Directed By Martin Scorsese
Starring – Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
THe Plot – Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) is a man with a lot on his mind. The former labor union high official and hitman, learned to kill serving in Italy during the Second World War. He now looks back on his life and the hits that defined his mob career, maintaining connections with the Bufalino crime family. In particular, the part he claims to have played in the disappearance of his life-long friend, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who mysteriously vanished in late July 1975 at the age of 62.
Rated R for pervasive adult language and strong violence.
– Tonally spontaneous. Like life, Scorsese balances the scales of ups and downs accordingly in emotional complexity, and does so without either of the extreme directions compromising the other. For the majority of the film it’s the obvious; drag-em-out gangster drama with equal parts brutality movements and derogatory dialogue. This is the Scorsese film that we have come to expect in classics like “Goodfellas” or “Gangs of New York”, but isn’t reliant on just this one cohesive tone. From there, there’s a surprisingly ample amount of humor that follows these very dangerous characters everywhere, bringing forth the scale of responsibilities that are anything but routine to common folk, and fleshing them out in a way that feels naturally resonant of a life they’ve come to expect. Some examples include Frank’s defending his daughter from a touchy grocery store owner, or the trials and tribulations of a road trip with the wives that spans out longer than it rightfully should. It proves that even for 50’s gangster characters, they aren’t people who are written one-dimensionally, and this human element adds a healthy dose of empathetic intrigue that helps in our investment towards each of them. Finally, the film’s concluding half hour revels in a somber blanket of regret and longing that brings forth the rarely seen tragic aspect of a lifestyle chosen. This angle not only humanizes these characters who have done unthinkably horrific things, but also proves that Scorsese doesn’t condone or endorse the intrigue of this lifestyle, proving emotional growth from films like “Taxi Driver” or The King of Comedy”, which could easily be misconstrued as an inspirational story.
– Time period subtlety. Part of what makes Scorsese so compelling as a visual storyteller in these distinct time pieces is that he maintains great restrain in evidence, where as a lesser director will make dated visual references a main character in the foreground. This not only keeps the focus on the heat of the unraveling story, but emits off a naturally simplistic approach to production that transcends its dating. With that said, there is evidence of the time frame here, most noticeably in the consistency of wardrobe of three piece suits and tea length swing dresses that were prominent during the 1950’s and 60’s. In addition to this, the backdrop locations and sound capacity bring forth an air of what I call deep cut notoriety that someone not familiar with the decades could easily miss by their existence. It proves that Martin took a lot of aspects from his childhood, and incorporated them in a way that gives weight of proof to the setting, but not enough attention to override the importance of the story and characters.
– Essential Scorsese. While certainly not the best film of Martin’s 26 movie filmography, “The Irishman” may be the most artistically enveloping, for the way it brings along all of the familiarity of past films while breathing life into an entirely new beast all together. Measures like the bigger-than-life rock-star appeal that gangsters maintained is certainly nothing new to Scorsese projects, but here they are articulated with an air of documentation that proves every relationship and interaction has an equally resistant reaction that will eventually catch up with them. Aside from this, the camera work is smooth and full of movement and environmentally-establishing focus, in that they use long takes to soak in more of the madness at the scene. This was prominent in films like “The Color of Money” or “The Last Waltz”, but where it differs in “The Irishman” is the way that locations change but the mission remains the same, and it grants Hoffa and company an almost untouchable feeling, where they have an advantage on every field. As the film focuses on Frank taking us through the many notable moments of his life, it feels like off camera so too is Scorsese, bringing along a career of experience that prospers in one lone installment to prove that even after fifty years why he is still one of the best going today.
– The real antagonist. Despite there being no shortage of crooked politicians and mob bosses in the film, it is the concepts of time and the levity materializing from it that bring forth an unbeatable opponent seen through the eyes of our jaded protagonist. Because these are gangsters first and foremost, we almost never expect them to grow old and be seen in a weak and fragile state, and for one of these characters in particular, that very reality comes to fruition. It adds a tighter grip to the idea of isolation, in that all of these horrible things have happened to people who are both innocent and not, and yet the ones who lived through it are the ones suffering the most, a strange juxtaposition at the very least. This alludes to the hinted at sacrifice that this character pays so dearly for, and establishes blood family as being the one matter worth fighting for when the world around you comes crumbling down one brick at a time.
– Mundane violence. There is definitely no shortage of violence deposited throughout the film, but what surprised me is that none of it is especially gruesome or exploitative in a way that we’ve come to expect from this director. Instead, these moments of horrific realism are captured either out of frame of the camera, or so brief and permanently rendered that they are almost afterthought’s to the resonating abundance of guilt and responsibility that is inescapable in a film with so many eyes and conspiracies afoot. There is one gruesome sequence involving a splash of red, but for the most part Scorsese instead focuses on the action itself instead of the result, and it allows this splash of clarity to contrast the confidence and assertion of what was conjured previously before it ever happened. For a Scorsese gangster drama, it is easily his most artistically restrained of his entire career.
– Family absence. One critique that I constantly keep hearing from critics is the lack of family characters that are given a voice in the film, and while I agree with their critique, I can say that it intentionally serves a purpose within Frank’s frame of mind. For Frank’s child daughter Peggy, this is especially resounding because she almost doesn’t speak throughout the entirety of the film, signifying the lack of connection that she shares with a father who puts work first constantly. This is even further brilliantly elaborated at during Peggy’s adult years, when academy winning actress Anna Paquin takes over the role. It puts a reputably accomplished actress at the helm of this minimally speaking role, which in turn even more so cements her importance, which is not being given the light of day that the character and Paquin so desperately deserve. On a whole, this could be considered irresponsible of the screenplay, but to me I felt that it defined Frank as a work-first, family-second kind of guy, and through a career that he chose so candidly, it proves that he cannot have both.
– Gripping talents. Where do you even start with this one? How about a trio of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, who rivet with a collection of performances that can and should easily be considered for academy recognition. De Niro’s fragility during Frank’s older years is especially endearing, giving the actor a chance to juggle enough heart and longing that literally jumps from the screen into our own soulful registries. Pesci carefully chose the right project to jump back into the game with, and it brings forth a methodically commanding presence to a character that we aren’t used to for the usually boisterous supporting actor. Here, Pesci’s soft-spoken demeanor and heavy hands are used to outline an intimidating presence who never loses his cool. In fact, his most unnerving quality is the composure kept through some testing scenarios that outlines the ferocity of the character in eyes of danger burning through rimmed glasses, and a facial registry that is as cool as a cucumber. Without question though, this becomes Pacino’s show midway through the movie, and it’s probably a good thing because it gives us one more chance to enjoy Al’s long-winded amplified audible capacity. This feels far deeper than an impression. It is simply Pacino becoming Jimmy Hoffa in the same way Jack Nicholson did nearly thirty years ago, and while Pacino equally balances the charisma and seduction of a politician, it is his room-clearing assertion when the bolts of composure come undone that brought Hoffa to life once more. These three in addition to a deep cast complete by Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, and Bobby Cannavale, to name a few, brings forth a gifted ensemble that proves that Netflix is willing to spend to even out the playing field.
– Ambitious run time. This is certainly going to be mentioned in every review of the film, so lets get it out of the way early. At three-and-a-half hours long, “The Irishman” is simply too long of a film to remain constantly engaging through the stretches of exposition that fill the film. As I mentioned earlier, the action and violence that keep audiences on the edge of their seats is mostly missing from this film, so unless you are faithfully invested in these characters and a historical story that has already been told many times, you will start to feel the weight of such a lengthy investment. The pacing of storytelling is solid enough, most notably from Thelma Schoonmaker’s exceptional editing in throwing something new at us every fifteen minutes or so, but once this becomes Hoffa’s story, Frank’s becomes less interesting by contrast, and the film’s tug-of-war with which takes center stage compromises its seamless progression. There is a two and a half hour amazing movie somewhere in here, but instead we’re given a director’s cut that brings with it all of the deleted material that can be a chore to sift through in DVD extras.
– De-aging. My problem isn’t with the technology itself, but the sum of its parts surrounding the effect, which deems it virtually un-affective. There is some use to seeing the central trio thirty years younger than they actually are, but the production’s dedicated to the de-aging gimmick makes it an easy transition due to its investment of being used on camera throughout. Where it does go wrong for me, however, is in the lack of de-aging on character movements, like aching, slow walking patterns, that make it feel like a forty year old face in an 80 year old body. This not only broke my immersion into the gimmick quite frequently, but also removed the charm of seeing these amazing actors visually in their primes once more. Aside from this, the faulty focus of the camera on characters hands is something that also compromises the facial likenesses, giving off an aging quality that doesn’t register as properly in the windows to ones aging mirror. It defeats the purpose of a decently crafted gimmick for the sake of obvious blunders that could’ve easily been hidden or subdued from the film’s finished product.
– Framing device missteps. There’s a few things to unload here. The first deals with the sometimes confusing transitions between respective timelines that required me to waste time distinguishing when I should be focused on what is transpiring in the current day. This was the least of my problems in this section, but big enough during the second act, when the film gets anxious in storytelling transportation. The two bigger problems for me deal with cinematic cliches that even in 2019 are still being committed on a grand scale. I hate when a movie has a flashback within a flashback, and this movie does it two different times. This adds to the already confusing distinguishing that I previously mentioned, and unnecessarily convolutes the narrow path of exposition that should cater to a simplistic approach, especially in an over three hour presentation. My other problem is in framing this as a collection of Frank’s memories, with him being the narrator throughout. This gimmick is fine enough if the script only entailed moments from the events that he was present for, but on more than a few occasions took us through intimate details of things he wasn’t. Most people can forgive this because they believe in the gimmick of script over narrator for their information, but when a film takes time to establish Frank as the eyes and ears of the story, it’s more than a bit of a betrayal to me when I’m supposed to be believing something that isn’t an absolution.
My Grade: 7/10 or B