At the end of the day, what’s it all about?
It’s a question that continuously lingers under the surface of celebrated auteur Martin Scorsese’s latest feature, a melancholy retrospective that acts almost like a career summation filled with riddles of bullets and dynamically vulgar dialogue.
For the premier filmmaker in the gangster genre, Scorsese’s “The Irishman” definitively closes the book on how crime dramas have been made and any future Mob movie will have to live in a post “Irishman” world.
This isn’t to say – although exceptional in its own right – that “The Irishman” is on the same level as his classics “Goodfellas” or “Casino” or “The Departed” for that matter.
But intensely, quietly, there’s a lot on Scorsese’s mind as he puts audiences through an arduous character study on the virtues of loyalty and family and how those often-conflicting ideals can make or ruin the best of men.
Clocking in at just under three-and-a-half hours long, “The Irishman” is an expansive look into the worlds of organized crime and organized labor that somehow never fully gives a complete picture into either, but positions audiences to view things through the lens of an Irish Teamster who joins the Bufalino crime family as an enforcer.
The film truly encapsulates a lifetime in American history, chronicling the events of the film with major moments like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. But “The Irishman” feels epic in scale, layering years upon years of information at the same time body after body falls to gunfire.
“The Irishman” being the first Scorsese film produced by Netflix seems appropriate as there’s almost an episodic nature to the movie that will allow audiences to break up “The Irishman” into a multiple night viewing experience. That being said, it’s a shame that most audiences will never get to see this gem on a big screen as it’s best when viewers are fully immersed in the world of the film without distractions or interruptions.
As the titular “Irishman,” two-time Academy Award winner Robert De Niro balances a fine line between uncertain, often competing relationships and his Frank Sheeran is confident, yet more empathic to the mobsters surrounding him than his own family.
It’s unusual nowadays to see the veteran actor playing the role of mentee rather than mentor, though De Niro flourishes in the part of Mafia apprentice as he displays a rigorous callousness to his work that is matter of fact rather than cold.
The demonstrativeness that audiences are accustomed to seeing from Al Pacino are ever present in “The Irishman,” as Pacino attacks his dialogue as Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa with rigor.
Surprisingly, this vibrancy works for Pacino here. His constant bravado does not overwhelm the film as it usually does and there’s considerable warmth shown by Pacino in smaller moments featuring Hoffa, Sheeran and Sheeran’s daughter Peggy.
The best performance in the film by a wide margin is a career-best turn from Oscar winner Joe Pesci, who reteams with De Niro and Scorsese for the first time since 1995’s “Casino.”
As Sheeran’s mentor and a Bufalino crime boss, Pesci is brilliantly understated and quiet in the role, deceptively drawing audiences in with the calm affectation of a friend. He often outduels De Niro and Pacino in intimate moments and is by far the most compelling character whenever he appears on screen.
“The Irishman” boasts a deep and impressive supporting cast including Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons and Bobby Cannavale. Among the secondary characters, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy – played as a young girl by Lucy Gallina and an adult by Anna Paquin – is the most compelling of all in spite of her lack of dialogue.
Both Gallina and Paquin exhibit an unspoken depth of emotion within their haunting eyes and most of their incredible two-part performance is fully synchronized through non-verbal cues that inform how audiences view Sheeran.
The screenplay from Steven Zaillian, adapted from Charles Brandt’s novel “I Heard You Paint Houses,” delivers some knockout dialogue that allows De Niro, and especially Pacino, to produce highlight-reel quality, career-defining scenes.
Scorsese and Zaillan build “The Irishman” slowly and deliberately over the three-plus hour running time to build to a crescendo of a third act that is both demonstrative and exceptionally pensive for a Scorsese film.
There’s a finality to “The Irishman” that seems to coincide with Scorsese’s own foray into the gangster genre that comes out in the filmmaking. The extended running time and partnership with Netflix feel like a director unconcerned with audience expectations and wanting to make a film on its own terms.
A self-homage tracking shot opening the film that mimics the Copacabana scene from “Goodfellas” cements this notion from the word go.
If this is the last film of Scorsese’s career – though those odds are unlikely – “The Irishman” is a fitting culmination of a master’s work and a movie that will certainly appreciate considerably with age as audiences re-watch it again and again, picking up the subtle flourishes and nuance that come with exception Scorsese filmmaking.
With the full weight of Netflix behind it, “The Irishman” is certain to be a major player come Oscar season and is a virtual lock for Best Picture and Best Director nominations. Despite a crowded field in the category, De Niro should be one of the final five in the Best Actor category and “The Irishman” could sneak both Pacino and Pesci in Best Supporting Actor, although odds likely favor Pacino’s showy performance over Pesci’s subtlety if only one can get in.
This film will likely be most remembered as “Scorsese’s Netflix gangster flick” rather than on its own merits by many audiences.
Those who venture out to find “The Irishman” on a big screen and give themselves over to the world of the Bufalino crime family will find themselves mesmerized and transported by one of America’s finest cinematic craftsmen.
Unquestionably one of 2019’s top five films, “The Irishman” is more than worth the time regardless of how or when viewers find it.