Martin Scorsese is one of the best filmmakers to step behind the camera. Looking at his prolific and relentless body of work, it is almost impossible to deny this. And, despite the changing times, he refuses to stop making quality films that raise the bar for all other filmmakers working in the industry. His newest effort, The Irishman, is yet another instant classic that has all of the plot elements Scorsese is known for while also presenting a more mature and refined experience. The old crew is back: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, etc., and they show faithful viewers what made them so great to begin with. Scorsese can still lead a large production and make it look easy with every aspect of the production coming together to create an unforgettable and essential epic.
The plot details are not foreign to Scorsese or any of the main cast. After all, Goodfellas and The Godfather Trilogy both chronicle the mob/mafia, and have a similar cast of characters working on it. This particular mob epic tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a truck driver for a meat company who gets involved in the mob after he meets an entrepreneur (Joe Pesci) that gives him “houses to paint.” Sheeran moves higher and higher up in the ranks of the Bufalino brothers’ mob until he gets appointed to work for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the most powerful man in the entire mob world. The rest of The Irishman details the relationship between Sheeran and Hoffa even when things start to go downhill for them both.
With The Irishman, it’s hard to point out one aspect of filmmaking that particularly shines because everything comes together with such beauty. From the very first shot–a long tracking shot that travels through a nursing home until it zooms on Sheeran in his old and immobile state–the audience can tell that Scorsese isn’t planning on putting little effort into the film. The film immediately goes into a flashback to when a slightly younger De Niro and Pesci are heading out on a road trip to an important wedding while doing some business on the way. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, American Gangster) then uses this road trip as a catalyst for further flashbacks which serve as the main narrative. This structure sounds as if it would be confusing on paper, but it is written in such a way that the pacing and timelines are never in question. To go even further, the movie wouldn’t feel as unique and mysterious in the first half without this frame story approach. Later in the movie, the different times weave together perfectly, and by the time the film catches up chronologically it is clear to see why Zaillian chose this structure to base the narrative off of. The dialogue is also smart and fast, making this immaculate screenwriting some of the best featured in a Scorsese film.
However, the screenwriting is far from the only thing that deserves tons of praise. It goes without saying that Scorsese’s direction is masterful but it still needs to be emphasized–a good amount of long sequences are jaw-dropping due to his unique approach with long takes and interjections of flashbacks. The editing is so seamless that it isn’t even noticeable at times, and the way in which each scene is staged compliments it with ease. One scene involving a party thrown for Sheeran is immaculately staged, with dozens of conversations occurring that build up to a harrowing emotional realization. The way Scorsese helms The Irishman makes it feel like a movie from the late-1900s that somehow got dropped in this era. Films with this amount of vision and independence are rare these days, and The Irishman takes viewers back to a time when filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorsese ruled the market with original concepts.
Speaking of throwbacks, another aspect of this film that explodes off the screen is the acting from the three main players: De Niro, Pacino and Pesci. De Niro is the shining star of the narrative–he is in just about every single scene and displays a degree of subtlety and expertise not seen from him since the turn of the century. In the second half of the movie in particular, he doesn’t even need to say or do much to express the inner divide regarding his character’s relationship with Hoffa. De Niro never needs to deliver an Oscar-winning monologue detailing his feelings like some lesser movies/actors would; he simply uses subtlety in his facial expressions to tear viewers apart. Pesci too gives an uncharacteristically subdued performance here, which folds into the mix well. Pacino is the juxtaposition of these two as Jimmy Hoffa. His character is loudmouthed and all over the place, which also fits perfectly with the laid back atmosphere that the other mob bosses hold.
Two other aspects of this movie surprised me with how great they were–the de-aging work done on the main three actors and the pacing. I noticed the special effects on De Niro’s face during the very first time it was used, and then it escaped my thoughts until the credits rolled. This would be where I talk about details involving the spectacular visual effects, but they were honestly so seamless that I don’t have anything to discuss. Meanwhile, the pacing is astonishing. The Irishman is a whopping three hours and 29 minutes long and it hardly feels that length. In fact, when the credits finally rolled I realized I could have watched another hour of these characters working together and still have not been sick of the film.
The Irishman is one of the most fulfilling movie experiences of 2019 and is a fantastic way to cap off another great decade of film. The messages about aging and putting an emphasis on relationships instead of material aspects are some for the ages. The final 30 minutes are some of the most mature and meaningful of Scorsese’s career, with one of the finest last shots of the year so far. This is Scorsese’s swan song, and if he goes out on this note he will have gone out with yet another masterwork.
I give The Irishman an A+.