nolan of palo alto’s review published on Letterboxd:
THE IRISHMAN feels like the film Martin Scorsese was born to make. It's just that he had to wait until he made masterpieces that branded themselves as staples of American cinema, crossing different genres and different decades. THE IRISHMAN feels like such an ending, such a reflection on not just Scorsese’s career, but a certain brand of films that he and these actors were apart of for so many years. Beginning with THE GODFATHER films and progressing into works such as SCARFACE, then to ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, to GOODFELLAS, to CASINO, to THE DEPARTED, and now to THE IRISHMAN, which feels like the swan song of these iconic gangster flicks. The film has been referred to as elegiac numerous times in reviews and there really is no better one word to describe THE IRISHMAN.
Out of the films I mentioned (granted I still need to see ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA), THE IRISHMAN is the one film where I truly felt the devastation of murder and its costs. People get killed, and Scorsese really makes you consume the horrors of killing through a mundane way of presenting them. It’s hard to articulate what it is exactly Scorsese does differently, and I won’t even go into too much detail with certain examples because I want you all to go in not knowing as much as possible. I’m also not saying that what Scorsese has done with his films in the past is wrong. This is just a more mature way of him expressing these ideas through completely different characters than his previous mob films.
Funny enough, walking out of the theatre, the de-aging/cgi technology is pretty much the last thing you will want to discuss because there is just so much thematic and character work that leaves you emotionally scarred and ready to discuss everything but the cgi, which if it does eventually get brought up into the conversation, which it did with my brother who I saw the film with, odds are what will be said was that the technology was incorporated well and didn’t distract from the film too much. The effects are there, you’ll notice them when you see them, but so many other heavy cinematic components snatch the upper hand of your attention very quickly.
While the pacing deliberately varies, THE IRISHMAN may just be the fastest three and a half hours a film can be. Thelma as an editor is an absolute legend and her and Scorsese naturally craft so many scenes with energy and rhythm as usual. Along with the rhythm of the film, the structure is fascinating and executed to perfection. I would say the film ventures through four completely different terrains. For the sake of your enjoyment, I will not state what exactly each terrain covers, but you will undoubtedly know what I’m talking about when you see the film. What really impressed me was Scorsese and Thelma confidently choosing a different pace depending on the content of the segment. Scorsese has done this in the past with GOODFELLAS and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET for example, where the lively frenetic and dynamic pace disappears towards the end in service of the darker outcomes of these lifestyles. This technique has never been as present as it is in THE IRISHMAN. It more than just makes a statement, it really throws you into some horrible situations that you just really wouldn’t want to be in in your own life.
The pacing is just one technique of many in THE IRISHMAN where film form perfectly reflects the themes of the story and what the characters represent externally vs. what they feel internally. This film made me think about so many things that we as human beings do not think about enough. Say someone dies or gets killed, how much do we really care? If we do care, why do we care? Do we care because this person was famous? Do we care because we knew this person? Do we think we care? Why do we get over the deaths of some? Did we even truly feel the weight of a certain death? Can we be sorry for someone without feeling anything within us? How guilty do we feel? How guilty should we feel? I think this film has the power to influence our real lives and perhaps cause us to appreciate the magnitude of death a little more. To be honest, even if we do only just for a while, then that is a testament to the film's success. Much like other classic gangster pics, THE IRISHMAN also depicts the traits of the irony of morality under the context of these mafioso lifestyles. What is good behaviour, what must we stand for, what is right vs. what is wrong, and what are the consequences for misbehaviour. While the characters in these films are usually despicable human beings, they are still meant to follow a moral code. It’s just that these worlds are extremely heightened and punishments are painfully severe. With THE IRISHMAN, it really felt like the punishments themselves had internal consequences on the perpetrator and especially on the audience.
I saw much of THE IRISHMAN as a subversion of Scorsese’s gangster tropes. The film opens with a needle drop of a classic 1950's song by The Five Satins and a tracking shot, really making us feel like we are in a Scorsese picture. Only this time there's a different feeling in the air because of where we are tracking through. There are a couple scenes that deliberately and subtlety harken the iconography of images and sequences in GOODFELLAS, only this time Scorsese flips it on its head. Think of Henry’s anxiety induced and cocaine fuelled day of countless errands and overwhelming paranoia in GOODFELLAS. That day is extraordinarily intense, vital to the story, and Scorsese’s technical prowess reflects Henry’s paranoia. In THE IRISHMAN, you can pinpoint similar sequences on paper that are vital to the story and to the main character, only Scorsese shoots them in a completely different way because Frank Sheeran was so much of a different man than Henry Hill was. The difference between these two infamous gangsters really communicates to us why GOODFELLAS and THE IRISHMAN have major but essential differences.
If you are one like me who is heavily familiar with the gangster epics that I mentioned at the start of my review, and one who also has deep knowledge of Scorsese’s filmography, then you will notice actors, audio, and visual motifs almost functioning as easter eggs that will remind you of Scorsese’s career as well as a history of classic films. I personally found that this added deeper meaning to the film and its self-reflexive nature, whether that was intentional or not. Generations come together and different films feel as though they come together. Yes Pacino’s performance is astounding and he acts like Jimmy Hoffa, so of course it was right to cast him. But Pacino was also in THE GODFATHER films. Yes Cry and Pretend You Don’t See Her are both fantastic pieces of music that fit perfectly in the films given scenes, but one was also in SHUTTER ISLAND and one was also in GOODFELLAS. There are even more, and you could view this as fan service, although, the content of the film again feels elegiac already and thus this fan service adds to the reflecting theme and the idea that THE IRISHMAN is the swan song of all of these classic films (if only he played Gimme Shelter hahaha).
People are going to debate as to who gave the best performance in the film, and any choice would have great validity. Halfway through I thought Pacino, at the end I thought De Niro, and right now I’m thinking Pesci. Each character feels so different than the other, so it feels irrelevant and futile to choose a favourite. While they all contradict one another in a sense, they collate into a group of layered characters that not only put MCU characters to shame (sorry I brought that up), they also are people that I don’t think Scorsese has ever portrayed before. Russell Bufalino is professional, calm, polite, seemingly goodhearted, and while he is a gangster, he seems to care about the greater good of people. Jimmy Hoffa seemingly cares about the greater good of people, but does he really? Is Jimmy in love with the people of his Teamsters Union or is he just in love with owning the union. Jimmy is intensely hubris and at first I found that to be his flaw, yet I also couldn’t blame the man for being this way under certain circumstances. Frank is perhaps the most layered of them all. Is Frank good or bad? His horrible actions almost always have good reason for them to act out... but they are still criminal. What does Frank feel? What is he thinking? De Niro achieves this ambiguous nature perfectly. Peggy is deliberately under-utilized, which creates another trait to Frank. Peggy feels like the audience, looking at her father unsure of how to feel about him, a complicated thought that is vital to the film. Funny enough, Scorsese’s recent and beautiful New York Times op-ed unintentionally describes THE IRISHMAN pretty well: “For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves”.
I’d compare the emotional impact THE IRISHMAN has had on me to that of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING. Both express so much in one film and both of their endings force you to reflect on what you just watched. The characters in these films are deeply effected by the events that happened in their lives and with THE IRISHMAN as I said manages to go beyond just the film itself. Overall this has Scorsese's technical skill and show offs of CASINO, the narrative tension of THE DEPARTED, the emotional impact of RAGING BULL, the compelling character dynamics and iconography of GOODFELLAS, and the meditative nature of SILENCE. It’s been quite a long time since a film has penetrated me this hard cinematically and emotionally. A definitive classic is what THE IRISHMAN is no doubt and a necessary viewing in the cinema if it plays near you. The most impressive film of the year and a staple of late era Scorsese. I still cannot comprehend how Scorsese pulled this off so well. He is such a special filmmaker with an insanely impressive skillset imperative for study and it is all on complete display in THE IRISHMAN.