Review

The Irishman review – Scorsese contemplates the end

The latest film from Martin Scorsese is a wistfully epic and slightly repetitive portrait of an aged mob hitman

It isn’t exactly surprising that Martin Scorsese, now 76, has made a film about the end. The end of an era, the end of life, and – if going by his recent comments on Marvel – the end of cinema as we know it. More specifically, he has made a film about ageing versions of the men he mythologised in classics like Goodfellas and Casino; men whose lavish but morally bankrupt lifestyles could never justify the emptiness and guilt they were bound to feel if they lived long enough to reflect on their decisions.

Unravelling with the slow and melancholy air of an elegy, The Irishman is so much more than a self-referential homage to former glories, though. Scorsese, we know, is too good for that. Instead his film stands alone as a mature meditation on a genre he helped to shape and define. And so it had to be Robert De Niro, of course, Scorsese’s long-time friend and collaborator – his Johnny Boy, his Jimmy Conway, his Sam Rothstein – in the lead role of an aged mob hitman faced with a lifetime of bad decisions.

Two notions are sure to precede any viewing of The Irishman. Firstly, there’s that monstrous three-and-a-half-hour runtime – a hefty ask in an era defined by one’s nagging desire to check their smartphone every ten seconds. Secondly, the film’s “revolutionary” use of de-aging technology, poised at the forefront of the film’s pre-release discussion, and utilised here to render De Niro, alongside Al Pacino (here, remarkably, in his first ever Scorsese movie) and Joe Pesci (in his first role in close to a decade), as younger versions of themselves across several decades.

The Irishman is also Scorsese’s longest-gestating passion project – a film he was unable to make with a major studio but finally rescued by Netflix, who provided its whooping $160 million budget. After more than a decade of preamble, then, there can only really be one question on everyone’s lips… does it live up to the hype? And the answer is yes, for the most part, absolutely – though it’s not without flaws. The excessive length is certainly felt, and though The Irishman is never boring, it is occasionally repetitive. That said, there’s an argument to be made that its length is necessary; that The Irishman relies on the idea of a long and exhausting life playing out before our very eyes in order to make its point. As for the de-aging? The technology still isn’t quite there, but its implementation only distracts for roughly thirty minutes. Eventually it’s possible to stop thinking about it as being either good or bad and more as a visual cue to remind us what era we’re supposed to be in.

The film, based on Charles Brandt’s acclaimed 2004 true-crime book “I Heard You Paint Houses” and adapted by regular Scorsese screenwriter Steven Zaillian, tells the story of a mob hitman named Frank Sheeran, whose years of exploits earned him the nickname “The Irishman.” It’s a tale that begins in the mid-40s and ends in the early 2000s, as Frank, numbed by his experiences in World War II, finds his way into the mob almost by accident after encountering mafioso Russell Bufalino (Pesci) on the side of a road. Later, he befriends Teamster Union Boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), whose wild antics begin to irk the mob, putting Sheeran in a difficult moral position. To tell this epic tale – one spanning multiple time frames with an ease only Scorsese and legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker are capable of – the filmmaker resorts to his trademark storytelling style: fluid scenes flowing relentlessly into one another, trailer-like, backed with seamless musical cues and a blunt narration, mixing humour and bursts of sudden violence.

Pesci, having defined his career as shouty, unpredictable characters, returns to acting with a mesmerising performance that is completely and brilliantly against type. Here he’s calm, collected, almost fatherly – the antithesis of his sociopathic Tommy in Goodfellas. It’s a clever choice to ensure that he never, not one time, raises his voice, not to mention a remarkable show of restraint on the actor’s part that’s sure to reap the rewards come awards season. Al Pacino, as Hoffa, is less composed, offering up a scenery-chewing turn that feels slightly overcooked, reminiscent of his work in 90s films like Scent of a Woman and Heat. Then again, one could argue the excess offers a well-needed contrast against the film’s more solemn performances – the spice in a grey-coloured stew made from Scorsese’s wistful recipe.

Because unlike The Wolf of Wall StreetThe Irishman doesn’t unfold with a young man’s energy. The choice is intentional. Whilst that movie felt colourful, vibrant, and contemporary, the pacing and palette here are lethargic and muted. It’s a film with the atmosphere of a funeral home. And whilst The Irishman does have lots in common with Scorsese’s masterpiece, Goodfellas, there’s one key difference: the men here never seem happy or content, even in their prime, the tone always suggesting a world in which everyone gets what he deserves. Scorsese works his instinctive magic in almost every scene, finding humour in unlikely places and building unbearable amounts of tension when he needs to. Lots of it blends together forgettably, but there are plenty of stand-out moments: one, in particular, concerns an unthinkable phone call and gives us a De Niro acting showcase that feels like Tom Hanks’ post-rescue scene in Captain Phillips: a jaw-dropping reminder of why so many consider him to be the greatest actor alive.

In its last hour, The Irishman drifts into a state of anxious reflection – the sort of extended epilogue that most movies would brush over. Repercussions are felt, dues are paid (albeit bloodlessly, with the slow passing of time) and Scorsese gets all contemplative and soul-searching. It’s here that The Irishman breaks fresh ground, offering up something truly new in a well-worn genre, and Scorsese, whose films have so often glamourised aspects of the gangster lifestyle, uses this time to wallow in what feels like a deeply personal crisis of faith. Here, like Frank, we are left dangling, waiting, wondering when that final cut to black will come. In this world, Scorsese suggests, the lucky ones got an unsuspecting bullet in the back of the head before they had a chance to face their demons. When – three-and-a-half hours after we’re first introduced to Frank, alone and babbling to himself in an old folks’ home – The Irishman finally bows out on an intentionally banal static shot, you might feel a slight twinge of disappointment: All that, and for what? And yet it is Frank – unable to put his experiences into words – who has come to understand this sentiment better than anyone.

★★★★☆

By: Tom Barnard

Get The Irishman showtimes in London.

This film was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. It will be released in UK cinemas on November 1st and on Netflix on November 8th.

Where to watch

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