When you talk about mafia movies, there is pre-Goodfellas and post-Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese invented and defined the cinematic language of the modern gangster movie with Goodfellas and Casino with many imitating them since, but none of them really replicating the distinct imprint of Scorsese. Watch them and you’ll know. And now, he has created a film of the likes we will never see again – one that brings together multiple acting legends (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel) all near the end of their lives to craft another mob epic that is framework for these guys to examine what it’s like to be at the end of their lives. It is the most perfect bookend for Scorsese’s crime epics that I could have ever imagined. It is a film only Scorsese could have made, and one only he could have made at this point in his life. I dreamt about seeing this film the night before I went to the theater to watch it. The Irishman managed to exceed my dreams.
Based on the memoirs of Philadelphia mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt (also a terrific read), The Irishman charts 50 years of Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) life with his rise from truck driver to trusted mafia hitman for Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) as well as his friendship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and Sheeran’s claim that he was the one who killed Hoffa.
This is by far the best work that De Niro and Pacino have done in a long time. You can tell when they really care about a role and a film like they do here. De Niro’s delivery of the line “What kind of man makes a phone call like that?” is an encapsulation of just about everything that makes De Niro a legend. Pacino is loud and over the top but that’s what’s required to play Hoffa and I will never turn down Pacino going for it and yelling. The chemistry between Pacino and De Niro is tremendous, and makes you wish this wasn’t just the third time they’ve shared scenes together. Joe Pesci delivers one of the best performances I’ll see this year. We’re so used to Pesci cursing at 100 mph that seeing him being this calm yet threatening presence who never has to raise his voice is just amazing. Anna Paquin has like three lines but makes each of them damning, having a much larger presence over the film than you’d anticipate for such a small role. The whole cast is terrific, with talents like Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons, Jack Huston, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel and Ray Romano delivering great work no matter the size of the part.
At the beginning of the decade when 3D films were all the rage and so many of them had terrible 3D, Scorsese created the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen with Hugo. Now, at the end of the decade as we reckon with an ever-growing quasi-threat of digitally de-aging actors, Scorsese has created the best use of that technology I’ve ever seen and likely will ever see. It’s never uncanny and retains the human expression of the performers. If you hit pause on certain stills, then yes you will be able to pick it apart. But in the flow of the moving image, it’s fantastic and you begin to forget it’s there. In Captain Marvel the de-aging on Samuel L. Jackson looked good until they had him start running and then you remember he’s in his 70s. Scorsese doesn’t do any of that to his actors here. He doesn’t have them do anything that would be too physically demanding for his actors in their 70s that would jolt you out of the magic trick.
A lot of people seem to think this is Scorsese seemingly apologizing for the violence and such in Goodfellas and Casino. That’s incredibly dumb. I won’t call The Irishman an antithesis to Goodfellas and Casino, that does a disservice to all works. If you watch Goodfellas and Casino and somehow think Scorsese condones and glamourizes the violence of mafia life, I don’t know what to tell you. Some people don’t deserve god’s gift of sight. What Scorsese does here is he uses all the same visual language and camera techniques that he pioneered in those films to tell a much sadder story. The brightness and color of Goodfellas and Casino is replaced with a much more muted, somber aesthetic in Rodrigo Prieto’s brilliant cinematography. The camera does a long take not through the copacabana, but through a rest home. The hilarious banter of gangsters is there, and I’m always a sucker for it, but those exchanges hide an emptiness in these character’s souls that they are trying to escape from. When multiple side characters are introduced, the frame freezes and we see their name and a description of the violent death they met. I got a good chuckle when one is introduced and their description is “Well liked by all. Died of natural causes.”
Yes, this film is 3 hours and 29 minutes. Listen, if you make a 5 hour Scorsese film, I’m going to watch a 5 hour Scorsese film. This was one of the best 3 and a half hours I’ve spent at the theater. To those complaining about the length, I’m sorry that you can’t watch a film unless there are comic book characters in it. I’m sorry you can’t appreciate what is possibly the last crime epic from the greatest American filmmaker featuring some of the greatest actors to ever do it. For a film this long, it never feels slow or like it’s wasting time. That’s because of Thelma Schoonmaker – the greatest editor of all time – always keeping the pace fresh and moving. Scorsese would not be Scorsese without Schoonmaker. Their pairing always brings out the best of each other. I wouldn’t have cut a second from it. I could have taken even more from it. Most films would have ended after Hoffa is killed. This one keeps you in it for another hour as you watch Sheeran’s life deteriorate as he must reckon with his life of violence until he’s just a crumpled up old man in a rest home with nobody in his life anymore.
I must implore those to see it in the theater if they can, I’m so grateful I got to because it would have been a crime of cinema to not see a new Scorsese on the big screen. Netflix needs to know that theatrical exhibition is a viable option for them, so please see it in theaters if you can. I’m so grateful we got to see this film from Scorsese before it was too late. This is what I’m thankful for this year.