For decades, the name Martin Scorsese has been synonymous with the gangster film. The reputation is not unearned. On the contrary, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, and The Departed continue to find their audience as classics within the genre. Yet Scorsese’s body of work falls closer to the Werner Herzog or Jonathan Demme. Unlike his contemporaries, Scorsese bent genre and medium. He crafted some of the most beautiful documentaries about rock stars of all time, crafted controversial stories of violence, and even made a movie for kids that spoke to adults. Scorsese cannot be contained within one box, and his latest films have continued to show an introspective side to the auteur. Thanks to the success he gained from The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street and Hugo, he’s gained more power than at any point in his career.
Despite continuing to trend upward, the setback and financial issues that plagued Silence left other studios unwilling to fund his followup project. The Irishman, which follows the story of mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), would cost more than $150 million. The heavy price tag came from Scorsese’s instance on using CGI to de-age his star-studded cast, including De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. Combined with the creation of a period film, the budget ballooned, and the only studio set to foot the bill became an unlikely ally: Netflix. Regardless of how you see The Irishman, Scorsese has crafted a project that might be his most introspective and masterful work this century.
Drawing from the non-fiction book, I Heard You Paint Houses (the title card the movie uses to introduce itself), The Irishman follows Sheeran as he rises in the New York and New Jersey crime syndicates. After building a friendship with Russell Bufalino (Pesci), he begins to perform mob hits. His loyalty and devotion to the job build his reputation, getting him into the good graces of legendary Union Organizer Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). As he continues to work in organized crime, Sheeran begins to reexamine his profession and the things he’s been asked to do.
For Scorsese, it’s clear the story holds personal weight. Beyond the size of the story, the gangster epic focuses its energy on the personal relationships that drive the action. Scorsese pulls ideas about mortality and life within a tale that has been long considered the most fascinating gangster story of all time. Imbuing the story with Sheeran’s point-of-view adds an unreliable narrator to the fold, giving the film a Forrest Gump in the mob structure.
The film hangs on De Niro, and he delivers one of the best performances of his career. While De Niro has remained popular, he’s rarely pushed his emotional limits. The Irishman forces him to use his face and eyes to convey loss, anger, fear, and regret. De Niro channels your relationship with his legendary career. Beyond that, he opens up and shows a level of vulnerability that feels like nothing you’ve seen before. The performance puts an exclamation point on his incredible career.
Meanwhile, Pesci and Pacino get the opportunity to show their best work since the early 1990s. Pacino gets the meatier role, playing the iconic Hoffa with all the pizzaz you’d expect. His iconic energy gets channeled into a constructive portrait of a man who sought unlimited power. While he devolves into the loud and silly Pacino at times, it fits this character to a tee. Pacino plays Hoffa as a cobra, an arrogant and marvel to watch.
Meanwhile, Pesci’s intensity pops off the screen. The actor known for winning his oscar by playing the boisterous Tommy from Goodfellas performs the opposite here. His intensity makes him a devil sent to temp De Niro, and the fear he inspires cannot be understated. This role even surpasses the iconic Tommy.
As usual, Scorsese brought together an all-star team of below-the-line talent. Thelma Schoonmaker once again proves she’s the best editor in Hollywood. For a movie that clocks in over three and a half hours, it’s hard to argue that the story drags. In fact, the propulsive nature of the film adds to the grandiose story and keeps the momentum rolling. Without the long runway, the final act would not hit the emotional highs that it reaches. Schoonmaker is an undeniably important piece in making this story spark to life.
The visual effects used to de-age the performers works well. While the result does not always provide perfect CG creations, it also does not pull you out of the movie. While it does not quite hit the highs of Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel, it does come close. The CG gets help from Rodrigo Prieto. His framing of shots and the use of lighting or shadows helps the trick work. Beyond aiding the visual effects team, Prieto’s long takes showcases a flair that helped him become one of the best DPs in the industry.
For Scorsese, The Irishman marks a new high watermark. Like 8 1/2 or Roma, The Irishman presents a singular, meditative work that could only come from his vision. The famed director’s rumination on death and life could easily be seen as his most substantial work since Goodfellas. Yet Scorsese’s complex portrait of Sheeran and organized crime make The Irishman one of the best films of 2019, and one of the best of his career.
What did you think of The Irishman? Where does it rank among Scorsese’s best? Can De Niro or Pesci win another Oscar? Let us know in the comments below!
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