Review: The Irishman

The Irishman begins with a sweeping tracking shot that makes its way through a Catholic nursing home. The technique is a classic Martin Scorsese trope, but the location is unfamiliar territory for the veteran director.

As the camera stops, we meet Robert De Niro’s hitman Frank Sheeran as he lives out his twilight years. Addressing the viewer, Sheeran then narrates a 209-minute odyssey through his life in Russell Bufalino’s (Joe Pesci) Pennsylvania mob and its association with notorious politician Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

This may seem like more of the same from the director of gangster classics Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino, but The Irishman is a different beast. The glitz and excess of Scorsese’s previous mobster tales are replaced by themes of remorse, guilt and legacy as he delivers a grounded and moving epic that gets to the heart of life as a mafioso.

Sheeran’s tale begins with him working as a truck driver having returned from serving in Italy during the Second World War. His work leads him to Bufalino and, after gaining the mafioso’s trust and rising through the ranks, he is introduced to union leader Hoffa. Loyalties shift as Sheeran’s prominence increases and circumstances change.

Steven Zaillian’s screenplay, adapted from Charles Brant’s 2004 true-crime book I Heard You Paint Houses, and the use of expensive visual de-aging technology with his three leads gives Scorsese the scope to dramatize the entirety of Sheeran’s time in the mob, as well as pore over its legacy, as we spend time with the older man, in his final years. The de-aging technology enables Pacino, Pesci and De Niro to portray their characters throughout the decade-spanning narrative. Though the effect is not yet perfect, and De Niro’s younger faces take some time to get used to, all three performances are enriched by the actors developing along with their characters.

However, the biggest problem with the de-aging is that the movement and mannerisms of their younger selves cannot be emulated by the elder actors. An early scene sees a middle-aged Sheeran assault a shop owner, but it falls flat as De Niro’s reduced agility kills any sense of physicality or intimidation.

Regardless, it is a joy to see De Niro and Pesci acting together again. This is their fourth shared appearance in a Scorsese film and their peerless ability to play off one another comes to the fore. Their chemistry remains vibrant – many of the film’s finest scenes are perfectly delivered conversations between the two.

Pesci, who was coaxed out of retirement by Scorsese, is brilliant in a more restrained role than he usual plays. Softly spoken and quietly menacing, Bufalino is the film’s constant point of authority, which looms over Sheeran and tussles with Pacino’s Hoffa. It is Pacino’s first film with Scorsese and he is let loose to deliver a bombastic performance. Clearly revitalised by his director, he imbues Hoffa with boundless energy but retains a key sense of vulnerability. The politician is colourful, erratic and thoroughly entertaining but Pacino’s skill ensures that he doesn’t slip into caricature.  

However, it is De Niro who anchors the film with his best work in decades. Sheeran is a cold and reserved figure, who feels impenetrable at times. His wartime experiences mean that life as a loyal soldier for the mob suits him and provides a purpose. Killing raises no issues and is an important part of his service. De Niro conveys this stoicism in a brilliantly reserved and nuanced manner, but it is in the later part of the narrative that his performance truly excels.

Sheeran’s violent life creates an emotional disconnect with his family, particularly his daughter Peggy, who is played in adulthood in an impressive if fleeting performance by Anna Paquin. As his loyalty to the Bufalino family increases, Sheeran’s own begins to slip away. This leads to the film’s emotional gut punch of a final act, which lodges an elder Sheeran in a pit of retrospection. Seeing where he has ended up, was it all worth it?

This draws some of the finest acting of De Niro’s career. He is truly devastating as the elderly Sheeran, presenting a figure haunted by futility and maimed by regret and loss. It is a deeply affecting performance, one which is rounded and darkly human. Rarely are cinematic gangsters treated with such depth.

Stephen Graham and Harvey Keitel are excellent in supporting roles, but it is the trio of screen legends at the film’s centre who come to own it. It is a privilege to witness such acting pedigree matched so perfectly with their director.

The gangster genre is well-trodden ground for Scorsese and he could be forgiven for producing a greatest hits montage. Yet, The Irishman is distinct and could act as the final chapter of the director’s career-long mafia saga. It approaches themes beyond those of his previous films, with the idea of legacy most central. Admittedly, there are similarities to both Goodfellas and Casino. The Irishman’s first two acts also follow the rise of a gangster and give Scorsese the chance to spend time with his usual suspects. However, this is a more poignant film, one which investigates the consequences and aftermath of the mobster life. Morality is questioned, but remains murky, leading to a melancholic, knockout finale.

The Irishman is Scorsese’s late career masterpiece. Brimming with moments of technical skill and artistic bravura, the film is directed with the deft touch of a man still at the top of his game at the age of 76. It is a sprawling gangster epic that provides the excitement of a genre classic while managing to cross-examine the soul of its characters, without ever losing focus.

Though it will be available to stream on Netflix shortly after a limited release, few recent films have warranted a trip to the movies more. Such cinematic brilliance belongs on the silver screen.

Rating: 5 stars

The Irishman will be released in UK cinemas on November 8, before being released on Netflix on Nov. 27.

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