Scorsese proves his mastery, once more, as a cinematic storyteller with his somber yet riveting swan song to the gangster epic, “The Irishman”
Written By: Victor DeBonis
Martin Scorsese’s 2019 movie, “The Irishman,” is an engrossing, humorous, and even poignant gangster tale that moves with a deliberate pace of its own but never wastes one moment in its runtime of over 20 minutes. A great part of this narrative’s strength lends itself to the framework of Robert DeNiro playing real-life former mob hitman and union president, Frank Sheeran, spending his final days at a nursing home and telling stories about much of his past life ranging from his time serving as a World War II soldier to doing different jobs and assassinations for the Mafia and Hoffa and what came from his connections and time with those familiar figures with bowler hats, thick, leather jackets, and guns and fists to be fearful of.
There’s a darkly comedic but also fascinating feel to this way of communicating this tale, but that also leaves a great deal of intrigue and sadness as the movie stretches closer to the reality that a lifetime of violence and questionable actions, even if you feel that it’s trying to financially support your family, will ultimately lead to greater isolation and a more complicated life and connections with others as the road winds on. DeNiro mentions early on that he views his actions for the mob not too different from the duties that he performed as a WWII fighter, but are they really the same?
While the latter lifestyle can definitely be seen as one trying to do what is necessary for his country’s protection, the former ties back to a cutthroat atmosphere and way of living that is much harder to defend.
Yet, we’re so intrigued by what goes on with the passion and level of detail that we’ve come to expect from the director’s films, by this point, and the incredible display of talent across the screen that we barely think about the answer to that question. Like any great work of art or story, “The Irishman” handles the thought that comes from witnessing it with skill and a hearty confidence, and we’re simply swept away by the craft used to bring this vision and tale centering around three powerful and interesting men to life. As saddening as it is that this movie seems to be Scorsese’s farewell to the types of stories that come from this genre, the classy style and precise direction that has defined this filmmaker for decades and has still miraculously maintained its powerful touch reminds the audience that we’re still in for one hell of a ride.
I won’t lie. The film is long. It goes for about 209 minutes. However, it rarely wastes one of them and only makes you more amazed with how seriously it takes itself as well as the rest of the talent on display across the screen.
Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino play the main characters based on the real-life figures, labor union official/hitman Sheeran, mob boss Russell Bufalino, and the fascinating, if infamous, Teamsters union president, Jimmy Hoffa, and all three of them give some of the best work of their careers in this movie. Much of the film is narrated in flashbacks from DeNiro’s present status as a nursing home patient who might move considerably slower than he used to, but his rigid posture and a stern edge in his voice lets us know that his ferocity from his former years hasn’t faded for good. As Sheeran, he carries himself with the same devotion and power that helped establish him in my mind as one of the great actors long ago, and, for a movie that takes place across several decades, he masterfully makes every increasing stage of his life story appear completely believable while never losing his sense of intimidation or impact.
After not starring in a feature film for about a decade, Pesci amazes by somehow commanding our attention and providing an eerie coolness to his presence in this movie. Far away from playing the hotheaded gangster that many associate him as from his past roles in “GoodFellas” and “Casino,” Pesci portrays his character with a subdued yet no less powerful sense of authority. His razor-sharp stare and the chilling calmness in his voice lets you know that he means business. If one employee of his was to step out of line, if enough complaints were to come about somebody that he works for, you automatically know from the way that he talks to DeNiro and debates with him about the people working with them that he would have all the power to put that person out of their misery in an unpleasant way.
His startingly calm demeanor provides the perfect backdrop for DeNiro to voice his concerns about people working with them and whatever else is going on in their business. Plenty of great cinematic pairs come up in the decades of the art form, and yet, it still baffles me how DeNiro and Pesci don’t get brought up in that discussion nearly as much as they should. The chemistry between them in Scorsese’s past collaborations with them playing brothers in “Raging Bull” and close comrades in “GoodFellas” and “Casino” has always been nothing short of amazing in both quiet conversations and full-blown disputes. And, that same uncanny bond between these two men is every bit visible here as it was in those other great movies. Watching and listening to them discuss who to eliminate and how the next job should play out is a treat all on its own. Articles have been written discussing that getting Pesci to come out of retirement for this role was anything but easy (One report mentions that it apparently took DeNiro about 40 tries before Pesci finally agreed.) Those efforts paid off vastly.
Pacino’s performance in this movie reminds me why I missed him so much as an actor. He hasn’t been non-existent from the movie scene to be sure, but, similar to his fellow co-star, DeNiro, it’s been a long time since he’s starred in something good enough that allowed him to truly shine. In this movie, I couldn’t help but grin at the display of charisma and over-the-top fury that Pacino displays before crowds and those involved in the business with him. The size of his ego and volatile performance make someone as delightfully wild as Pacino can be ideal casting for playing a larger-than-life figure, such as Hoffa, and he doesn’t disappoint.
Setting aside, for a brief second, how he’s portrayed, Hoffa, as a character, is fascinating. On the surface, he appears as a legitimate guy, possessing a love for ice cream, a knack for charming others, and someone capable of bringing justice and great benefits to all workers under him. Yet, not unlike other doomed leaders, Pacino’s ego and inability to restrain himself back on his power or listen to others’ advice led to him entangling himself further in his own continued crimes and the gradual demise that we see from someone who was, and still is, regarded as a legend amidst well-known leaders. Pacino’s vigor only elevates the interest surrounding him, and it’s awesome to see such a phenomenal actor do such entertaining and exhilarating work again.
Photo credit: Netflix
The way that all three of these actors work off of each other is amusing, interesting, and engaging in every shot. Through all the developments and turmoil that only increases as the story progresses, the loyalty linking these three has a firm, brother-like connection that is undeniable, and part of that comes from the interactions between these performers. Pacino and DeNiro have both been at the top of my list of favorite actors ever since I started taking particular interest in film, and it was an honor to see both of them and Pesci doing some of their best work with each other and on their own.
Scorsese’s direction is naturally phenomenal. His camera makes gigantic sweeps and pans to help give this story an epic sense of scale, and, at times, it steadily moves with a life of its own to help us observe, for example, how one job, narrated briefly by Pesci, is meant to happen. And, in one long but incredibly well-done sequence around the middle, Marty films it in such an chillingly silent manner that you don’t know who’s going to make the first kill or what’s going to happen to the men involved. Yet, the amount of meticulous detail and suspense with which this sequence is filmed is further proof of a longtime artist who knows the powerful narrative ability of the camera and understands precisely how to use it.
Yet, with the help of the now-legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Marty also shows enough appreciation for the audience to let the camera stay still and watch two guys simply talk about their business or quietly make uneasy but (for their work) necessary choices about what to do with someone. The sad fact about recent films is that, with a few exceptions here and there, there aren’t many movies nowadays that will take more time to simply watch two or more characters sit down and have a genuine, serious discussion or debate about a problem or their feelings on a specific matter or what the next smart move forward is. Heck, there are a few shows that I’ve seen in the past couple of years that would’ve become great if they had incorporated these types of moments for their characters in them.
We’re so used to the spectacle associated with countless blockbusters and the emphasis for quick pacing and humor in other works that quieter, more reflective moments between characters practically feel like treasures when we do get a chance to see them. So, it’s all the more rejuvenating when Scorsese captures these types of scenes and further promotes the movie in its favor. That initial discussion with DeNiro and Pesci in the restaurant, simply eating bread and getting acquainted by talking about what parts of Italy they’re both from, has a quiet sense of appreciation for the audience in allowing us to know a little more about these two while also getting the chance to see them start to develop greater respect simply based on how their roots are similar and what they’ve done to get to where they are.
The story itself is fascinating but also increasingly somber. It grapples with the cold reality that the active life from your own intimidating power or authority can only take you so far in terms of your own life and the connections with people in and outside of your circle. Despite all of the benefits and power that DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci held at their fingertips, all of them could only make their business lives and the action involved last for the years that they did without getting caught, but such lives and even their own loyalty, to an extent, could last for the time that it did. All they had left was their connection with each other, or what remained from it.
The relationship between Sheeran and his timid daughter, Peggy, is sad but interesting to witness. They barely communicate throughout the movie, but she keeps herself at such a distance from her dad. Despite Frank’s undeniable dedication to providing for his family and protecting them, there’s a coldness and unpleasant nature with his violent career and his associate, Russell, that it only drove her further away from wanting to have anything to do with him. Younger Peggy glares at Pesci with such disdain as though she sees a criminal and a monster all in one instead of a man. Anna Paquin plays Peggy in her older years, and all that you need to know how angry she feels towards her father and the lifestyle that he chose is the icy look that she gives him whenever they make eye contact and the coldness with which she turns away from him. The only person from Sheeran’s working life that Peggy feels completely comfortable around is Hoffa. Again, as far as the public initially was led to believe, Hoffa appeared to be a force of good by helping out hundreds of dissatisfied blue-collar workers in many ways, and he encompassed an open charm and friendliness that Sheeran never truly evoked.
If I had to nitpick about anything in this film, it’s that a part of me does wish that we would’ve seen at least one direct confrontation between Paquin and DeNiro with the former openly expressing how betrayed and angry she feels at her father for spending so much time doing work but never doing anything truly honorable with it and disgusting her with his actions in the mob. Yet, while I still would have admired to have seen that and the drama to come from it, the wounds in their relationship are visually illustrated well enough to help me overlook that. Plus, the way that Sheeran distanced himself from all of his daughters becomes more apparent with a conversation that Frank has with someone later on in the movie.
Thankfully, the soundtrack, mixing old-school jazz with doo-wop and blues tunes, keeps the momentum of the film moving forward. It matches perfectly with the period of time and the classy style that Scorsese illustrates throughout the movie. As far as the de-aging effect goes, it was, for the most part, seamlessly done and blended wonderfully with the rest of the scenes. Granted, there were a couple of times where the effect was a hint phony, but, for the majority of the movie involving the de-aging, I barely noticed or thought about how the computer animation was working to make DeNiro look as though he was younger in that scene or point in time. The effect is executed almost flawlessly.
For some of the similarities to the other titles in Marty’s filmography, “The Irishman” is a different beast in the sense that it’s more deliberately paced and subdued. It also doesn’t depict the vigorous thrill of the crime as “GoodFellas” does or relish in the excess and wealthy status in a glorified way as “Casino” or “Wolf of Wall Street” does. “Irishman” is a much quieter movie from this director, choosing to reflect on the past life of Sheeran not with a nostalgic craving for the good times of before but instead accepting the reality that the more interesting times and business for him and his ties had ended a long time ago.
Photo credit: Netflix
For me, “The Irishman” is a magnificent but tough watch because, as aforementioned, Scorsese appears to be saying farewell to the gangster genre and the stories that come from it. It makes sense when one considers that there have been few to no gangster stories in the past several years. To my memory, the last decent gangster movie that I remember seeing, “Public Enemies,” was released back in 2009 with Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger and directed by Michael Mann. Scorsese always had a passion for telling stories from the crime drama category, and a number of his most well-known movies, including “The Departed,” “Casino,” and, of course, “GoodFellas,” revolved around the gangster, the in’s and out’s of their lifestyle and business, and the amusing ways that the people involved eventually receive their comeuppance.
Here, DeNiro plays a withered figure from the gangster way of life who is trying to make some degree of peace and closure knowing that he has made a number of misdeeds that doesn’t sit well with his faith and how he never developed a strong connection with his own family. So, one of the last gifts that he contributes towards the end of his long, violent, complicated life is to tell stories about his transition from soldier to hitman to prominent union official who got caught in the middle of insanely attempted deals between bosses, an ongoing war between the unions and the government, and the occasional episodes of violence that he would have to initiate with his own dirty hands. And, that’s sad but also rather awesome in my eyes and fitting for this type of narrative that feels as though it’s recognizing the end of gangster narratives. The part of DeNiro that is sharing his last stories of his gangster life makes me wonder if it’s representative of Marty himself telling the last tale of this kind and trying to make some degree of peace with it, since he’s so good at it and loves doing so but also recognizes that he has other stories to tell in a film-related culture that is always changing.
I admit that I may be wrong here, and he might have another crime drama or gangster drama in store for the future, but, given this filmmaker’s past work and the culture of movies that we live in today, it’s intriguing to think about if this is what the artist’s partial intent was, isn’t it?
Without giving anything away, I love the ending itself. The theme that it tries to tackle within the last 15 minutes or so speaks well to someone with my faith and anyone who has either known someone spending the last few years of their life or someone trying to find some solace after a complicated past. It’s wonderfully acted, given enough vagueness to leave for interesting interpretation, and as close to perfect as a complex drama can get.
If I can get a little personal for a moment, I would like to mention this particular experience and how it ties back to seeing “Irishman.” After watching this film, it took me back to when I was starting to develop a genuine love and interest in movies. I still remember 17-year-old me playing the “GoodFellas” DVD for the first time on that cold December night back in 2006 and being taken aback by how much passion, energy, and boldness breathed through every scene in that movie. With each time that I saw it again and again over the years, I always found something else to love and admire about that film. Yet, more importantly, that moment was life-changing for me in a way because it opened my eyes to what passionate movie-making could accomplish.
For someone like me who was unknowingly searching for something different outside of the flashy blockbusters and typical comedies that were prominent around that time, something that could emotionally connect, Scorsese not only offered something new with that movie, even if it was made long ago, but he only further stirred my interest for wanting to explore more about a form of art and storytelling and caused me to take greater fascination about the form in ways that I didn’t expect. If 5-year-old me started to fall in love with movies when I popped in the “Beauty and the Beast” VHS tape for the first time, I only adored film even more after my high-school self first laid eyes on Scorsese’s masterpiece that night.
He was one of those filmmakers who made me think about film differently, and I’ve tried to watch every film of his that I can find. And, if this is his last gangster film, then I can’t think of a better one to serve as his swan song for the genre than this one. I’d also like to recognize that, throughout much of this decade, Scorsese has pretty much knocked it out of the park and kept that same level of amazement with each of his movies. In terms of his filmography, the 2010’s started off decently enough with the intrigue of “Shutter Island.” Since then, Marty gave us his criminally underrated love letter to cinema with the charming family film“Hugo” the following year, wowed with the extravagantly daring dark comedy, “The Wolf of Wall Street” in 2013, directed the chilling historical drama about religious persecution “Silence,” and now completes his decade with this fantastic movie.
It’s rare to find a filmmaker who has been through the decades in the business as he has and still maintained that level of craftmanship and energy as Marty has. “The Irishman” is a reminder why he is still one of the masters in the craft and deserves to be given the appropriate attention.