Play it again, Sam…
While there’s no doubt that The Irishman is a grand stroke in filmmaking that ranks up near some of the best that Scorsese has ever done you just can’t help but shake that old feeling of ‘been there, done that’ even though he’s really never done it better.
The Irishman is an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th Century. Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics.
You’d have to be blind not to see that The Irishman is a brilliant master stroke and obvious companion to other works from Martin Scorsese like Goodfellas & Casino. But while his very evident filmmaking genius is on display in a movie that plays so much quicker than its 209 min running time, you can’t help but shake the feeling that we’re just seeing some fine tuning on what is essentially his greatest hits and that’s actually fine by us because we didn’t even know that they could actually get better with age.
It makes so much sense that this was done for Netflix as this is a film that truly takes it’s time, and not in a bad way. Scorsese truly unfurls a yarn of a life that isn’t necessarily filled with regret but rather with misfortune for the dark trails that it left in our protagonist Frank’s memory. He always felt like he was doing the right thing, but can only look back on his life with the acknowledgment that maybe it wasn’t always the right thing, but he felt like he had the right reasons, even when it was essentially at the expense of his family and loved ones around him. It captures a tone of introspection and maturity while still reminding us how richly vital this story is and most importantly the ability to actually reflect on it.
There just haven’t been many (or any) mob movies that really get into the nuances of living that kind of life and the tolls that it takes on you. We’ll grant that some of the CGI de-aging while mostly pretty good did come with a couple of hiccups, but it’s easily forgotten. With some subtle and really brilliant cinematographic work from Rodrigo Prieto and a vintage Scorsese soundtrack that is perfectly married to the story in front of us it’s a ride that seems short, even at 209 minutes and that is thanks to a veteran ensemble that knew exactly the work that was in front of them.
As Frank Sheeran, Robert De Niro might be the defacto lead in all of this but in fact he was our anchor in this world that he lived a very colourful life in. It wasn’t his job to be showy or have a ‘moment’, but rather to make sure we didn’t miss any of the moments that he bore witness to with a kind of nervous yet palpable energy he brought to the performance. Al Pacino was very good as Jimmy Hoffa bringing a blend of his unique Pacino-isms to the part as his chemistry with De Niro is obviously well established and off the charts. But believe it or not, the real star of The Irishman is Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino acting as sage advisor to all parties as he straddles a very careful line between welcoming warmth and terrifying frigidity. Anyone in his orbit knows better than to actually like him, which I suspect is why Anna Paquin got cast as DeNiro’s daughter with very few actual lines to say, but a thousand yard glare of guilt that truly permeates the last hour of the film.
I can’t honestly say that there’s really anything new in The Irishman, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because as Christopher Booker said, there are only 7 Basics Plots (stories) in his book on why we as a species tell stories and The Irishman is certainly no exception. However it’s a genuine rarity to see a story like this told with such sage wisdom and maturity as Marty has taken his most well tested storytelling genre and given it some genuine reflection, warts and all. In a career filled with masterstrokes of cinema, The Irishman is probably his quietest…and only time will tell if it’s his very best.
The Irishman is playing an exclusive run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox here in Toronto and it hits the Netflix streaming service on Nov. 27th.