The Irishman (or, I Heard You Paint Houses) is one of those eleventh-hour releases that manifests itself to weary cinematic sojourners like a chilled, glistening bottle of Aquafina on the final stretch of the barren, hostile, morale-shattering wasteland you’ve been trudging through since January. Not only does it revitalize you so that you can finally complete your arduous journey, it imbues you with enough energy and hope to begin a new one come 2020. Suffice to say, the only question I had for The Irishman once the curtain fell was, “Where the hell have you been all year?”
The milestone twenty-fifth directorial feature for Martin Scorsese (who at 77 is more spry and energetic than I am at 29), The Irishman is an epic crime film chronicling the decades-spanning relationship between Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, a truck driver/hitman for Pennsylvania’s Bufalino crime family, and Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa, the powerful union leader of the Teamsters who mysteriously vanished sometime between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.
I’ve had a rough year cinematically, folks – and that’s despite my gallant efforts to avoid seeing movies I know I’ll hate such as Godzilla: King of the Box Office, Oh Nevermind… and Terminator: Seriously, Who Gives a F*** Anymore? – so be prepared for two pages of ardent fanboy squealing because I have virtually nothing negative to say about this film. For those readers who come a-browsing exclusively for my caustic vomiting all over theatrical garbage, well, there’s always my inevitable critique of Rise of Skywalker…
Be forewarned – spoilers abound in plenteousness… but really, Jimmy Hoffa vanished in 1975, so it’s not like I’m spoiling The Usual Suspects here…
In true Martin Scorsese stage-setting fashion, we open with a graceful tracking shot through a drab ‘present-day’ retirement home, which informs us that the majority of the film will unfold in flashback. The Five Satins’ famous doo-wop hit “In The Still of The Night” eases us into this three-and-a-half-hour saunter down memory lane before Robert De Niro’s introspective narration eventually kicks off the story properly. Yes, after only a single minute, The Irishman hits all the obligatory Martin Scorsese cinematic hallmarks like items ticked off a preflight checklist, and let me tell you, it feels amazing to be a passenger with him in the pilot’s seat again.
…but sitting in his lap and steering feels ever better!
Let no one ever accuse Scorsese of settling into complacency in his golden years, because this film proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that his directing skills are still at Grand Master level. His cinematography is sharp, his sheer attention to detail rivals that of Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson combined, and every gliding movement of his camera makes you feel as if you’re being personally escorted through his expertly-crafted mise-en-scène. The editing is energetic and effortlessly keeps every minute of the admittedly daunting run-time engaging, ushering you deftly from scene to scene, sequence to sequence, without ever losing hold of your attention. On that note, the pacing is remarkably smooth and well-balanced for a modern film that’s as long as an extended Lord of the Rings chapter – the plot never lags nor does it suffer from those painful second-act slumps that so often befall contemporary movies. From a technical standpoint, The Irishman is practically flawless. It’s honestly amazing that a film this absurdly long can stand out so memorably after only a single viewing, which is a testament to Scorsese’s unparalleled skill as a storyteller.
One of the common criticisms levied against Scorsese (at least in my circle of friends) is that every film he’s made since Goodfellas has essentially been Goodfellas 2.0 – i.e., Casino was Goodfellas in Vegas, The Departed was Goodfellas in Boston, The Wolf of Wall Street was Goodfellas: NC-17, Silence was Goodfellas in Edo-era Japan, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, Martin Scorsese’s filmography is as dear to my heart as The Sopranos, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and whiskey at breakfast, but like every AC/DC album after High Voltage, his later work sometimes feels like it’s borrowing liberally from that which preceded it. For all its signature Scorsese elements, however, The Irishman is not Goodfellas. In fact, tonally it couldn’t be further removed from Goodfellas. The unadulterated violence and swinging mobster ‘high-life’ are not put on display nor are they glamorized. A recurring element throughout the film is that the introductions of many periphery mobsters are accompanied by title cards that disclose the date and nature of their deaths, some of which involved nail bombs tucked under porches. There is little to be envied in the fates of the men surrounding Jimmy Hoffa, particularly Frank Sheeran.
NOTE: I’m not insinuating that Goodfellas intentionally glorified the gangster lifestyle, only that many of Scorsese’s detractors labour under the delusion that it did. My point is that no one will make the same mistake watching The Irishman.
Like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, we follow Robert De Niro’s laconic hitman as he maneuvers his way up the proverbial ladder from delivery driver to Mafia associate to official house painter to Teamster bodyguard over the course of several decades. Eventually he becomes close enough with Jimmy Hoffa for his daughters to treat him as as uncle, with his one daughter Peggy growing to love him more than the father who so greatly intimidates her. Less an active protagonist and more a passive observer to the events of history, Sheeran is a man of few words and even less scruples over killing anybody that Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel happen to point at. We watch him beat shop owners in front of young Peggy, gun down POWs in WWII flashbacks, ruthlessly dispatch treacherous mob associates, and finally consent, albeit reluctantly, to betray one of the closest friends he ever had. Beyond being a boilerplate murderous sociopath, Sheeran is something of a blank slate as a character (which I suppose is something that naturally happens once you’ve murdered a certain number of people). He is oddly detached and seemingly unable to comprehend the consequences of his actions, which is evidenced when he becomes distraught and bewildered after the now-adult Peggy (Anna Paquin in a pivotal role) severs all ties with him for the atrocities he’s committed. The final thirty minutes or so sees Sheeran transition from a life in federal prison to a life in a retirement home (really just another form of prison), which is where the narrative momentum eases up and we the viewer are permitted time to reflect on the choices that led him here. By all accounts, he is unrepentant, not because he relished any of his violent actions, but because he’s genuinely clueless as to why they were so wrong in the first place. To him, the tasks he carried out for the Bufalinos were just things that needed doing, like vacuuming the floor or grabbing cannoli from the market. The film ends with Sheeran meekly asking a visiting priest to leave the door of his bedroom open a crack before being left alone for the holidays, his family having abandoned him and everyone else having passed on. Henry Hill’s fate was humiliating, but Frank Sheeran’s is positively haunting.
Can you imagine spending the holidays confined to a chair in a cramped room, isolated and alone?
The Irishman is a more introspective and somber division of Scorsese’s collective gangster paradise, which is likely a result of the shifting perspectives and gentler approaches that inevitably come with age. To his credit, Scorsese is still capable of hitting a home run at 77, which isn’t terribly surprising considering he’s one of the most talented, active, and versatile directors in Hollywood. Since the early 1970’s, he’s delivered gangster epics (oh, pick one), comedies (The King of Comedy, After Hours), religious dramas (The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence), romances (The Age of Innocence), thrillers (Cape Fear, Shutter Island), historical biopics (Raging Bull, The Aviator), family films (Hugo), and hardcore pornos (The Wolf of Wall Street). Based on how eager he looks in those interviews, I’d wager he’s not intending to slow down anytime soon, which certainly gives me hope for the future of cinema. If The Irishman is any indication of what he’s still capable of crafting, I’d say he still has a good ten years left in his creative pipeline. Seriously, who else could coax all these aging A-listers out of bed and not only equip them to memorize all those lines but give some of the best performances they’ve given in years??
This cast is a dream ensemble, with everyone involved pulling their weight and leaving a lasting impression. De Niro and Pacino are in top form, with the former redeeming everything he’s made since Rocky and Bullwinkle and the latter everything he’s done since Jack and Jill. Seeing these two screen legends at long last act off one another has been the dream of many a cinephile since their single shared scene in Heat, and watching them finally share a stage properly is the equivalent of crossing a top line item off your bucket list (before you say it, no – Righteous Kill does NOT count, damn you). Otherwise, Joe Pesci is phenomenal playing against type as the reticent and wholly composed Russell Bufalino, and Ray Romano is a delightful surprise as his union lawyer brother Bill. Boardwalk Empire alums Bobby Cannavale and Stephen Graham are welcome additions to anything, and seeing Harvey Keitel back in action is like discovering that an old teacher still has class at your high school reunion. In addition, sharp observers will be delighted to spot Steven Van Zandt (E Street Band guitarist and Tony Soprano’s sagacious consigliere) in a fleeting cameo as singer Jerry Vale. Finally, Anna Paquin packs a punch as Sheeran’s adult daughter Peggy, carrying possibly the most decisive scene of the entire film. Some critics have suggested that it is a disservice to her acting ability that she was ‘only’ given seven lines of dialogue, but it is her silence in the face of her father’s incessant talking and desperate justifications that speaks infinitely more than seventy lines ever could have. Some actors are able to convey a wealth of emotions without ever uttering a word (Bob Hoskins in the backseat of that car at the end of The Long Good Friday comes to mind), and in a single scene Paquin proves herself to be amongst the elites of her craft. Her cold stare when Frank returns home after Hoffa’s newsworthy disappearance may very well earn her an Oscar nod. Honestly, she’d have my vote for Best Supporting Actress.
The only comment I have that comes anywhere near to negative territory is in regards to the 209-minute run-time, but I can hardly complain about this in good conscience because it’s not as if there’s any scene or sequence that could be cut or trimmed without compromising the integrity of the story or the flow of the pacing. At the end of the day, you’re just going to have to settle in for the evening, lock all the doors, and ignore all those social media push notifications. As far as the CGI that was implemented to digitally de-age De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel goes, I’m glad to report it’s… only slightly noticeable, but never so distracting that it derails the narrative rhythm and dumps you into the dreaded Uncanny Valley, where the Grand Moff Tarkins, discarded Sonic the Hedgehog models, and nightmare-fueling Cats lie in wait to induce nightmares in unassuming theatergoers.
In conclusion, The Irishman is a refreshing reminder of just how great a film can be in an era when empty spectacle and corporate interference defines the box office. It’s an easy contender for Best Picture and officially my number one pick for 2019’s forthcoming Top Ten List (sorry to give it away early; still be sure to tune in once it’s written and see what made numbers 10 through 2 – number 7 will amaaaaaaaaze you!). If it’s still before midnight by the time you’re finished viewing, be sure to check out the accompanying mini-documentary, The Irishman: In Conversation, to see Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino share their thoughts and reflections on making the film.
So this holiday season, make like Jimmy Hoffa and vanish… for a few hours and watch The Irishman.