Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
It is remarkable how time and experience shape the way storytellers view certain genres. Martin Scorsese has made far more movies outside of the crime genre over his 50-year career, and yet he consistently returns to the worlds of criminals and gangsters. No two Scorsese crime dramas are the same and The Irishman is one of the strongest examples of his versatility and directorial development.
After carrying out small-time jobs and favours for notable figures in his area, truck driver Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) becomes a hitman for the Pennsylvania crime family headed by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). As he rises through the ranks of organised crime, Frank eventually finds himself working alongside infamous labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Looking back at Scorsese’s earlier work gives some perspective on the varied methods and tones he has utilised when telling a story within the world of organised crime. From the anarchic, youthful energy of Mean Streets to the isolated and existential dread in Taxi Driver. From the relentless pace of GoodFellas to the hyper-stylised excess of Casino. Each dive into the genre has represented a different perspective of the story, and the changing outlook of the director crafting said story.
In The Irishman Scorsese takes a far more meditative approach to corruption and bloodshed. He is less immersed in the mechanics and energy of the organised crime world and instead uses the film as a vehicle to ponder on how such a life can weigh on a person over multiple decades. Scorsese has taken the years he spent away from the genre and used them as a means to reflect on the fleeting nature of time and the inevitability of age.
This theme may not be apparent for the first two-thirds of the film though, as The Irishman gradually lures the viewer into its meditation. For its first and second act, Scorsese presents Sheeran’s story as a masterfully crafted venture into familiar territory. Narratively it is easy to observe the similarities between Sheeran’s rise to other Scorsese protagonists such as Henry Hill or Jordan Belfort.
Martin Scorsese gets the old gang back together in The Irishman
The key difference in how Scorsese presents this arc is through mood and atmosphere. The camera movement within The Irishman is less frenetic, the editing less chaotic, and there is a deliberate patience to the way each shot is held. When the camera does move it glides through the scene as if observing from an omnipresent point of view. All of this is strung together masterfully by Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
This sets the tone of a film not preoccupied with the hierarchy and functionality of the mafia. Instead, this crime epic seeks to examine the existential dread of looking back on one’s life only to find a trail of violence and destruction. Its final act does not contain a bloody fall from power, but instead a quiet and painful decline that cuts far deeper on an emotional level than anything else.
The film introduces us to Sheeran in his twilight years, in a nursing home recounting his days in organised crime. Introductions to other gangsters throughout the movie are accompanied by a caption listing the date and cause of their deaths, with an overwhelming amount of the latter involving bullets. But it is through this contrast that The Irishman reveals its cruel intent. As we look at Sheeran near the end of his life, a broken and frail man filled with regret, it dares to ask who received the more merciful demise.
It is the third act of The Irishman that re-contextualizes and elevates the entire film. It paints a portrait which is bleaker than any prior crime epic Scorsese has helmed and forces the viewer to observe the emptiness of a strung-out hitman’s life when it is laid out before him.
But amid this despair, the film still retains a high level of entertainment. Steven Zaillian’s script is consistently engaging for its entire 200-minute runtime. The plot twists and turns, the dialogue crackles and characters collide in fascinating ways. There is also the simple joy in seeing this many great actors bouncing off each other.
Netflix has got a real winner on its hands with The Irishman
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When it comes to the actors themselves, a large part of the discussion will be dominated by Scorsese’s decision to digitally de-age his cast. Though the effect is initially jarring, it is amazing how quickly it becomes seamless with the actors’ performances. It is easy to see the CGI as merely another element of the production to showcase the passage of time, like costume or makeup.
But the themes within The Irishman allow this decision to have De Niro portray Sheeran through five decades to take on an even greater meaning. Outside of simple functionality, there’s a strange meta-narrative to the 76-year-old De Niro playing a young man. In a film that laments the loss of youth, even its lead actor is performing in the body of a younger man.
Though his portrayal of Sheeran retains many core characteristics that define his career as a hitman, De Niro also takes note of the gradual changes convey the toll of that career. His physicality seems to shift not just with age but the increasing weight of his own violent actions. It’s a role that is at its most impressive when considered as a whole. De Niro internally shifts and transforms until he has dissected each facet of Sheeran, but does so slowly and deliberately.
Joe Pesci is somewhat similar in his performance. Instead of the more explosive portrayals, Pesci has presented in previous Scorsese collaborations, his portrayal of Russell Bufalino is quiet and reserved. In doing so Pesci creates a character who is almost haunting in his indifference, issuing death sentences without even raising his voice.
The same cannot be said for Al Pacino. As Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino the charismatic energy that gave the union leader such a cult of personality. Hoffa delivers speeches at rallies, chastises government officials keeping tabs on him and yells insults at mob bosses who conflict with his goals, and Pacino delivers all this and more with incredible conviction. It is easy for Pacino’s energy to feel misused or indulgent, but Scorsese frames him in such a way that his ferocity is always impactful.
The Irishman may be a return to familiar territory for Scorsese, but his method of presenting the story has been radically altered. The 2019 venture is more tonally similar to his meditative dramas such as Silence or Raging Bull. While it lacks the raw energy of his other gangster epics, it serves as a poignant reflection on time, faith and longing.
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