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Review: The Irishman

November 27, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a return to the mob movies that have defined his career, opens with a steadicam tracking shot that calls to mind the one from his 1990 classic Goodfellas.

Only his camera here moves at a slower pace, taking us through the halls of a retirement home instead of the Copacabana night club, and this scene is quite appropriately set to “In the Still of the Night” instead of the more upbeat “Then He Kissed Me,” which provided the soundtrack for its earlier counterpart.

Everything here is more relaxed than it was before, and this scene perfectly sets the stage for what is to come. While The Irishman is a longer and more laid-back film than Goodfellas, as evidenced immediately by the different energies of their impressive tracking shots, it very much feels like a counterpart to that earlier Scorsese classic. Think of it as a late-career callback to it, if you will.

Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, which has been adapted for the screen by Steven Zaillian, The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an Irish truck driver and union worker in Pennsylvania in the 1950s, who becomes connected to the Italian mob boss Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), and starts taking jobs as a hitman for the Mafia. Through Buffalino, Sheeran also gets to know and starts working for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the powerful head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who served as president of the union and famously disappeared in 1975.

This is a dense work that unfolds through flashbacks and flash-forwards and is rich with interactions between these men, drawing connections between the Mafia, the unions and the political world. The film documents a variety of historical events, including the 1963 assassination of President John F, Kennedy, who was elected with the help of the mob in 1960, only to have them turn on him after he appointed his brother Robert Kennedy attorney general, who started cracking down on the Mafia and appointed a special team to take down Hoffa. The film doesn’t directly go into “who killed Kennedy?” conspiracy theories, but the connections are there to be made.

Right off the bat, there is something instantly appealing about seeing De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, each acting legends in their own right, onscreen together. While De Niro and Pesci have great histories with Scorsese through their previous collaborations with the director, this is Pacino’s first time working with the legendary filmmaker. Each of the men deliver some of their finest work. De Niro is able to show the full range of what he is capable of as an actor; Pesci steals every scene, reminding us what a charismatic screen presence he can be; and Pacino, coming out of retirement at Scorsese’s request to take on the role of Hoffa, delivers a towering performance befitting of his status as one of the greats.

De Niro, Pesci and Pacino are also able to play themselves throughout the different eras depicted in the film thanks to digital de-aging, which was done by Industrial Light & Magic, and this extensive visual effects work mostly fades into the background so as not to distract from the story. Through the help of computers, the three actors – who are all in their seventies – are able to appear as if they are once again middle-aged, and they also physically adjusted their postures on set to move as younger men.

The film’s large supporting cast also includes, among others, Harvey Keitel as Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno; Ray Romano as Russell’s cousin, union lawyer Bill Buffalino; Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s foster son Chuckie O’Brien; and Anna Paquin as the adult version of Sheeran’s oldest daughter Peggy, whose presence is felt in the film despite the fact that she only has a few minutes of screen time and six words of dialogue in total. While The Irishman might not be what we are conditioned to think of as a blockbuster, make no mistakes that this is a massive film, and a huge undertaking for all involved.

The mammoth production unfolded over 108 days in 117 different locations, and had a reported $159 million price tag that only Netflix was willing to back. The fact that the streaming service was the only company willing to take a risk on financing a new Scorsese picture speaks volumes, with the trade off being that many audiences will only be able to watch the film at home instead of in a theatre. I had the opportunity to see it on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the film is having an exclusive theatrical run in Toronto, but I also understand why many will prefer to watch this lengthy, epic drama in the comfort of their own homes.

Robbie Robertson adds some new music to the film, to help flesh out an excellent soundtrack that is filled with songs from the era. Scorsese reteams with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who previously shot the two very different films Silence and The Wolf of Wall Street for him, to capture some beautiful 35mm images, and Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker expertly handles the film’s multiple different story threads and keeps it moving at a good pace despite the elongated running time. 

Yes, The Irishman is a long movie, as you’ve probably heard. It’s 209 minutes, to be precise. But the film justifies this massive three-and-a-half-hour running time because it is about the passage of time. This is a gangster movie, sure, with several shocking and graphic killings. But it’s also a surprisingly melancholy film about aging and getting older, with the lives of these men (and in a few cases, women) advancing right before our eyes through mostly seamless digital trickery. The narrative is framed with Sheeran in a nursing home looking back on his life, and the final few scenes, which are beautifully acted by De Niro, have a deep poignancy to them.

The film captures the weight of time passing in an incredible way, and by the end of it we feel like we have been told a complete story. Where as Scorsese’s electric 2013 masterpiece The Wolf of Wall Street felt like the work of a man at least half his age, The Irishman is the sort of film that could only really be made by a man in his seventies, and I mean that as a compliment. This feels like the work of someone who has seen a lot of time go by, and that is one of the most enthralling aspects of the film.

Always engaging from a narrative standpoint and beautifully crafted on a technical level, The Irishman is immersive dramatic storytelling from a true master of his craft, a film that not only fits in perfectly with Scorsese’s previous oeuvre but also deepens the themes of his earlier works to provide a perfect capper on his legendary career.

The Irishman is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and is also available to stream on Netflix as of today.

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