Sprawling, ambitious, beautifully performed, edited and shot, The Irishman is a welcome return to the criminal underbelly of America for Martin Scorsese.
But this is no retread of his mobster classics Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Rather, it’s an evolution of his take on the crime genre, more deliberately paced and politically charged than its predecessors. More clinical and nonchalant in its dealings with death, though just as deadly nonetheless. It shares DNA not only with Scorsese’s crime epics but also with the ruminations of his under-watched 2016 film Silence, working as a culmination of all that he’s offered up to date. This is a top-tier director given the freedom to work with the best technical and acting talent in the business, and in return, he’s served up a three and a half hour, decades-spanning saga that’s more than worthy of his name.
Just as he did in Goodfellas, Scorsese tracks the rise of one man through the ranks of the criminal world. But whereas for Goodfellas’ Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) the glitz and glamour of the mob scene was something he aspired to (and that would ultimately be his downfall), The Irishman’s Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a more practical protagonist, his skill set developed in World War II lending itself perfectly to a less than glamorous life as a hitman. Skills that make him invaluable to his mentor Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and to charismatic union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
We meet Sheeran towards the tail end of his life, an old man in a nursing home recounting his past. And there’s much to tell, the film covering from the 1940s right through to the early 2000s, the cast digitally de-aged with remarkable effect, rolling back the years to transform De Niro and company from aged to youthful and back again. It’s technology that’s been employed several times before by now, Captain Marvel notably chopping twenty-odd years off Samuel L. Jackson for its entire run, but its application on so many characters for such a large portion of what is a lengthy film is significant. Even more so when you consider just how believable its execution is. It’s the visual effects working in conjunction with the actor’s changing physicality as the years roll on that really sells it.
All three of the leads – De Niro, Pacino and Pesci – are unsurprisingly magnetic throughout. Pesci’s at his most subtle, cool and calculated. Pacino bursts with personality, filling every scene he’s in with his presence. And De Niro runs the gamut of emotions with more nuance than most mere mortals can manage. A scene late on, a simple phone call, encapsulates De Niro’s performance best, full of depth and inner conflict, but never overblown. Watching the trio interact on screen together is a treat. The larger ensemble fare just as well, another of the film’s statesmen Harvey Keitel leaves an impression, while Stephen Graham proves himself more than capable of keeping pace with his heavyweight co-stars.
And for his cast, Scorsese has crafted a world of violence and corruption, one that’s evolving and moving with time, shot with a constantly roaming camera to match. The film clocks in at a genuinely tightly edited 209 minutes, and Scorsese utilises each one of them, continually pushing the narrative on with his patented blend of character-driven humour, intensity and tragedy. A journey through the decades that’s easy to get swept up in, cinema by one of cinema’s finest. More’s the pity that most will end up catching it on its home on Netflix instead of on its limited theatrical release. Just be sure to lock away those distractions, it’s a film that undoubtedly deserves your complete attention.
Rating (out of 5):