When you hear that Martin Scorsese has made a new crime movie with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and a pulled-out-of-retirement Joe Pesci, that’s cause to get excited. Scorsese is a master filmmaker, and his crime films are among the best in the genre.
The Irishman is no exception. A 210-minute examination of the life and times of Frank Sheeran, or at least the version he told of them, Scorsese and De Niro tell stories within stories that remind us why they’re among the best at what they do.
Sheeran’s story is long and complex, framed not only through voiceover narration provided by his elderly self in an assisted living home toward the end of his life but also through a mid-1970s road trip from Philadelphia to Detroit for a wedding. From the road trip, we flashback to various points in his life, from the day he met his friend and mentor Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), the day he met Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), his various hits and exploits as a member of the Philadelphia mob.
Time jumps around, but never in such a way that it can’t be followed even when at one point a flashback triggers a further flashback to a moment during Sheeran’s World War 2 experience.
De Niro plays Sheeran at every stage of his life and Netflix spent $160 Million using digital effects to make that happen. The de-ageing effect is as good as it’s ever been but suffers during the times when De Niro is playing Russell in his 20s. It’s not his face that gives it away though, it’s that his body doesn’t look like that of a 20-year-old. He just doesn’t look like a skinny kid -or even a heavyset one- and in scenes that require him to move like a young man, he just can’t.
These scenes are few and far between though and while those where the 76-year-old is playing young are distracting the ones where he’s playing middle-aged aren’t.
None of this stops De Niro from being great in the part though, nor Pacino and or Pesci either. The role of Jimmy Hoffa might be the most on-point piece of casting in the whole movie, allowing Pacino to play someone who was notoriously larger than life allows him to go full Pacino as you might say, but not only is it appropriate Scorsese knows how and where to reign it in.
Joe Pesci is transcendently good as the soft-spoken mob boss Buffalino though, and the highlight of the film. It’s a role against the type he has played for Scorsese before, he almost never swears or even raises his voice, but he inhabits the gangster and exudes power and menace in equal measure when he’s ordering a hit to the vulnerability he shows when he’s trying to get a little girl to like him. It’s a career-highlight performance.
The rest of the supporting cast does good work as well despite being underutilized. Characters drop in and out of the story on a fairly regular basis, and others are there the whole time but have little to say or do. Anna Paquin is a notable exception being present for most of the back half of the film as the adult version of one of Frank’s daughters. She has all of two lines total, but they’re important lines and the rest of the times she says more with a single look than she could with a five-minute monologue.
It’s interesting too that the film has been titled The Irishman, the book it’s based on is called I Heard You Paint Houses and is the title card that we see at the start, and what pivotal characters say to him when they meet him. Painting houses is vernacular for killing people, for spraying their brains and blood all over walls, which Frank does with aplomb. He has a callousness and an aloofness toward taking human life (one started during that World War 2 flashback) that helps him rise in the ranks but also comes with a heavy price.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the bad guy protagonists of Scorsese films generally get what’s coming to them. If the Irishman has an overriding emotion in between the moments of joy, humour, violence, and drama, it’s melancholy, one that makes sense when you approach Franks final scenes in the film where that price has been exacted from him and everyone else in his life.
The Irishman is a logical next story in Scorcese’s crime filmography with it’s cast of stars, occasionally hilarious antics, and unreliable voice-over narrator but has just as much in common with Kundun or Silence with it’s contemplative and malancholic meditation on a life lived and choices made (and not made). Definitely do not skip it, just make sure you set aside the full three and a half hours you’ll need to watch it.