The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★½

Early on in Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) meets with crime boss, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and talks about his time as a soldier in World War II. Reflecting on his experience, Frank remembers the way prisoners would keep their heads down and put the work in while vigorously digging their own graves - “I always wondered why they kept digging”, he says to Russell. And in that one moment, Frank summarizes this newest film from Martin Scorsese.

The Irishman has been treated as many things in the build-up to it’s release, a homecoming, a summation, a swan song; this is after all Scorsese returning to the gangster film working with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. I feel like it must be said right off the bat though, that if you’re hoping for a sequel to ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘The Departed’ then you might be in the wrong place. The Irishman follows Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who finds himself slowly wrapped up in the business of the Bufalino crime family eventually taking up a job as a hitman. Over the next 50 years we follow Frank’s life as it takes him everywhere from friendship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) right up to the assassination of JFK. It could sound here like Scorsese is simply retreading old ground, but The Irishman is far different his older crime films. This is a film by a man who has experienced a life lived and now is taking stock of what he leaves behind. Scorsese delivers a film that is far more contemplative and even-paced than most of his past gangster films. Gone is the youthful coke-fueled energy of the 1980s replaced here with existential soul searching, it’s as if the decades of citing his love of Ingmar Bergman have finally started to echo into his own work. This is not to say that The Irishman is a completely dour experience though, this is after all still a Scorsese crime film. We get the tension fueled hit jobs, the dramatic rise and falls, the rock and roll music cues, and the amoral but endlessly charismatic cast of characters. 

It’s almost redundant to say that a cast filled with some of the greatest actors of the last half century of film are good here, but they truly are extraordinary. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion though, Pacino and De Niro have spent most of the last decade sleepwalking their way through dud after dud, and Pesci, returns to cinema after retiring almost 15 years ago. In The Irishman though, all three actors seem to be truly re-energized, pouring their heart and soul into each character, especially Pesci. While I’ve always been a fan of Pesci and his work, he’s always been a very showy manic presence on-screen, and yet in Russell Bufalino, he cuts an intimidating but understated character. Never once does Pesci have to raise his voice or even a finger, he communicates so much quiet intensity with just a look or a change of inflection. It’s honestly just a thrill for most of the film to spend time in this world with these actors all in peak form, that alone is worth the price of admission.

A lot of the talking going into The Irishman had been about the digital de-aging for the actors which caused the budget to inflate to a point that made it so hard for Scorsese to find financing in the first place. I will say, I had some skepticism about this and even initially worried they were warranted as some early scenes played out with a bit of an uncanny valley effect. As the film rolled on, however, I not only found myself growing used to it but also appreciating it. The digital de-aging does allow us to truly appreciate the passage of time as it appears on the actors faces, something that holds more weight as the film progresses. The more we flash back in time, that which initially appeared uncanny seems to blend with the desaturated Kodachrome coloring to create something that feels slightly dreamlike, as if we’re not experiencing the event as it was but as it was remembered. 

And those memories, that passage of time, that’s what Scorsese wants for you to feel. The film itself clocks in at a whopping three and a half hours. Some moments in this film feel as if they last forever, taking in every detail of the event, while others blend together and zip right by much in the same way we observe time in our own lives. And as you find yourself nearing the end, you start to wonder how you got there, how it all came so quick, and what has it all been for. You sense these aren’t questions that Scorsese is asking of his characters but also of himself and his audience. It’s no mere coincidence the actors Scorsese had to return to in order to tell this story, it’s no coincidence the genre he needed to tell this story in, and it’s no coincidence that the opening shot mirrors that of his iconic Copacabana tracking shot. This is the greatest American filmmaker of all-time appearing before us in his final years, looking back at his legacy, and questioning what it is he leaves behind. Throughout Scorsese’s entire career he has told stories that wrestle with humanity’s darkest impulses, with the seedier parts of life, and what drives us into these worlds. It’s that darkness though that has caused some critics to look at his legacy as little more than a glamorization of violence, greed, and power. To those then, The Irishman is Scorsese’s penance; it would be near impossible to find anything glorious about these men or their world. The Irishman forces it’s characters to atone not just for their own sins, but those of Scorsese’s past criminals and killers. Throughout The Irishman, Frank has been sending men to an early grave, it’s only at the end can he see the one he’s been digging for himself all along.

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