Film review: Scorsese’s sorrowful, reflective The Irishman is one of his best

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★★★★★

Though it may seem as though he is treading familiar ground, Scorsese offers us something tougher to chew on in this Netflix produced masterpiece.

We open, tracking down the corridor of a retirement home. The Five Satins’ ‘In The Still of the Night’ doo-wops it’s way past elderly folk playing chess, as they trundle by, taking medication. There’s a Catholic icon somewhere on our path to the seat of Robert De Niro. We reach him; grey, walking stick by his side, a picture of geriatric resignation.

De Niro is playing Frank Sheeran aka The Irishman, a truck driver turned mob hitman whose career in crime led him to a close relationship with mob-tied Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). It’s a saga that tells Sheeran’s life from coming out of the second world war to the time of Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975.

Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses (interestingly enough, the title used in the film) Scorsese takes the confessions of Sheeran and uses them to flip the familiar tale of the crime drama and turn it into something reflective, something asking for forgiveness. With a runtime of 3 and a half hours, The Irishman is a film that very much takes its time. From the narrative laying of bricks, through the drama, the juice, and the paranoia, right to the final, merciful act, it never loses its patience, always biding its time.

It’s this patience that makes The Irishman stand apart from the likes of Goodfellas and Casino; there’s a directness to the questions it’s asking. The reserved, contemplative nature of Joe Pesci’s Russell Bufalino (the complete inverse of his previous Scorsese roles), the cold, brutal killings over shootouts and beatings, the bitter acceptance of age, and the painful crawl —rather than swift dash—to the grave.

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On a technical level, Scorsese seems to be working at his peak here. His handling of Steven Zaillian’s measured script is the work of someone experienced, knowing they’re going to have to ask for more, themself feeling existential and not content with the usual tale of gangsters. He’s extracted a mammoth performance from Pacino and has had his maturity matched by De Niro and Pesci, all doing their best work this century.

He’s also continued to innovate, not just with his collaboration with the world’s largest streaming service but also with the use of de-ageing technology. The technology isn’t always consistent and, it must be said, is jarring at first glance. De Niro’s stumbling 76-year-old body can’t always keep up with a character in his 30s but it does ease on the eye and some of the work on Pesci looks quite flawless.

I know it’s a discussion for another day (preferably the past) but at a time when Scorsese defends the art of cinema and critiques the intentions of Marvel, it’s fitting that he has made a film as reflective, subversive and questioning of a genre he defined as The Irishman. It is a crime epic; one that is a hell of a ride: pure cinematic entertainment.

It is also a profound look at how we cannot escape the past, how we must strive to figure out this curious world we live in and how love situates and represses itself in the harshest environments. Scorsese isn’t just right about the Marvel debate, he’s able to produce what it is the art of cinema should be striving to achieve.

The Irishman packs an emotional punch, giving itself a few jabs as well as its audience; keeping its own sentiment in check. Scorsese has created a perfectly gauged crime epic, a ruminative tale of repentance and a gangster film with more car explosions than you could ever wish for.

Ahead of its arrival on Netflix on November 27th, The Irishman is screening in select cinemas nationwide. You can book tickets to see it at The Electric in Birmingham now.

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Harry Jones

Long and incompetent man who is being allowed to write about films you can watch from your bed.