It wasn’t until the last moments of Martin Scorsese’s new crime epic “The Irishman” that I was convinced I was watching a true modern masterpiece. Up until those very last 15 minutes, the film operates as a stone-cold, perfectly executed genre film and Scorsese at his most comfortable, but those last 15 minutes change everything and give new meaning to the 194 minutes that came before them.
“The Irishman” is the story of Frank Sheeran’s life. Played by Robert DeNiro, Sheeran’s journey from a delivery truck driver to a mob hitman is an epic look at a life filled not only with violence and crime but also companionship and responsibility. Sheeran gets his start when he is introduced to mob crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and later, to union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
“The Irishman” is never anything less than riveting. Scorsese proves himself to be the master of the mob genre, but also a mature filmmaker who knows his way around a scene. Everything is impeccably framed and there’s a real sense that every scene in “The Irishman” is the very best version of itself. Nothing is out of place in the film, and some of the joy of “The Irishman” comes from observing such talented people working and creating something this epic. It feels important, almost historical.
DeNiro, who has been slumming it for a few years in throwaway comedies, proves that he still has it. Sheeran is a complex, layered character, and most of this comes from DeNiro rather than the script. He communicates much of Sheeran’s regret and inner conflict without any words, simply just lowering his eyes or tightening his jaw. It’s a remarkable performance from DeNiro, and it’s good to have him back in the big leagues.
Pacino is also full of life and energy as Jimmy Hoffa. It’s a flashy, fun performance and almost guaranteed a nomination at various awards shows come January, but it’s not an easy performance. Pacino and DeNiro have such easy chemistry, no doubt a result of years and years of working together and honing and perfecting it. A lot of other films thrive on letting the audience see actors bounce off and react to each other but Pacino and DeNiro are in such perfect harmony here; it’s impressive and an utter joy to watch.
But it’s Joe Pesci as Bufalino who steals every scene he’s in. Scorsese tempted Pesci out of retirement for “The Irishman,” and the film is all the better for it. The film shows that while the years might have worn Pesci out a little (he’s somehow smaller and frailer than he used to be), the magic hasn’t worn off, not even a little. The three veteran actors have calm energy between them; they all work with each other with ease and effortlessness. They’re all good, but somehow they complement each other even further when on screen together.
The biggest conversations around “The Irishman” are those of the reported de-aging technology and its mammoth runtime. The butt-numbing 209 minutes are all worth it and the film is never boring or lags at any point. However, a miniseries might have suited “The Irishman” better, simply because Scorsese creates such a rich world, filled with fascinating characters, and I wanted more. 209 minutes feels very indulgent for a feature film of this capacity, when there certainly would have been an audience for more.
The de-aging is not perfect, but you forget it almost immediately. When DeNiro first appears on screen, having been de-aged some 30 to 40 years, it’s jarring at first. His face looks a little doughy and like something out of a video game, but “The Irishman” is such a collage of talent and history that one simply won’t care to worry about the de-aging for much longer as the story sweeps you off your feet and deep into the crime world. The only time it backfires is when the script requires the 76-year-old DeNiro to perform the more physical stuff and you can tell his body isn’t quite up for it.
If we can complain about something in “The Irishman,” it’s the lack of speaking roles for female characters. It’s a tale about men and masculinity, but it’s hard to imagine that giving Anna Paquin a little more to do during that lengthy runtime would have somehow ruined the story. Again, maybe a miniseries would have served this story better and given Frank’s life a more complete, nuanced treatment. It’s still a damn fine picture and a fascinating look at one man’s life and choices.
“The Irishman” is a film we don’t get very often; they just don’t make them like this anymore. It’s a rare film in which everyone involved is at the very top of their game. Scorsese, the father of the mob picture, somehow manages to find new ways to explore the genre and familiar characters. Ultimately, “The Irishman” is about growing old and how it often shines a different light on your life. Everything must seem so different when looking back, and it’s those last 15 minutes of Scorsese’s film, or maybe even just the final 30 seconds, that lament the film’s status as a classic — a true masterpiece.
“The Irishman” will have a limited theatrical release starting November 1. Then you can watch it on Netflix over Thanksgiving dinner on November 27, 2019.
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Featured image credit: Netflix