REVIEW: The Irishman (2019)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of The Irishman — Directed by Martin Scorsese.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Martin Scorsese would arguably be on the Mt. Rushmore of American filmmakers if such a thing existed. When Scorsese laments the supposed death of cinema or questions the artistic merit of modern blockbusters, you listen to him for the simple reason that few people know the medium, the power of cinema, or the industry as well as he does. His understanding of the power of what is within or out of the frame of cinema is indescribable. Though his detractors may suggest that he is a glorified gangster film director, nothing could be further from the truth. With The Irishman, Martin Scorsese has given us a haunting and elegiac historical epic disguised as a greatest hits gangster film that stresses that, even in the autumn of his life, the master hasn’t missed a beat.

Based on Charles Brandt’s nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman chronicles the life of Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), an alleged hitman, who claimed that, among other things, he knew what happened to Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino). The film shows how Sheeran rose through the ranks of both the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Bufalino crime family, before he allegedly, eventually, ended up at the center of one of the most infamous unsolved mysteries of the 20th Century.

In its first hours, one of the more dominant thoughts that I had about this mountain of a film — with a runtime of 209 minutes — was that they simply don’t make films like this one anymore. The Irishman may, in its first hours, make you feel nostalgic. Scorsese knows that you’ve followed his career in making crime films, and he knows what you expect. Yes, there is a pitch-perfect soundtrack. Yes, the cast is unrivaled and star-studded. Yes, it is era-appropriate. And yes, the meticulous attention to detail also means that it is a true crime epic, which is to say that even cutting one or two additional scenes to make the runtime more palatable would be to damage the product. As is eventually revealed, The Irishman is essentially an American history lesson from someone — Sheeran — who bemoans his own impact on history itself. Scorsese knows that this is a genre he has taught us everything about, and he eventually reveals the potent theme that makes The Irishman feel almost unique.

“I never understood how they could just keep digging their own graves.”

Having been stuck in development hell for more than a decade, The Irishman has now seen the light of day and, thankfully, I doubt it could’ve turned out any better. A lesser filmmaker might’ve ignored powerful and universal themes that ultimately make The Irishman more than just another carbon copy of Scorsese’s earlier works. In 2019, we’ve seen films from Lorene Scafaria and Todd Phillips — Hustlers and Joker — achieve great popularity by essentially making updated versions of Scorsese’s classics. At times, Joker, especially, felt like nothing more than an imitation of Scorsese’s work with DC Comics trademarks spraypainted all over it. Though The Irishman may appear to be going in that direction, Scorsese, however, doesn’t fall into the trap of simply having remade something he has done to death. The Irishman is more than just geriatric Goodfellas. Never before has a Scorsese film about immoral criminals felt as profoundly sad and remorseful as The Irishman feels. Martin Scorsese, who is now in his late 70s, has used a genre that he has mastered time and time again to now confront issues of regret and mortality that may overwhelm most of us in our declining years.

The Irishman feels personal. Eerily, it feels like a swan song for Scorsese, Pesci, Pacino, and De Niro. This will probably be the last gangster film that Scorsese makes, and it almost definitely is the last time all of these iconic performers will be on the screen together for a new film. Scorsese taps into an overwhelming feeling of regret and a crushing feeling of finality. This is a film about remorse and mortality. It is there for you to realize from the first to the last scene of the film, but you don’t realize how integral to the film this feeling of finality is until the second half of the film. But make no mistake, Scorsese has planted the seeds masterfully. The film opens with a tracking shot in a retirement home, where De Niro’s character is sitting lonely by himself watching the clock tick by. He tells his stories — gives his confessions — directly to the camera as if we are the only one interested in listening to him. He has burned down every bridge he has ever built or wasted his opportunity for relevance, and now he sits and waits for a crushing ending that he isn’t ready to deal with. Throughout the film, Scorsese, and longtime editing-collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, freeze-frames on smiling criminals and details how each of them met their demise. It isn’t done with a knowing wink, rather it is meant to highlight how suddenly the sands of time can slip out of your hands without you realizing it. The bodies keep tallying up, but the wrinkly Sheeran still sits there on his own with nothing to do but punish himself for his betrayals and immoral deeds. Time always catches up with you, consequences last, and Scorsese shows it beautifully here. There is a sequence of scenes somewhat late in the film, where all of the era-appropriate music, which has lulled you into a false sense of security, goes away. You’re left with white-hot and crippling conflict from De Niro’s Sheeran, and some of the most tension-filled and regretful silences of Scorsese’s career. These are haunting and uncomfortable scenes, and they take the wind out of you.

De Niro is one of the best actors of the 20th Century, but, as I looked over Robert De Niro’s filmography after the film came to an end, I was reminded just how different his career has been since this century began. These last two decades, he is best known for comedic performances. Young audiences know him best as one of the parents in Meet the Parents, and, other than maybe Silver Linings Playbook, he hasn’t given a truly outstanding performance in more serious motion pictures in many, many years. But, in The Irishman, Robert De Niro is revitalized in more ways than one. This is undoubtedly his best dramatic work in at least two decades. Though much of the first half of the film positions him as an agreeable but dangerous middle-man, it is the pain and remorse that De Niro brings to life that makes his performance as Frank Sheeran truly memorable. Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to team-up with Scorsese and De Niro for one final cinematic go-around, is surprisingly but effectively quiet and understated in The Irishman. It is a privilege to see him be so outrageously compelling in a new film, and his final scenes — what may be his final scenes ever on-screen if he goes back into retirement — were absolutely devastating to me.

Though Scorsese had never worked with Pacino prior to The Irishman, you wouldn’t know it from watching this film. This is easily Pacino’s best performance in a very long time, and it is definitely my favorite performance of his from the last two or three decades. He is incredibly charming but loud and short-fused, and you eventually fall for the friendship that his character has with Sheeran. Of course, absolutely no one is going to be surprised that Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci all are so outstanding together, but, to reiterate, they all give some of the best performances of the year. Much has been made about how few lines of dialogue the film’s most important female character has. Anna Paquin plays Sheeran’s oldest adult daughter, and, while it is true that she doesn’t say a lot in this film, Paquin does more with maybe ten words of dialogue than some actors do with ten pages. The power with which she asks her father a pointed question is soul-crushing. She brings every ounce of her being into that line delivery, and she deserves so much more credit than she is going to get.

For months, fans of Scorsese have been nervous about Scorsese’s interest in visual effects in The Irishman. Though this film tells the story of most of Frank Sheeran’s adult life, which is to say that it spans several decades, Scorsese has decided not to use different actors to portray Sheeran, Hoffa, or Russell Bufalino (played by Joe Pesci) over the course of their lives. Instead, Scorsese has adopted the trend of digital de-aging to show actors like Pesci, Pacino, and De Niro at different points in their character’s lives. I feared that this decision would be extremely distracting and thus ruinous for the final product. However, Scorsese has, for the most part, gotten away with the digital de-aging trickery. This is probably the best digital de-aging has looked in natural lighting, and you actually do get used to seeing De Niro’s digitally touched-up face. Other than Sheeran’s piercing blue eyes, I think the most distracting thing about the digital de-aging is that it doesn’t fix the characters’ movements. In particular, one scene at a corner store reveals that the central character’s movements are made by someone who is much older than Sheeran is supposed to be in that scene.

This is not just a retread. This film feels personal. It is a surprisingly ruminative film that is arguably Scorsese’s most mature crime film. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a mournful knockout. It is a reflective masterpiece with a sobering and sometimes both remorseful and tension-filled final hour. Needless to say, this is one of the greatest films of the year.

10 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Irishman (2019)

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