The Irishman movie review: Martin Scorsese confronts mortality in Netflix’s most ambitious film yet
Director - Martin Scorsese
Cast - Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale
There is no truth that Martin Scorsese’s camera can’t capture. Even if it is buried beneath four inches of digital makeup.
In The Irishman, his long-gestating passion project about life, loss, and misplaced priorities, the legendary filmmaker cashes a blank cheque he’s had in his back pocket for what seems like decades, trading it in for bonus runtime and a budget that would normally be assigned to the sort of films that he likes to compare to theme park rides.
Watch the Irishman trailer here
Released on Netflix after an unconventional theatrical roll-out, The Irishman is a story about men coming to terms with their mortality — both in front of and behind the camera. It’s certainly not a film that even Scorsese, in all his immortal brilliance, could have made as a young man. It is at once dense with detail, yet feels curiously lean on plot. At a staggering 209 minutes long, The Irishman requires the sort of commitment that you probably haven’t made since the last time you trusted Ashutosh Gowariker with your money.
Unlike the director of What’s Your Rashee, Scorsese remains one of the few living filmmakers, besides perhaps Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Quentin Tarantino, who can justify an extended runtime. Despite how long The Irishman is, it always feels like a movie and never a miniseries. Although many of you might consume it like one.
Scorsese has called it ‘a costly experiment’, which is more a comment on the technical wizardry at play and not necessarily on the narrative, which is, rather surprisingly, very traditional. Steven Zaillian’s multi-layered screenplay — there are flashbacks within flashbacks — spans several decades, as it traces the rise and fall of two men, the corrupt union leader Jimmy Hoffa and the low-level Mafia hitman destined to kill him, Frank Sheeran.
At the height of his fame, the Hoffa was said to be as popular as Elvis Presley and The Beatles at the height of theirs. “I heard you paint houses,” the Teamster, as played by Al Pacino, growls at Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in their first conversation over the phone, referencing the film’s original title, which Scorsese retains in the opening credits. It is also a euphemism for murder, an act that Sheeran carries out several times in the film, with a mundane deadness that one would normally associate with actually painting houses. In one scene, Sheeran curb-stomps a shop owner not with any authority, but almost as if it is a part of some sort of established routine, like he’s getting groceries. Scorsese shoots this scene in an unbroken long shot, highlighting the workmanlike manner in which Sheeran carries out the most terrible deeds.
It is a happy coincidence then that the digital de-ageing robs De Niro’s eyes of any humanity. Whether or not this was Scorsese’s intention, or simply evidence of an imperfect technology, is unclear. The inconsistent effects make it difficult to read Sheeran as a character — again, this could be intentional — but to De Niro’s credit, he always maintains an air of non-confrontational level-headedness. Pacino, on the other hand, is in proper Scent of a Woman form. On several occasions, while he was maniacally gesticulating with his arms and shooting mad-eyed glares at anyone within staring distance, I expected him to yell his catchphrase — “Hoo-ah!”
A scene around the halfway mark that features both De Niro and Pacino operating on godlike levels, has the potential to become as culturally relevant as the ‘Do I amuse you?’ exchange in Scorsese’s other gangster classic, Goodfellas. It is a masterclass in scene-construction; remorselessly edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, lavishly photographed by Rodrigo Preito, and thrillingly written by Zaillian. You can almost picture Scorsese, sitting behind his monitors in video village, with a big grin on his face.
And once again it is Joe Pesci — summoned out of retirement by Scorsese, the third wheel in this iconic cinematic get-together — who truly delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. As the quietly convincing mobster Russell Bufalino, Pesci is vindictive and vile; sneering and salty. For some strange reason, even the digital effects aren’t as distracting on him as they are on De Niro.
But underneath all this manly posturing, like the actors’ souls buried under visual trickery, is a story about guilt — a theme that Scorsese has been struggling to comprehend for decades, the devout Catholic boy that he is. In its final moments, The Irishman shrugs off its bravado and transforms into a melancholy meditation on ageing.
Don’t make the same mistake that I did and watch it on your phone. It is the sort of film that you allow to simmer in its own juices for a while, immune as it is to hasty judgement. So pop open a non-alcoholic beverage, slice up some watermelons, and scoop out your favourite ice cream. Purchase a large television, invest in Netflix stock, and never, ever, lose your faith in Martin Scorsese.