The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★★

When looking over the pantheon of great American filmmakers, few have displayed the same willingness to continually take risks throughout their career as Martin Scorsese. During a period that now spans over five decades the legendary director has consistently distinguished himself from his peers through a diverse and wide-ranging number of films, notable for their exemplary filmmaking craft, their daring, and the sincerity of their personal artistic vision. Looking at Scorsese's output in the last decade in particular, one can't help but be impressed with his creative output this late in his career. From the psychological thriller Shutter Island (2010), the family adventure Hugo (2011), the satirical black comedy The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the religious epic Silence (2016), as well as two rock documentaries on George Harrison and Bob Dylan, respectfully, Scorsese has continued to take his cinema to new and unexpected places. How fitting it is then that he would conclude this most fertile decade of filmmaking by returning to the genre he is perhaps most closely associated with, the gangster film, with The Irishman, a beautifully realized, deeply engrossing crime epic that may well stand as Scorsese's final commentary on the gangster picture.

That The Irishman also see's Scorsese reuniting with his longtime muse Robert DeNiro as well as so many other familiar faces is also very fitting. Adapted by screenwriter Steve Zaillian from Charles Brandt's 2004 novel I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman concerns the rise to power of Frank "The Irishman"Sheeran (DeNiro), as he recounts his life story as an old man from a nursing home in the twilight of his life. A World War II veteran who got his first taste of killing while fighting overseas, he would return from the war to Pennsylvania and take a job as a truck driver for the meat packing industry, selling some shipments off to local gangsters to make extra cash. When accused formally by the company in court, Sheeran endears himself to lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) by refusing to name associates. The lawyer introduces him to his cousin Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a powerful mobster and the head of the northeast Pennsylvania crime family. It's not long after that Sheeran is doing hits on behalf of his new mob family, while reaping the benefits the lifestyle affords his family. As Sheeran continues to rise up the ranks Russell eventually introduces him to infamous Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) who is struggling to maintain his hold over the union thanks to mounting pressures from the FBI as well as competition from other mobsters. Hoffa and Sheeran become closely linked from here, Hoffa a regular fixture at family functions of Sheeran's, while Sheeran becomes Hoffa's trusted bodyguard and enforcer. Of course, the election of another Irishman, John F. Kennedy, to the presidency in 1960 signals a changing of the guard is set to come in the following decade, and from here it's not long before Sheeran finds his loyalties uncertain as Hoffa's actions grow more erratic and both men must confront the harsh realities of what the future may bring.

There's no question Scorsese has always been, alongside Francis Ford Coppola, the chronicler-in-chief of the American Mafia on film, and on paper one might suspect this kind of gangland opus is old hat for Scorsese, having already explored this territory so effectively in efforts as wide ranging as Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Departed (2007). What distinguishes The Irishman from those films, however, is the understated quality of the writing and direction that colors so much of the action throughout. This is a quiet film in many stretches that places an emphasis on the specifics of mob politics, the shady dealings that go on behind the scenes through hushed whispers over meals at restaurants or in backrooms at parties and banquets, where coded terms (such as "painting houses") are used to infer violence that happens largely off screen. When violence does erupt Scorsese presents it with a matter-of-fact horror. Credit these qualities in part to screenwriter Zaillian's top-notch screenplay, perhaps his best since Schindler's List (1993), another historical drama from one of the all time great directors and a fellow New Hollywood alum. In other words, The Irishman feels very much like an old man's film, just as Goodfellas, for example, was the work of a younger, albeit veteran filmmaker in complete command of his cinematic gifts. The elder statesman of cinema Scorsese, now 77 years old, seems to be looking back on his own career and art, and indeed the gangster picture, in much the same way that his Sheeran looks back soberly on his own life and the choices that came to define him.

In this regard, the film that The Irishman reminds me of the most is another late career masterpiece from an iconoclast auteur, that being Sergio Leone's crime epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984), which also stars DeNiro as an aging gangster looking back on a lifetime of violence with impotent sadness. In the lead role of Frank Sheeran, DeNiro delivers one of his best performances in years, especially in latter scenes as Sheeran is left with an empty ache, having been left isolated and alone through the life of crime and violence he became entrenched in. Al Pacino, finally working with Scorsese after so many years of speculation on how the two titans would mesh together, relishes the opportunity to chew the scenery as Jimmy Hoffa while disappearing into the character. Joe Pesci is also terrific in an understated role, a character who is often the calm, quiet voice of reason, completely unlike the loose canon psychopaths he portrayed famously in Scorsese's other gangster pictures. I also very much enjoyed the brief supporting turn of Scorsese's other longtime on-screen collaborator Harvey Keitel, and Anna Paqauin is also wonderful late in the picture as Sheeran's adult daughter who can't reconcile her father with his actions. Much has been written about the de-aging technology that is used here to digitally make the actors appear younger in the flashback scenes and what some perceive as the "uncanny valley" effect it generates. It's a little jarring at first, but after a few minutes one is able to get caught up in the drama on-screen and eventually as a viewer I didn't really notice it, which is ultimately the purpose of any special effect in film.

For a picture that clocks in at just under 3 hours and 30 minutes The Irishman moves with a great deal of economy, never anything less than compelling from the first frame to the last. The Irishman will be released on Netflix as a flagship title for the popular streaming platform, however it really is recommended that filmgoers should see the picture on the big screen in theaters if possible, where the experience can truly be savored and appreciated as only the best cinema can. In any format, however, The Irishman is a tour de force, a beautiful and elegiac crime saga rendered with wisdom towards human nature and a world-weary outlook on how power and violence corrupts absolutely.

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