You can’t review a Martin Scorsese without looking at the legacy the man has. His films aren’t just another cinematic creation – they are a part of cinematic history and his own massive legacy that is so much more than just telling stories. It’s history coinciding with art. It’s a tale that has a backstory – the same way Scorsese’s own films in the past are somehow tied to the present. Working with his trusted editor (Thelma Schoonmaker) and his favorite stars (Robert DeNiro, for one), The Irishman is a three-hour thirty-minute feature that is every bit worth your time if you are a Scorsese fan.
Based on the book by Charles Brandt, I Heard You Paint Houses, the story of The Irishman is set in motion by the narration of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) a truck driver turned hitman for Russel Buffalino (Joe Pesci). Frank’s tone is matter-of-fact but the audience’s point-of-view is shared with him. He’s showing us all the inner workings of the Mafia bosses in Philadelphia and how Russel became as powerful as he did. About an hour and a half into the establishment of the Philly mob bosses, Frank’s increasing role in Russel’s life, in comes Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the famed leader of the labor union who starts to become a pain to the Mafia.
The film traverses through major moments in American history: the Bay of Pigs invasion, J. F. Kennedy’s assassination, to the Kosovo war. Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance is where the story gravitates towards and lands our key protagonists in the proverbial pickle. The story is personal because it gives you significant and poignant glimpses into the life of Frank Sheeran as a father and as a husband. It gives you a sense of honor among thieves when you explore the relationship between Frank and Russel. Joe Pesci came out of his unofficial retirement for good reason: he delivers the role with the kind of gravitas that is completely befitting to the role.
The Irishman’s most powerful moments are, like Scorsese’s signature style, without dialog. The periodic elements, the powerhouses of the film’s performers, the plot twists all lead up to that moment where you look at the protagonist or even the small character, added to give texture to the plot, wondering what he might do.
The violence is graphic but there is no satisfaction in any of the scenes because they’re all uncomfortable, ripped of glamor and bared down to their very essence. None of it is gratifying.
DeNiro’s eyes shift color as he ages. Given the film’s very specific periodic nature, there are countless scenes that must have clearly been a nightmare to design by the production team – some of them only come in for a sliver of a second. But it’s all there. The lamps, the lighting, the cars, the accents. Everything fits into the giant tapestry of an unreal world that is made closer to the average viewer at the right moment. Exploiting friendships. Valuing loyalty. Interpretation of the moral compass for your own favor. Doing what ‘needs’ to be done. An aging father attempting to reconnect with his daughter. Finding God.
The Irishman is a treat for true cinema lovers and it is said that it’s Scorsese’s longest film to date. Every scene in the film is a masterpiece, which is why it’s an even bigger treat for Scorsese fans. If you haven’t streamed it on Netflix yet, you should probably skip on a lot of bubblegum series and go straight to The Irishman to see how a master craftsman tells the epic tale of fact, fiction and all that goes in behind the headlines of violent crime.