Most filmmakers are lucky if they make one masterpiece over the course of their career. Luckier still if they manage to make one classic (A ‘masterpiece’ is a film without faults. A ‘classic’ is a film everyone has seen and constantly re-watches). Director Martin Scorsese has somehow delivered multiple masterpieces and a handful of classics over his nearly 60 year career. So it’s no surprise that his new crime drama, The Irishman (2019) arrives with immense levels of hype. It’s a return to the gangster genre for Scorsese and reunion piece with his old buddies, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, all of whom did their best work together in Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). With a resume like that, his films are often held to a higher standard than others. Just being ‘good’ doesn’t seem good enough, so lucky for Scorsese that The Irishman ranks with his best films.
Set over 60 years, the story follows the life of American-Irishman, Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro. After returning from WWII and starting a family, Sheeran is befriended by Joe Pesci’s Russel Buffalino, an Italian-American heavily connected to organised crime. After transitioning from a dependable driver to an even more dependable hitman, Sheeran eventually builds a professional and personal relationship with Teamster Labour Leader, Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino. As they get deeper into political and corporate corruption, Sheeran struggles to balance his conflicting loyalties towards the Mafia, Hoffa and his family.
The first thing of note is the film’s absolutely staggering size, clocking in at three and a half hours long. Understandably, it’s hard for anything to justify that kind of butt-numbing length. A bold choice but surprisingly the correct choice, with every moment contributing meaning. One misplaced or missing scene would result in the film’s entire non-linear structure to break. This is not the hyper-energised ride we are used to from the director. Scorsese takes a methodical and contemplative pace, as entire sequences play out for 10-20 minutes at a time, trusting the audience to give their full attention. The longest and most underplayed sequence at first seems unnecessary, but once it concludes we see just how integral it is to creating this powerful American tragedy. Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, have crafted a gargantuan and enveloping experience which rivals Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America (1984).
After years of being apart, De Niro, Pesci and Scorsese reunite as if no time has past. De Niro is brilliant as Sheeran, shaking off years of self-caricature to create a living, breathing human being. We see him go from being a hard worker, to a cold unquestioning enforcer, to an old and lonely soul. Joe Pesci (who cut his teeth playing manic mobsters) does surprisingly understated work as Buffalino. He displays that kind of intimidating demeanour which requires no maniacal anger. He doesn’t needs to prove anything, as he just walks in the room and everyone knows he means business.
The most enjoyable performance turns out to be Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa. Similar to De Niro, Pacino has recently reached annoying levels of self-parody. Thankfully, Pacino is back in top form for his one and only Scorsese film (so far), possibly delivering his best performance in decades. He completely melts into the role, embodying Hoffa’s ambition, vindictiveness and wit. Hoffa does not lie down in a confrontation, even fearlessly debating with mobsters about how to dress for a meeting. His complete inability to compromise provides most of the comedy, but also sets the stage for his own tragic downfall.
Criminals meeting tragic ends is a staple of Scorsese’s work and the gangster genre. The director has always grasped the rise and fall of a crime story, understanding the fall to be most important. Like all of his best work, The Irishman stands at the top of the genre by getting us inside the lives of these evil men, allowing us to experience what they experienced fairly and truthfully, yet still keeps us at an objective view. We empathise with their evil deeds while still being able to cast judgement.
Scorsese has pulled this trick many times, but he makes sure this story stands apart by examining powerful and complicated themes of death. Not necessarily by a bullet (although plenty are fired) but instead by the slowness of ageing. Scorsese makes the characters and the audience think about their own mortality in a way that most films don’t often try. It’s achieved with such undramatised grace that you feel like you’ve aged with these people, looking back at past mistakes alongside them. You’ll be thinking about this journey long after the credits roll. The only regret is that I doubt I’ll want to take this journey again anytime soon, as the magnitude of the piece does lower its re-watchabilty. An incredible journey to be sure, but it will weigh heavily on the audience and that won’t appeal to everyone.
Due to its mammoth size and heavy themes, I doubt The Irishman will be everyone’s cup of tea. Even if you’re a fan it’s not a sure thing you’d be keen, since it’s not a wild ride like his previous work (which is probably why many studios didn’t want to finance it). Having a more niche audience will probably hold it back from becoming constantly re-watched and iconic. However, for those willing to commit the time and attention it needs, The Irishman is a spectacular and artful story you won’t forget. It’s yet to be seen if Scorsese has made another classic, but it’s certainly his latest masterpiece.
Best way to watch it: It’s Scorsese. Drop what you’re doing and get your butt in the theatre. Now.