Film Review: The Irishman (2019)

“Would you like to be a part of this history?” When Jimmy Hoffa poses this question in Martin Scorsese’s 24th feature film – the gangland saga The Irishman – the movie is already approximately a third of the way through its epic, three-and-a-half hour runtime. Yet despite its length, tonal restraint and veritable cadre of old fart actors, it’s hard to imagine that most viewers wouldn’t respond to this query with an emphatic “yes.” By the time the iconic labor leader arrives on the scene of Scorsese’s late-period opus, The Irishman has already established itself as a richly-engrossing historical drama. And amazingly, the old master largely maintains this quality for another stupefying 150 minutes, assisted by artists and actors working near the peak of their powers.

War veteran Frank Sheeran (longtime Scorsese muse Robert De Niro) is a truck driver in 1950s Philadelphia, hauling loads of disgusting meat shanks to support his young family. After he meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the head of the Northeastern crime family, however, he begins a fateful descent into a seedy underworld of enforcement and murder.

Through his association with Bufalino, Sheeran is introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) – the leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Frank finds Hoffa in a difficult predicament – with his leadership challenged by Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) and his operations closely scrutinized by feds. The two men take to each other almost immediately. Hoffa becomes close to Frank’s family, particularly his young daughter Peggy, and Frank decides to become Hoffa’s security guard in addition to his work for Pesci’s mafia boss.  Copious bread is then dunked into wine, while endless ice cream is slurped into Hoffa’s mouth. Life is, for the most part, good for Frank and company – but tension percolates beneath the surface. As the years pass, Hoffa eventually runs afoul of the mob, setting in motion events that force Frank to make a fateful choice and, decades later, reckon with moral and physical oblivion.

Like many excellent movies, the story behind The Irishman‘s production is almost as rich and complex as the film itself. Based on the true crime book, I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt, Scorsese’s film was a long gestating project that took over a decade to reach the screen, or, in this case, people’s dumb Netflix queues. Originally optioned by De Niro back in 2007, the production faced major issues with financing, questions about its much-publicized deployment of de-ageing technology and a lengthy odyssey to bring Joe Pesci (De Niro volcanic co-star in classics like Raging Bull, Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas and Casino) out of retirement to play Bufalino.

For the most part, however, the persistence of De Niro and Scorsese has paid off. The Irishman is a frequently compelling piece of work, filled with the same bravo performances, snappy dialogue and accomplished mise-en-scene that characterizes Scorsese’s other iconic crime films. It’s also apparent from the movie’s earliest frames, which feature an unbroken tracking shot through a nursing home, that the filmmakers were not merely interested in repeating their past glories. A more acute awareness of old age, death and emptiness hangs over the proceedings – an understanding that time is fleeting and, as Frank says at one point, “Sooner or later, everyone put here has a date when they’re going to go.”

Now, that doesn’t mean that The Irishman is a slog or the equivalent of watching someone change a colostomy bag. No. Somehow, The Irishman is able to infuse its story with a more elegiac tone without becoming overbearing or making you feel every single one of its 210 minutes.

Much of this can likely be attributed to the film’s writing and performances. Screenwriter Steve Zaillian’s razor-sharp script is filled with witty dialogue, strong characterization and an interweaving of powerful themes such as loyalty, family and the events we can or cannot control. His words are complimented perfectly by the movie’s superlative cast – which unites several of the genre’s most famous faces into a sort of mafioso superfriends. As Hoffa, Pacino delivers a performance that is certainly closer to the bat-shit crazy end of the actor’s continuum. However, this isn’t Heat-level territory – where the actor is screaming about “great asses” or delivering knee-slapping retorts like “You can get killed walking your doggie!” Nor does it have the nuance that was a Pacino staple circa 1969-1979 and periodically after in films like Donnie Brasco, Insomnia, Manglehorn and Danny Collins. If anything, Pacino’s work in The Irishman represents more of an amalgam of both sides of his career output. There are ludicrous vignettes, such as where Hoffa berates some of his underlings with such ferocity that you worry some of the spit is going to literally fly off the screen. But there are also quieter moments in his performance that exude humor and warmth, particularly any of the scenes that feature De Niro and Pacino alone.

To inhabit the role of Bufalino, one probably couldn’t hope for a better performer than Joe Pesci. Following a series of successes in the early and mid-90s (including his Oscar win for 1990’s Goodfellas), Pesci dropped off Hollywood’s radar, only sporadically appearing in movies during the aughts (such as De Niro’s middling The Good Shepherd  from 2006 and the woeful 2009 feature The Love Ranch). Ostensibly, Pesci’s output dwindled due to his fatigue with being cast as raving psychopaths, volatile madmen with a talent for killing – except when facing Macauley Caulkin of course.

Due to this aversion to the crime film milieu, Pesci’s appearance in The Irishman initially comes as something of a surprise. But from the film’s very early scenes, it’s quite clear that this is a different sort of role and that Pesci is delivering a different type of performance. His Bufalino is quiet and reserved, carrying a world-weariness and affection for Frank that is palpably touching – despite the character’s obvious capacity for brutality. The role doesn’t necessitate any big, show-stopping moments of acting with a capital “A” to be effective and memorable; instead, Pesci effortlessly conveys an authoritative menace with simple looks and concise statements, particularly his late in the game, spine-tingling assessment of Hoffa, that “Things have gotten out of hand with our friend.”

As the titular and lead character, the old raging bull, Robert De Niro, plays a foundational role in The Irishman – as the story is told entirely from his POV. He is also given the onerous task of being the movie’s nexus but also playing a deeply passive character who simply “follows orders.” And for large sections of film, De Niro gives a performance that fits appropriately within these parameters, turning Sheeran into a muted, watchful and apathetic individual whose own agency only flares up periodically.

But within these seemingly restrictive confines, De Niro gives his best performance since 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, revealing small shades of discomfort and unease in the first sections of the film before breaking open the emotional dam open in its searing final hour. As it approaches its ending, The Irishman presents a devastating examination of what familial loyalty truly means, not to mention how the inevitable physical erosion of the body does not have to necessarily be accompanied by one’s moral decay. After playing second fiddle to Pacino and Pesci for a wide swath of The Irishman, De Niro dominates this part of the film. And although he may not end up winning anything for this particular part, there is no doubt that his work in the finale of The Irishman will feature predominantly in any future career retrospective.

Characteristically for Scorsese’s later period, The Irishman‘s primary trio is surrounded by an outrageously high level of supporting talent. As mentioned, Steven Graham plays the antagonistic role of Tony Pro, and he knocks it out of the park – particularly in his character’s various face offs with Pacino’s Hoffa. Ray Romano – whose recent emergence as a semi-dramatic actor is one of the most pleasant surprises in perhaps all of entertainment – is incredibly fun in a small albeit memorable part as Bill Bufalino, Russell’s cousin and a lawyer for the Teamsters. He may not have any scenes at the same level as his glorious, non-sensical, “Love isn’t easy, that’s why they call it love” bit from The Big Sick. But then again, who does? And in addition to Romano, small, almost bit parts are played by formidable thespians like Anna Paquin, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemmons and even Harvey Keitel (reuniting here with Scorsese for the first time in 31 years) as the eerie mob boss Angelo Bruno.

Such accomplished actors are made even more compelling due to the cinematic world they have to play in. Scorsese’s films have historically included accomplished aesthetics and great cinematic panache – and The Irishman is no exception. Past Scorsese collaborators – editor Thelma Schoonmaker, DP Rodrigo Prieto and production designer Bob Shaw – deliver another beautifully shot, edited and dressed movie. The aesthetics are integral to the movie’s overall feel and its thematic material. The film’s editing easily controls the ebb and flow of the story, building tension where appropriate and augmenting the weight of the characters relationships to one another. The photography and design convey its themes of family, hint at the ever-present moral ambiguity of the characters. And when taken as a whole, these artists powerfully and cohesively reflect the film’s thesis of this being a more somber world that only ends one way. Such cohesiveness is typically a joy to watch – a testament to the veteran hands at The Irishman‘s various wheels. And yet, it may also be a bit of a curse; when a rare hyper stylized scene emerges, it feels particularly jarring and out of place.

But in the hands of a director like Martin Scorsese, these moments are truly few and far between. Even in his twilight years, the now-ancient maestro has lost little of his edge, vision or directorial control. The Irishman is a expertly made feature, one that crams so much material into its runtime, strikes such a fine tone and evokes so much emotional and thematic complexity that you honestly don’t know if your stupid melon might roll off your neck due to shaking it so much in amazement. I personally didn’t need as much of the Tarantino-esque pseudo-history that was shoehorned into the story – such as Frank’s involvement with the Bay of Pigs. But there is so much else interwoven into one polished whole that this is – in the end – a minor quibble. If Scorsese can be said to make any major wrong moves here, it is with the dubious decision to de-age the three leads – something that would have admittedly always been an uphill battle due to the actors’ collective age being about 1,000. While the technology is able to successfully shave a couple decades off of the wizened mugs of Pacino and Pesci, it is simply not up to the absurd task of Benjamin Buttoning De Niro from age 76 to 25. So although the film’s results with de-aging may be mixed, I guess you could say that The Irishman definitively accomplishes setting a hard stop for the technology at around 30 years.

To some extent, The Irishman is a film that, like Eastwood’s Unforgiven before it, seems intent on burying the genre in which it exists. However, I’ve never fully bought into the thought piece musings that The Irishman is a direct, apologetic response to Scorsese’s own filmography – as his past gangster films have always seemed to feature horrible lives ending horribly. Similarly, the idea that The Irishman is engaging in a novel deglamorization of its genre has always felt questionable. One can go back all the way to the early films of James Cagney – such as 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces – to see a reckoning with the physical and symbolic meaning of the gangster. The Irishman‘s significant contribution then seems to be in the way it characterizes those who survive a self-imposed life of violence, the manner in which it conveys how – in the end – we’re all bowed by the march of time and the ravages of our physical decline. And within this framework, Scorsese and company are able to masterfully evoke the essentiality of making active choices for how and why we want to live; because if we don’t, all that will be left to us are the decisions for how we want to die.

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