Martin Scorsese has made no secret of his disdain for superhero movies. However, there’s more than a hint of Avengers: Endgame in his latest gangster opus. The Irishman unites many of the most famous faces from Scorsese’s rep company of actors and tells a story that feels like Goodfellas filtered through the prism of Silence – a more mature, thoughtful work from a filmmaker with reflection on his mind.
Headlines have focused on many elements of this project, with plenty of column inches devoted to the film’s home on Netflix and the ballooning budget deployed to facilitate the de-aging effects which allow the cast to play the characters throughout their lives. However, those issues feel like small potatoes in the face of the movie itself. It’s a titanic, towering crime drama with a tangled narrative web to fit its epic runtime. It’s pure cinema as only a maestro like Scorsese can deliver.
Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is the Irishman of the title – a truck driver who befriends gangland boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and ultimately becomes involved in the corruption of labour unions through organised crime. He forms a close, fraternal friendship with union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), which is often useful to his criminal buddies, but also presents problems when ideologies don’t quite match. Frank is a hitman, obviously, but he’s also an agent of compromise.
It’s a phenomenal performance from De Niro, who underplays almost every scene beautifully in his portrayal of a man dealing with the weight of his actions. This is a guy who “paints houses” – mob slang for the bloody aftermath of a successful hit – but he’s also fiercely moral, loyal and driven by respect. The wiseguys of Goodfellas preached respect while dealing dirty and being wrecked by paranoia behind the scenes, but The Irishman feels like a world in which respect is a genuine and immovable way of life.
This is De Niro better than he has been in years, genuinely motivated and giving his all to a role with real weight. While the de-aging effects are most obvious on him – the attempt to digitally replicate the twinkle of his eyes creates a look of demonic possession – his performance is able to entirely escape the uncanny valley by virtue of sheer acting prowess. Joe Pesci’s return to the screen is very welcome indeed and this is Al Pacino in the best form he has shown in years – big and broad but, crucially, controlled and layered. With the addition of the likes of Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons and Anna Paquin in supporting roles, this is a stellar ensemble.
But the true star of The Irishman is Scorsese. The milieu of the American mob is a home from home for him and he slots right back into the world of his past greatness, constructing an evocation of 20th century America that is so textured and lived-in that it’s a genuine joy to exist within it. The three and a half hour running time is intimidating on paper, but it flies by thanks to Scorsese’s directorial affection and Steven Zaillian’s script, adapted from Charles Brandt’s biography of Sheeran.
While this is undoubtedly a more mature Scorsese gangster picture, it loses none of the energy his fans will expect and is surprisingly funny, with lashings of dark comedy. The violence is less explicit than it has been in the past, with emphasis placed on how suddenly it arrives and how quickly it’s over, leaving those in the orbit of it to feel the long-lasting impact. It feels like Scorsese casting a magnifying glass over his own past in order to explore what violence really means. The Irishman is often as much about characters trying to avoid bloodshed as it is about them getting their hands dirty.
It’s also a reflective movie about the passage of time, with scenes of the elderly De Niro grappling with the inherently temporary nature of actions that seemed all-consuming at the time. Characters have lived, died and been forgotten during his time on the planet, barely leaving a ripple in their wake. In that sense, the movie is unmistakably the work of a man in his seventies, thinking deeply about his own impact and legacy upon the world. This feels every bit as personal for Scorsese as Silence did in 2016. In the same way that Clint Eastwood appeared to close the book on his Western career with the definitive, declarative statement of Unforgiven, this feels like Scorsese bringing an illustrious chapter to a close and doing so in an elegant fashion.
Quite simply, The Irishman exudes sophistication and class from every frame. Not all of its headline-grabbing digital trickery completely works, but the story is so strong that none of that really matters. Three and a half hours is scarcely long enough to luxuriate in Scorsese’s immaculately crafted world of gangsters, in which every gliding camera shot and musical needle drop – Fred Parris and the Satins’ quintessentially 50s track In the Still of the Night is a recurring motif – matters immensely and feels entirely necessary.
This is the work of a filmmaker who knows exactly who he is, what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. And when that filmmaker is Martin Scorsese, it’s a delight to be along for the ride.
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Scr: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, Stephanie Kurtzuba
Prd: Youree Henley, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub
DOP: Jody Lee Lipes
Music: Nate Heller
Run time: 209 mins
The Irishman is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival and is in UK cinemas from 8th November, before debuting on Netflix on 27th November.