The Irishman? He makes not only one of the best films of 2019, but perhaps one of the best films of his entire, storied career.
In the end, we have a film on our hands, one that deserves to be judged devoid of press controversy and hurt feelings. Trust me; I’m the guy with the Marvel logo tattooed on his leg. If I can still appreciate a Scorsese film as is, without letting outside factors come into play, so can you. Yes, I’m talking to you.
Expectations are a helluva drug. You can see it bring a film to its knees, like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, or you can see it wow crowds and become a part of the cultural zeitgeist, like Avengers: Endgame. For 2019, the two films I was most looking forward to, the ones with the most expectations attached to them, were, ironically, Endgame and Scorsese’s The Irishman. I wrote about The Irishman’s production nine months ago and had been tracking its development stage by stage for even longer. Expectations were not just high; they were astronomical.
And just like Endgame, The Irishman not only delivers on its expectations but excels beyond them, putting in the extra time to please both Scorsese’s hardcore fans, general moviegoers, and maybe even some of his skeptics (not that there are too many of them). And while it certainly covers ground Scorsese has tread upon in the past, the nearly 80-year-old director seems to be putting the winter of his life and career into perspective and allow it to drive the narrative he seeks to tell.
The Irishman, (alternatively titled I Heard You Paint Houses) centers around Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his decades-long rise up the criminal food chain in Pennsylvania. Sheeran recounts his tale while using a wheelchair, with snow-white hair and oxygen assistance, sometime towards the end of his life in the early aughts. An unseen reporter or historian, we are led to assume, is attempting to get the facts straight on Sheeran’s involvement in the (still) unsolved disappearance of labor unionist and firey powerbroker Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Told in a non-linear structure, Sheeran touches on his experiences as a World War II veteran and his early union truck driving days in the ’50s, where he met the influential mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Bufalino moves him from providing free steaks to local captains like Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale) and into contract killing. Sheeran slowly rises to be one of Bufalino’s most trusted enforcers over the next two decades, earning the respect of other crime bigwigs like Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi).
Before long, Sheeran is tasked with monitoring Hoffa as his connections to the unions and political influence prove valuable to Bufalino. Sheeran takes the job and becomes close to Hoffa, so much so that he tries to protect the firebrand from inevitably pissing off all the wrong people. While Sheeran has made a life of snuffing out life with passionless professionalism, will his close relationship with Hoffa prevent him from carrying out what could be the biggest job of his life?
Despite being a master at his craft, Scorsese struggled to tell period pieces without the era depicted standing out in a flamboyant way. Gangs of New York and The Aviator, for example, are great films but they feel almost too stylized, unintentionally bringing attention to how artificial it all is. The Irishman, in contrast, is a seamless period piece that always feels lived in and organic. Though Scorsese is showing us decades of history, it never feels forced on us. Nothing screams “hey, it’s the ’70s!” during moments set in that period. It just exists there without bringing attention to itself.
And that seems like a by-product of an already excellent director using his ability to age and accrue wisdom to inform his way of telling a story. If a 76-year-old Scorsese made Goodfellas, would it look more like The Irishman? I’d like to think so as The Irishman does deal with similar goings-on but approaches them with reflection and, in some cases, regret. Goodfellas has a nostalgic feel to it; a glorification of a bombastic lifestyle. The Irishman doesn’t revel in its horrors but reviews them, analyzes them, and passes critical judgment.
And of course, a great story needs great actors to be convincing. Though the CGI de-aging technique can be somewhat distracting, especially in one scene where a supposedly twenty-something looking Joe Pesci, with seventy-something Joe Pesci’s voice, calls a supposedly twenty-something Robert De Niro “kid”, the cast is simply too delicious to ignore. While De Niro provides the point of view of The Irishman’s world, his supporting cast upstages him, which is a hard thing to do.
Joe Pesci, who ostensibly retired after Lethal Weapon 4 in 1998 (though he did make small appearances in The Good Shepard in 2006 and Love Ranch in 2010), is back with a vengeance, offering a chilling performance as the silent but sinister Bufalino. Though not a typical “villain” (because in a Scorsese gangster picture, who really is a hero?), Pesci’s reserved approach from the small things, like eating cereal, to the momentous—like the ordering of a history-changing hit on an enemy—is so casual and, at times, charming, that Bufalino could go down as one of the quietest and soft brutes in cinema history.
The true star of the show, however, is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. In a film jam-packed with cinema legends, Pacino manages to stick out the most. For the first hour of the film, Pacino does not appear, the film anchored primarily by De Niro and Pesci. But when Pacino first appears it brings entirely new energy to the proceedings, adding an unpredictable element to what had, at that point, been a marvelously produced but somewhat by-the-numbers mob story.
And while Pacino does do Pacino things, like yell and froth, it is all in service of the story and his historical character. And despite some lousy movie choices in the past, Pacino has not lost any of his acting power. In one particular scene (no spoilers), a shocking revelation provokes a delayed reaction in Hoffa, and you can literally see Pacino thinking, his face like a stone, before ultimately realizing the consequences of the revelation. There is a slight movement of his eyes during that moment of realization that only the best actor can convey simply by using the eyes and nothing else. It shows the 79-year-old actor has just as much fire and, most importantly, the necessary subtlety to acting, that he did as the intense star of The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, and Carlito’s Way.
The only drawback to the all-star cast is the small usage of the always charismatic Harvey Keitel, who is given limited screentime and not much to do. And the relegation of Anna Paquin to a virtually silent role as one of Sheeran’s daughters who can see right through him. But honestly, with such a perfectly cast film in every regard, should anyone complain? This is probably one of the greatest casts ever assembled for a film. We should enjoy it.
Despite a three hour and 28 minute run time, The Irishman never lags and should keep viewers glued to their seats, most notably when Pacino appears. I have no doubt The Irishman will be a serious Oscar contender (no matter what Spielberg has to say about it), garnering (and earning) just about every acting and production nomination it can.
So we can put aside the arguments on what cinema is in relation to The Irishman because works of art like it don’t come along every day. It might be Scorsese’s love note not just to the gangster films that made him a legend, but to film in general, providing a virtually perfect tale of intrigue, moral quandaries, and the effects of history on multiple generations. What a time to be alive as a cinemagoer.
The Irishman is currently in limited release throughout the US and will be available on Netflix on November 27th.
All images courtesy of TriBeCa Productions