After his recent comments on Marvel movies sent Film Twitter into a misguided and absurd frenzy, Martin Scorsese is back to grabbing headlines for all the right reasons. With a reported budget of $160 million, a production time of over two years, and a three-and-a-half-hour runtime, The Irishman is one of Scorsese’s (and Netflix’s) biggest gambles to date. Thankfully, it all pays off handsomely.
Returning to the gangster genre his career has been intrinsically linked with, Scorsese proves once again why he’s one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Even at 76 years old, he can still bring the goods as few can. In his best film since 1990’s Goodfellas, Scorsese serves up a sprawling epic that just gets more enthralling as it winds through its extensive running time.
With a trio of terrific and award-worthy performances, an engaging narrative, and production values that showcase the film’s gargantuan budget, The Irishman is the type of masterful mobster film only Scorsese could pull together. An introspection on the perils of a life in crime and a sobering look at the aftermath and impact on a man who must confront his past.
Beginning with a long tracking shot through a retirement home that’s pure Scorsese, we meet an ailing and wheelchair-bound Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a war veteran turned mobster near the end of his days and ready to recount (or, more accurately, confess) the details of his life of crime. It’s this pseudo confessional that Scorsese uses as the framing device to construct his ambitious opus.
We’re first plonked into a comical interstate road trip sometime in the mid-1970s. Frank, underworld boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their respective wives, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie (Kathrine Narducci) are travelling from Philadelphia to Detroit for a family wedding, with several pitstops planned on the way to carry out “business.” By fateful happenstance, their car breaks down outside the very Texaco gas station where Frank first met Russell in the 1950s.
Moving to a flashback within a flashback, we meet a younger Frank where he’s offered assistance from Russell with his broken-down meat-delivery truck, completely unaware just who his new friend truly is. While he’s not yet connected with the Mafia, Frank has been swingling the meat company he delivers for and selling prime beef on the side to crooked restaurant owner Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale).
Soon enough, Frank’s little operation comes undone. Up on charges of fraud, he’s defended in court by local mob lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), who just so happens to be Russell’s cousin. When Bill introduces his client to his cousin, Russell immediately takes a shine to Frank, bringing him into the Bufalino crime family to carry out money collections, intimidations, and whatever other nasty tasks he requires.
After proving his true worth by eliminating a shifty laundry owner who runs afoul of crime boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Russell introduces Frank to infamous labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who’s in need of a man with Frank’s particular set of skills. The two soon form a tight friendship, with Frank becoming Jimmy’s closest confidante and seemingly the only one who can temper his wild mood swings.
But when recently-elected President John F. Kennedy installs his brother, Bobby (Jack Huston) as Attorney General, Hoffa finds himself the target of Kennedy’s furious pursuit of the mafia. After a stint in jail, the crime lord’s empire starts to slip away from him. Wildly out-of-control, Hoffa threatens to start spilling secrets to the feds, and it soon becomes clear Frank’s loyalty to his good friend is about to be tested.
So let’s get right to the elephant in the room. Much has been made of Scorsese’s first foray into the digital de-aging technology that’s all the rage in Hollywood right now. Look, you can’t blame the filmmaker for wanting to utilise acting heavyweights like De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci for the entirety of a saga that takes place over multiple decades. Younger actors standing in for these indomitable and legendary thespians likely wouldn’t work, even if De Niro won an Oscar for doing just that in The Godfather Part II.
While seeing the three actors magically instantly appear 20-30 years younger is undoubtedly initially distracting, you’ll acclimatise relatively quickly. Given the film’s budget, the visual effects team were clearly spared no expense in pulling this off. When combined with impressive hair and make-up work, the end result is completely seamless. And it’s never at the expense of capturing the stellar performances of three of the greats of the screen.
After spending the last few years in a series of disappointing films, De Niro sinks his teeth into this role, offering a performance with far more life and energy than his recent work. De Niro is required to carry this entire film, and, even at 76, he’s deftly up to the challenge. Pay attention, Academy. We know he can play the unassuming tough guy with his eyes closed. Frank is a seemingly quiet character who can snap in an instance in horrifying ways, typified by his brutal beating of a grocery store manager who manhandles his young daughter.
But it’s in the latter stages of the film that De Niro’s performance takes on a whole new dimension, as the mobster ages into a painfully lonely old man, left to slowly die in a nursing home. Every inch of Frank’s pain is etched on De Niro’s beleaguered face and through his (digitally-altered) icy blue eyes. Racked with guilt over his life of crime and the damage it has caused his family, Frank casts a sad figure of a once-imposing man. It’s a deeply layered performance of a simple man with complicated emotions.
In a battle of two supreme supporting performances, Pacino and Pesci shine with two wildly different characters. Pacino’s bombastic Hoffa is an eccentric egomaniac, prone to outlandish outbursts from his wicked temper, which we know Pacino does so damn well. But there’s an endearing softness to this character that’s surprisingly charming, especially his earnest affection for Frank’s daughter, Peggy (an underused Anna Paquin). Sure, he’s a menacing nutjob, desperate to maintain his waning grip on power. Yet, there’s something about Pacino’s take on the character you can’t help but adore. It’s a dream to see De Niro and Pacino play best pals, with the two sharing some of the film’s greatest moments together.
But it’s Pesci who truly steals focus here, with a performance that’s the total anthesis of his Oscar-winning turn in Goodfellas. Coming out of retirement to dazzle us one more time, Pesci is terrific as the softly-spoken and incredibly wise patriarch of the mob family. While it’s a relatively understated performance, it’s no less powerful than those surrounding him. Every word from Russell’s mouth seemingly has great purpose, delivered by Pesci with perfect timing and impeccable cadence. But for all his quiet serenity, it’s clear Russell is a dangerously ruthless individual, and it’s a credit to Pesci’s performance for crafting something so calm yet so unsettling.
While The Irishman is naturally a story of men, the lack of any true female presence is inescapable. It’s hardly a crime to focus squarely on the masculinity of this narrative. But Scorsese has shown us how he can inject a much-needed dose of female spirit into his previous films, so it’s odd to see it so lacking here. Think of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Sharon Stone in Casino, Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, or Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street.
The film craves a female role like these examples of brilliant Scorsese women. The closest we’re given is Peggy, who catches on to her father’s criminal behaviour from an early age and grows fearful of the man he’s becoming. It creates a painful divide between father and daughter that Peggy refuses to resolve, even in Frank’s final days. But Paquin is given little to do (she literally has two lines of dialogue), with her performance kept internalised and on the periphery. Still, her presence over Frank is omnipresent, and perhaps that’s entirely the point.
With a running time of almost three-and-a-half hours, it’s probably a blessing most will watch The Irishman in the comfort of their loungeroom. This is the kind of cinematic experience that could use an intermission. While the sprawling nature of such an expansive narrative absolutely requires a lengthy amount of time, the film often moves relatively slowly, particularly in its sullen third act. But it’s in this conclusion we see Frank confront his own impending mortality and debilitating past, making it entirely necessary.
Despite its extensive length, The Irishmen becomes more engrossing as it travels on, offering twists and turns to keep its viewer consistently engaged. It’s impossible to fathom what may have been chopped to cut this down to a more commercially palatable running time. Every moment seems entirely necessary to craft Scorsese’s powerful character study. The final act simply wouldn’t have the immense impact it does without the three hours that preceded it.
While it dizzyingly jumps around over several different timelines, it’s edited with an exceptional flow by master editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who makes such a complicated structure work so brilliantly well. She may well need to make room for her fourth (!) Academy Award in a few months. It also helps we can use the digital de-aging as a signal to which era we’ve found ourselves in, supplemented by the sublime period costume designs of Christopher Peterson and Sandy Powell and meticulous production design by Bob Shaw.
On its surface, The Irishman is another of Scorsese’s brilliant portraits of crime and all the violence, excess, mayhem, and corruption that comes along with it. But at its core, this is an intimate character study of a man who must grapple with the crippling moral conflict a life of crime carries. Frank is a man who sold his soul long ago, and it’s only in the final stages of his life does he realise what that has cost him.