Despite a varied career that boasts a catalogue of brilliant films like Raging Bull, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, it’s no secret that Martin Scorsese and the gangster film are a match made in heaven. In his latest directorial effort, with a helping hand from Netflix, Scorsese aims to meditate on his career with The Irishman, a true to life gangster epic featuring some of the defining actors who’ve helped him along the way.
Based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, The Irishman is a shocking true story that takes place over various decades of the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a WW2 veteran and meat truck driver turned mob hitman and local union president who eventually became embroiled in one of the most notorious mob cases in US history, the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. Over the film’s hefty 3 hours and 22 minutes runtime, Scorsese takes the viewer on an odyssey, not just journeying through Frank’s life but also through his own life and career, revisiting the themes, dialogue, actors, sounds and visual styles that have made him one of the great all-time filmmakers. There’s no point during this retelling of Sheeran’s story that Scorsese either takes his foot off the gas or goes full throttle, finding a delicate balance with his direction that results in a truly gripping saga and makes the lengthy runtime absolutely worth sticking around for.
Steven Zaillian’s screenplay combines perfectly with Scorsese’s direction; featuring the witty, wiseguy dialogue that is synonymous with the director and this genre, whilst the character arcs and story beats are surprisingly subdued throughout, save for very few brief outbursts of action and violence. This film offers a sense of quietude in comparison to Scorsese’s other gangster films like Goodfellas or The Departed, allowing itself time to ponder and play out at a much more natural pace. The Irishman lets its characters and dialogue do the talking through a funny, well-crafted and moving script which allows for a subtlety in the moments when the mood slightly shifts, really letting the viewer absorb the events on-screen rather than having them explained.
Equally, Robbie Robertson’s omnipresent score is remarkable at aiding the story, featuring songs and original pieces that could almost be described as quintessentially gangster. Master editor Thelma Schoonmaker weaves each moment of Sheeran’s story together so effortlessly, easily juggling the film’s various time periods that in the hands of another editor, may have made absolutely no sense at all. Technically speaking, however, it is impossible to critique this film without a mention of the incredible digital de-ageing process that allows for De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino to play people of various ages without the use of heavy prosthetic make-up. The transition between the ages in this film is seamless, especially with De Niro, who is seen in his 20s, 40s and 60s but never once does this detract from the story. This eclipses any previous de-ageing effects in films by some distance and is a crucial part of ensuring the performances at the very heart of this film remain wholly prevalent.
With regards to the performances, it seems as if there was only ever going to be one man who could accompany Scorsese and lead his definitive gangster film, which is, of course, the legendary Robert De Niro. As Sheeran, De Niro anchors of this film as the focal point of the story, channelling his boundless talent into a performance that whilst is typically De Niro, features some of his most nuanced work. He is funny, charming and ferocious but all the while tinkers with the acceptance of mortality and human frailty that gives a man who is seen committing heinous crimes for the mob a surprisingly heartfelt edge and who by the film’s climax is wading through the morality and consequences of his actions. This is the best De Niro has been in a long time and given his legendary status, he could find himself in the mix for a Best Actor nomination, despite a heavily stacked field.
Supporting De Niro in this film is Al Pacino, who marks his very first collaboration with Scorsese despite an also long and varied career. As the famous, larger than life union leader Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino is outstanding and gives his best performance in decades. Brimming with charisma, humour and charm that helps him steal every scene he’s in, once Hoffa is introduced to the story it is instantly elevated by Pacino, who is certainly the acting highlight of the film. Pacino should easily be within a shout of a Best Supporting Actor nomination if not a dark horse to win, also given his status within Hollywood.
One of the most remarkable aspects that The Irishman can boast is getting the great Joe Pesci out of retirement. Playing Russell Bufalino, head of the Bufalino crime family, Pesci imbues a subtle viciousness that creates a terrifying atmosphere around him, all in spite of being the least imposing figure in the film, which is a further testament to Pesci’s talents. His ability to switch between being heartfelt and heartless or humorous and harmful makes Bufalino fascinating, and despite his limited screen-time in comparison to De Niro and Pacino, could still see him score a Best Supporting Actor nomination too. The way these characters bounce off of each other is fantastic and the way they are all framed by Rodrigo Prieto is the best of the film’s cinematography, particularly when they are seen in isolation and everything around them is blurred with fading sound, transporting the viewer into their space and performances.
The Irishman is an epic, sprawling story that despite its length is deftly handled by Scorsese and supported by numerous technical achievements across the board. It’s truly a privilege to see these actors working together and all to Oscar-worthy standard, which given their age makes the film feel that little more poignant, which is partially what Scorsese feels like he’s trying to achieve with this film. The whole film seemingly carries a weighty sense of mourning, as if this is a director and his actors recognising the twilight of their careers and offering their final word on a genre that has defined their careers. This film is a journey; a nostalgic, career-spanning meditation by Martin Scorsese at his very best and an absolute must-see that will deservedly be a key player in the awards season.
Words by Elliott Jones