Four out of four starsThe Irishman is director Martin Scorseses 37th feature film. While it marks a milestone in his storied career, many are prematurely considering it to be his swan song.
If this is the case, hes certainly going out on a high note. But dont expect him to quietly fade into the sunset. This is a man who views his art as lifeblood and will continue working until his dying breath.
Scorsese (who turns 77 this Sunday) has six more projects in various stages of preproduction (including biographies on Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington and Mike Tyson) and he shows no sign of slowing down.
In the pantheon of Scorsese films, The Irishman ranks near the top (fifth in my opinion) and joins his other crime dramas as the finest of that particular genre ever produced. Scorsese has successfully branched out into other types of storytelling (documentary, spiritual enlightenment, fantasy, musical), but he will be always associated with crime movies which is accurate but also a disservice to his legacy. Hes made many other great movies, but mob flicks are the undeniable zenith of his output.
Clocking in one minute shy of three and a half hours, The Irishman is an epic by any definition, yet it goes by in a relative flash. The narrative is the cinematic equivalent of Shakespeares Hamlet, Mozarts Jupiter symphony or Miles Davis Kind of Blue album.
Beginning with nary a whisper, the story builds with exacting precision; every frame, glance and word of spoken dialogue serves a distinct purpose, slowly growing in intensity. Scorsese, his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindlers List, Gangs of New York) are determined to let the story breathe and evolve at its own measured pace, and never once do they ever allow it to lull or languish.
This deliberate, methodical and patient approach to storytelling might not work for everyone. Those wishing for another variation on Mean Streets, GoodFellas, The Departed or Casino should avoid the film or greatly temper their instant gratification expectations. There are no jump cuts, no whiplash editing, zero classic rock accompaniment or overt grandiose, operatic flourishes. It is bravura, but not braggadocio, and shows a master filmmaker clicking on all cylinders without ever getting winded or appearing to break a sweat.
Playing the titular character, Scorsese mainstay Robert De Niro takes the lead as Frank Sheeran, a foodservice truck driver who figures out early on hes stuck in a dead end job. He starts a side hustle by short-changing some customers, paying off others, selling stolen goods on the cheap and gaining a reputation for pinching without too many people noticing. This grabs the attention of Philadelphia mob kingpin Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a man wielding immense power with a similar low-key approach.
More resembling Paul Sorvinos calm Pauly from GoodFellas than his high-voltage character from the same film, Pesci speaks in a muted cadence for the duration and recalls the unfussy grandeur and knowing self-confidence of Marlon Brando in The Godfather or Al Pacino in The Godfather II.
As Teamster head honcho Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino has the showiest part in the film, often recalling his roles in Scarface and Scent of a Woman. This is not in any way a slam on Pacino. Hes playing a guy who reveled in blustery self-promotion and barking his resentment at the most minor slighting. One of the movies best subplots portrays Hoffa as a huge JFK supporter-turned-enemy after Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy began investigating organized labor in general and Hoffa in particular.
After a breaking-in period of sorts, Bufalino assigns Sheeran to be Hoffas shadow and right hand. For a while, all three men are content with the arrangement. As he did with Bufalino, Sheeran gains the respect, affection and admiration of Hoffa, who is indebted more than hed like to be to Bufalino.
The principal rub of the main plot occurs when Sheeran becomes torn in his allegiances to the two men who control his life; it permanently drives a wedge between him and one of his daughters (Anna Paquin).
Based mostly on the Sheeran biography, I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, Zaillians screenplay is air-tight regarding continuity, but also takes some degree of artistic liberty on at least two key occasions. Its worth noting that Brandts book is Sheerans slant on events when Sheeran was in the throes of death; a period when he might have been seeking some type of confessional moral cleansing or semi-inflated puffing up of his own legend. In either case, Sheeran by proxy becomes something of a third person, Richard III unreliable narrator, and the story is presented from his often unverified perspective.
If you wish to see The Irishman on the big screen, you better do so prior to Nov. 27. That is the day when it will only be available on Netflix. Whatever viewing venue you choose, The Irishman is a film which furthers the searing impact of the medium to a level we havent yet experienced and is something every serious movie fan should treat themselves to at their earliest possible convenience.
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