Review: Martin Scorsese's gangster epic 'The Irishman' marks the end of an era
Courtesy of Netflix
Assembling Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci for a massive 209 minute film almost feels like a dream. Now add Martin Scorcese behind the camera, and we’re left with a magnum opus littered with self reflective metaphors, intense standoffs, and plenty of double crossings.
“Goodfellas” this is not, but “The Irishman” in many ways showcases the great filmmaker peeling back the curtains of his own career with an original muse (De Niro) leading the charge. This is a grand achievement, and the film is structured like the perfect meditative exercise for all the stars involved. It’s a slow-burn, and one that rewards patience and understanding. Scenes linger on far longer than they should, but somehow that’s the way Scorcese sees it. This is real life and sometimes, even in the mobster world, we’ve gotta take time to smell the flowers.
And it starts from the beginning where we listen to a voice over by Frank Sheeran (De Niro) as the camera maneuvers through a retirement home. We learn that Sheeran was a house painter which, in the criminal underworld, means whacking someone and the blood covers the walls. Aside from “house painting,” Frank does plenty of driving in “The Irishman,” starting from his early days of hauling meat for butchers to the cross-country trip he’s taking to Detroit for a wedding in one of the films many episodic flashbacks. Much has been made on how Netflix was the only studio in town willing to pony up the hefty $160 million production budget for the expensive de-aging technology used on De Niro and Pesci during those moments.
That central wedding trip doubles as foreshadowing for the epic journey about to unfold, through decades of history as Frank rises from meat hauler to the right-hand man of the second-most powerful man in America. It’s tough to say if this is the end of the road for this quartet of artists working together, but either way it’s what “The Irishman” is all about. The passage of miles and the end awaiting us all. Whether we are saints or sinners, we’ll get to a final destination someday.
Frank’s road trip to Detroit, like most of his life, is long, complicated, and violent. De Niro provides the narration as an old man in assisted living. Seated in his wheelchair, a frail looking Frank details his story with rowdy specifics. A few years earlier, still with some energy, he takes that roadtrip with the soft-spoken mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their drive reminds Frank of how they met decades earlier at a highway truck stop. This leads to sequences of an even younger Frank - his hair dark and face free of wrinkles - sparking a friendship and business practice with Russell and the Philadelphia mob and eventually with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) who needs a “painter” like Frank to help control his political enemies in the Teamsters.
It’s ambitious that Scorsese had his actors play their younger selves with the help of state-of-the-art de aging technology. So Robert De Niro, age 76, gets to play Frank Sheeran in all four time periods the film cuts back too (when he was in the army getting his first taste of blood at age 24 all the way to age 80). You could understand the skepticism surrounding a ploy like that, but thankfully it’s not distracting and, no surprise here, De Niro convincingly plays Sheeran in all aspects of his life. And the CGI work isn’t that extreme and most of “The Irishman” showcases Frank from his 40s to his 60s, where the de-aging is less noticeable and easier to accept. In my case, it took my eyes a few minutes to adjust and it only momentarily took me out of the film.
Helping matters, is how the effects are tailored to the respective actors with enough care and dedication to where it allows the performances to shine through all the CGI sludge, and the three leads are better here than anything they’ve done in years. As Hoffa, Pacino is right back in his element, swearing, ranting, and screaming at those beneath him. Pesci, who was convinced to come out of retirement for the role, has now aged himself into a corner he’s never explored: the “old man” type. Russell is a man of respect, and if you look at Pesci in past Scorsese pictures (“Casino”) that’s never happened. Here, he’s resolved, quiet, and barely drops any profanity in what is a thrilling performance to watch.
De Niro, on the other hand, has to shoulder the entire film, because he’s got the most CGI de-aging to contend with and, more or less, plays a man with no remorse for the heinous acts and crimes he’s committed. But De Niro, and the movie, get better and better as things trot along to the finish line, specifically the final hour that’ll have you hanging on every action and word.
It’s tough to say if “The Irishman” needed all 209 minutes to get there, all the minor details between Frank, Russell, and Hoffa’s relationship can sometimes run around in circles before the films conclusion. Most of Scorsese's pictures are often lengthy, but most - like “The Wolf of Wall Street” - have a manic and youthful energy whereas “The Irishman,” fittingly, moves at an elderly pace. It’s the right choice towards the end of the picture with Frank in the nursing home, but when Frank is hustling on the mean streets of Philly, I found myself checking my watch briefly.
Nonetheless, most people will catch “The Irishman” at its home on Netflix, and will probably split up the film in chunks, rather than consume it all like a massive Thanksgiving turkey. I was happy to see the film in a theater, the way it should be viewed as it limits distractions. Even if “The Irishman” doesn’t go by as quickly as you’d hope, it’s still essential and necessary viewing, and not only complements the themes of the film, but Scorsese's’ career as a whole.