I remember when this film was only rumors – Scorsese directing a film starring DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino? It just seemed too good to be true. And for a couple years, The Irishman was exactly that, only rumors. I would see people comment on how great the film would be, how many awards it would win, but I was always skeptical; every year these guys got older, and what production studio would actually fund this thing? Well damn it, if Netflix doesn’t have balls than I don’t know who does. And so, did the risk pay off? Only time will tell, but I can say with confidence this is an expertly crafted film, with potential of being a modern classic.
“I heard you paint houses.” “I also do my own carpentry.” And thus, began the relationship between Jimmy Hoffa and Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. When we are first introduced to Hoffa, tenaciously played by the great Al Pacino, he is described as having been as popular as The Beatles or Elvis during his time, but today he is mostly forgotten, the only legacy of his contained in the fact that he went suddenly missing. Being a young person, I had no idea who Jimmy Hoffa was going into the film. But The Irishman isn’t a film about Hoffa, but rather a man always at the scene of the crime, always involved, but never the center of attention, removed from the spotlight – Frank Sheeran, a role DeNiro’s career had been building up to for years.
Like The Godfather, The Irishman is a film about family, loyalty/trust, and our own mortality. As we follow Sheeran throughout his professional life, we meet two kinds of family: the people whom he shares blood with, and those he’d kill and die for, and ultimately he sacrifices the former for the latter, as he is never able to make full amends for his actions. This is one of the more compelling conflicts in the film, as Sheeran tries to bridge the distance he created between him and his daughter, Peggy. So much is said in their interactions, without a word ever being spoken.
Late in the film, as the company Sheeran surrounded himself with grow old and die, and he is left to his own devices, the film transitions into a solemn introspection of the life of a gangster. Sheeran brings on the help of a pastor to help him confess his sins, but he is never able to genuinely apologize for what he’s done. Much in contrast to Scorsese’s bombastic and exciting Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman shows little to no glamor in its portrayal of someone who chooses a life in the mafia; your life is always at risk, and if you do want to make it you have to get your hands dirty. The film isn’t concerned with shiny cars, getting high, and pretty women, but the very real shallowness this kind of life leads to. In roughly the final 30 minutes of the film, Scorsese not only demonstrates this shallowness, but uses the time to comment on his own career. Now 77 years old, Scorsese is at the later stage of his career, as are many of the film’s star actors, and The Irishman is a recognition of that, a film designed to cement the legacy of its creators. Like the film’s closing shot, where Sheeran, alone on Christmas at a nursing home, requests the door not be fully shut, I believe Scorsese is voicing his own concern on the seeming finality of death through his protagonist; that your legacy is the only thing that carries on when your dead. Maybe, that’s why he is so worried about you seeing the film in cinema rather than on your iPhone (this is a film very much worth seeing in theaters).
I love the film’s script, written by Steven Zaillian. Like any good gangster film, there are so many memorable lines; the dialogue occasionally crackles with humor and wit, but also feels so personal. And Scorsese, recognizing the talent he has been dealt, amplifies this aspect of the script; he gives his actors room to breathe, to look around the room, to deliver their lines naturally and actually have a conversation. You’d think this would result in a lot of empty space, especially in a film running 3 ½ hours, but it doesn’t – this is wholly effective and not only allows us to better understand these characters, but is a great way to build tension. This is a film that tells a story across three periods of a man’s life, that appreciates the purpose of film as an art form, and produces an epic feeling in its subtle moments as much as its violent ones in a way Endgame could never.
The soundtrack is also delightful, full of oldies which blend into the film’s historical period and tone. This is a beautifully shot film and is often clever in its shot choice. And how have I not mentioned Pesci yet? As the crime boss, Russell Bufalino, he is the quietest and most suspiciously kind menace I’ve ever seen. He takes a shine to Sheeran early on, so we mostly experience what it is like to be on his good side, but even if he were to get angry, you wouldn’t know it until he had you shot. Pesci creates a character that has absolute command of any room he’s in, who could wipe out entire families without a second thought, and yet you’d still let him hold your children. I also really enjoyed Ray Romano as Russell’s brother, Bill, as even in a more limited role he gets to play a significant character in Sheeran’s life and impacts the story in a meaningful way.
The Irishman is extensive. It’s a lot to take in, it’s not something you can just turn on and jump right into (at least not if you want to get the full effect), and I have to admit I’m going to need to take some time before I ever return to it. But, The Irishman is also a testament to what it means for a director and his actors to be in full command of the screen, and thus, cannot be ignored. Wow. 9.5/10