The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★½

Martin Scorsese has fashioned an absorbing, autumnal character piece. It’s a masterclass of integrated filmmaking with every element thought through and realised with immaculate craft and attention to detail. I expect this is a film that will impress even more on subsequent re-watches, but even on this first viewing in cinema format, it is clearly a great work.

The Irishman is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), now elderly and counting down his days in a nursing home, reflecting on his life as a loyal mobster for his long-time boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). This framing device allows the film to drop into different stages of his life, in particular a road trip Frank and Russell and their wives made in the 70s, and the pre-story leading up to that trip set over the preceding 20 years. There is also a scene of Frank from his time as a soldier in WWII, which provides important context to his ability to carry out violent acts and follow orders.

What we get is a sprawling, though tightly constructed history of a man, father to four girls, who ascends from being a truck driver dabbling in larceny, to becoming a job-man for the local mafia, and to being installed as bodyguard and friend to charismatic union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). This rising up through the ranks of organised crime gives us a remarkable insight into the politics of the era, with its corruption and the shifting mechanisms of power. We see how the mafia infiltrated the different layers of institutional America, from unions to the CIA to federal politicians and even the President.

The long running time allows this detail to be meticulously laid out, but it never feels like a lecture. The whole thing is organically told through the story of Frank and Russell and Jimmy and the many wonderfully drawn supporting characters. The film’s pacing is superb. Despite the duration, it never feels laboured, instead there is a steady pulse that drives the film inexorably towards Frank’s last days. There is a notable absence of the showy bravura of many of Scorsese’s earlier films. Instead we get a subtle twisting and looping of a storyline that draws us into the characters and their world, and builds a quiet intensity that is only released towards the very end of the film.

The script by Steven Zaillian, based on a book by Charles Brandt, is great. The dialogue is rich and the vernacular fascinating, with plenty of turns of phrase providing colour, humour and depth to the characters. The editing and music are less flashy than normal for Scorsese, but both are integral to the pacing of the film, helping establish and maintain its heartbeat and serving the story rather than providing a visceral thrill.

The de-aging technology worked well. I didn’t find it distracting and certainly less so than the equivalent of seeing a different actor taking on the younger roles, or the use of makeup and prosthetics to create the illusion of youth. My only disappointment with the technology, or at least the use of it, was that it didn’t reach further back in time. I would have dearly loved to have been able to see these great actors reborn in their 20’s, without their old man bulk. Instead we are served middle-aged versions of their older frames, but it’s still kind of magical.

The acting is uniformly excellent. De Niro finally returns to form, with an understated but expressive portrait of a flawed man. Pacino is equally strong with a showier and charismatic turn that totally convinces. Pesci is brilliant and lights up the screen with soft-spoken authority to leave you in no doubt of what he is capable of. Anna Paquin as Frank’s grown-up daughter Peggy is fine in a largely silent, observational role, bearing witness to Frank’s violence and amorality. But overall I felt Peggy’s relationship with Frank was one of the few missteps in the film, never developing beyond a sketch outline and therefore failing to fully convince. I think this is why I may not have felt the same intense emotional response as others to the ending of the film.

Other reviewers have raved about how moving the last half hour is. We get to learn of Frank’s fate, and that of the many friends he has known, and of his strained relationships with his daughters, and this amounts to a touching portrait of a man whose life has run its course. What I admired about the ending was the lack of sentimentality. Scorsese keeps it true to Frank’s character. We see a man who is not remorseful. He did what he had to do in his life. But now it’s only his memories that distinguish him from the other sad and lonely old men waiting things out in the nursing home.

By the end of the Irishman, it feels like the end of the Scorsese/De Niro era. We are left with an old Bobby, no longer wiry and coiled, no longer in his prime, not even a bull raging against the dying of the light. He just wants the priest to leave the door ajar so he can see the light shine in a little longer. A gentle whimper. No more bangs. The final shot of the film is an exquisite tiny climax like the last dying ember of a raging forest fire.

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