Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman Movie Review

4 out of 4 stars

In a recent interview with Spike Lee on The Director’s Cut podcast, Martin Scorsese gave fans an insight look into the making of his latest film, The Irishman. During the conversation, Scorsese mentioned one book that stayed with him and influenced how he went into preparing his picture. He revealed his favorite passage from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night

I always talk about there’s a quote towards the end where the main character gets killed, he’s talking with his girlfriend. She says, “What happened to you?” He says, “What happened to me is a whole life has happened to me” and she shoots him. That’s when it hit me. When he says a whole life. It’s a tough book. It’s ugly. When he says that, he’s right. A whole life. Something I can never explain to you. You had to live it with me. You had to be me. That’s what we were trying to go at for the film.

Along with writer, Steven Zaillian, and Robert De Niro (also a producer of this film), Scorsese was able to expand on that and craft a contemplative look at one man’s memories and regret that stayed with him long after the murders he committed. Inspired by the Charles Brandt investigative book I Heard You Paint HousesThe Irishman chronicles Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) last years as he looks back on his life in organized crime and his relationship/loyalties with mafia don Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their involvement in the disappearance of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). 

The Irishman is yet another ruminative masterpiece from Martin Scorsese. It is a poignant, cautionary tale of man’s loyalty to himself and one another. Also it beautifully and heartbreakingly captures betrayal, toxic masculinity and fragile egos. But most importantly, the picture focuses on time, memory, and mortality. Zaillian and Scorsese set up the film as a flashback within a flashback and sometimes within another flashback.

We first meet Frank, through a tracking shot similar to the Copacabana one in Goodfellas; however, they couldn’t be more different. These films are worlds apart. In Goodfellas, we gleefully follow Henry Hill through the kitchen of the club to the best seat in the showroom. It is sexy and seductive. This is why he wants to be a gangster. In The Irishman, the shot is slow and mournful. We are in a retirement home and “In the Still of the Night” plays. As the camera moves, we are constantly reminded of death and Catholicism. Crosses and statues of Mother Mary visually noticeable to remind its barely surviving patients of penance. When the camera stops, we see Frank Sheeran. A wheelchair ridden man alone with his thoughts. With an almost pathetic breath, he begins recalling his life in organized crime hoping that someone, anyone will listen to his story.

With the framing device of multiple flashbacks, we see the uttermost importance of time and memory. There’s a nostalgic feeling when we get transported back in time and we meet a younger Sheeran and his mafia father figure, Bufalino. Part of it is definitely seeing De Niro and Pesci together again, and it is such a great joy to see the two together again.

However, the nostalgia is undercut by the digital de-aging, and that’s not a bad thing at all (The CGI mostly works. It is jarring at first; especially some early scenes with a young De Niro, but it’s an illusion that our eyes get used to fairly quick). We can’t help but be reminded that a life in crime is over the day you start. They are doomed and it is only a matter of time before they meet their end one way or the other. In fact, it reminds all of us of our own mortality. The greatest villain in life is time. 

And time is all so important in The Irishman, figuratively and literally. Time hangs over the characters like an incoming storm. Even Jimmy Hoffa mentions the importance of time and tardiness several times throughout the picture. Not that the audience needs a reminder of time, but we become hyperaware of it.

Clocking in at 3.5 hours, there has been many conversations about its length. Some even consider it a huge hindrance, but in actuality, it is one of the film’s greatest strengths. The movie flies by. It’s never boring, and it remains riveting. Thanks to long time collaborator and editing genius, Thelma Shoonmaker, The Irishman is constantly visually stimulating and impressive. Also by being 3.5 hours, we are allowed to become fully immersed in this world. We get to ruminate with Frank, Russell, and Jimmy. We see their perspectives and worldview, and see them go through their life and we feel the gravity of their every action. As the movie progresses, and the characters grow old we too feel their age thanks to being able to spend the time with them through the most significant part of their lives.

The film focuses on time and mortality so effectively because of the three acting legends. There’s significance and urgency throughout the film thanks to these men. Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino are all terrific in their roles. As Bufalino, Pesci goes against all the other characters we have known and loved Pesci for. This time around, he is calm and quiet throughout. He never raises his voice. Never lifts a hand, but with a stern look and tone, he’s as intimidating and commanding as ever. Whenever he’s on-screen you can’t help but be drawn to him and his alluring presence.

As Frank Sheeran, Robert De Niro is at his most composed and subtle. He carries the filmy exceptionally and reminds all of us why he is the greatest actor of his generation. Only few people can play a cold blooded killer with the warmth and compassion that De Niro does. His performance especially shines through in the final act; as he gets to become more vulnerable than ever.

Al Pacino is equally as wonderful as Jimmy Hoffa. He plays Hoffa with such charisma and gravitas that we can’t help but be charmed into rooting for him. There are times where Pacino gets to use his usual bombastic yells, which are great to an extent, but Pacino’s restraint and poignancy stays throughout. Hoffa is the most flashy role, and it needs a straight man to play off, and De Niro’s Sheeran is just that. Pacino’s Hoffa is an external performance. There’s lots of gestures, movements, and yelling. De Niro’s Sheeran is internal. He’s quiet and always observant and mostly devoid of real input or emotions. Together they make a great pair and their relationship is beautiful and heartbreaking. You get so lost in their moments together that you begin to hope there’s a way for them to avoid the inevitable. 

The final 90 minutes of the film is some of the best moments of cinema you will see this year or any year for that matter. This is where The Irishman becomes a true masterpiece. Frank becomes pitted between both Bufalino and Hoffa and is forced into a situation that can only end in bloodshed and betrayal. This final act is truly heartbreaking and profound. Scorsese unflinchingly observed the downfall in such a melancholy manner that only silence accompanies it. It’s Scorsese at is most subtle and meditative. This is also where Anna Paquin’s presence/absence is magnified. 

As Peggy, one of Frank’s daughters, Paquin only says 7 words in the entire film and is only in screen for about 10 minutes. She does make the most of what she is given and her body language and facial expressions cut through the core of the film. Paquin’s the soul of The Irishman. When the film ends, many will want more of Peggy and more women characters, and rightfully so. Some may feel that the film did a poor job with them and forgotten about them.

But that’s the point. Men like Frank existed and still exist today. Frank was an absent father and husband always going to “work” never making genuine, real-time for his family and daughters. So, when the movie ends and Frank fails to connect with the women of his life, we the audience, feel that too. We feel their absence throughout the entirety of the film. Frank never had the chance to make amends with Peggy and misses out on her relationship and so do we. Scorsese does not give us a happy ending or revisionist history. We are left wondering what could have been just like Frank; which makes an ending that is striking and powerful. We feel the emptiness and loneliness Frank feels. 

For Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, The Irishman is a career long culmination. They beautifully and elegantly added a poignant epilogue to all those toxic male characters they have created in their previous 8 films together. They dive deep into the soul of a man that failed to second guess all of his actions; only to have all the time at the end of his life to look back and ruminate on all that he did and did not do. It is chilling and gripping and some of the best work they have ever done. Especially in the last hour, the movie becomes so personal. So meditative. It is not only Frank looking back, but also Scorsese and De Niro looking back at their career and mortality. The Irishman is dazzlingly and delicate. It’s poignant and pensive. It’s cinema at its highest form.

-By Louie Coruzzolo


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