Review by Eoin O’Donnell
Amid the chaos of debate raging over Martin Scorsese’s incendiary comments on the state of today’s cinema, you’d almost be forgiven for missing the release of his newest film. Like the Marvel blockbusters he’s been decrying, it’s a visual effects-heavy, witty and perhaps overly long affair, with a pantheon of legendary actors and recognizable cameos, but The Irishman is anything but a superhero movie.
Scorsese’s latest work is at somewhat of a crossroads; it’s both a return to formula and uncharted territory. A mob crime drama starring Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci certainly sounds familiar, but this is a far cry from the intensity of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. Looking at how The Irishman fits into a genre once so dominated by Scorsese demonstrates just how drastically he and his vision have matured, creating what can only really be seen as the culmination of his entire filmography. While it does indeed still focus on organized criminals, it somehow feels reductive to call it just another ‘gangster film’; it’s a contemplative, thoughtful meditation on mortality, righteousness and legacy. It doesn’t end with a bang or any sort of shocking twist, but with a silent air of introspection, for both the filmmakers and the audience.
The maturity exhibited by Scorsese is, for the most part, just as evident in the work of the cast, too. Though they haven’t worked together for over twenty years, DeNiro seems to resonate with Scorsese’s vision just as much today, anchoring the film with incredible restraint. Pesci evidently saw the film as a worthy to emerge from his decade-long hibernation, delivering what might be a career-best, in a role far more nuanced and reserved than he’s known for. Al Pacino rounds out the leading cast in, shockingly, his first collaboration with Scorsese, with a performance that can only be described as extremely Al Pacino. Though he definitely provides most of the film’s surprisingly funny moments, his boisterous performance does seem somewhat out of place with the pensive musings of the rest of his ensemble.
It doesn’t end with a bang or any sort of shocking twist, but with a silent air of introspection, for both the filmmakers and the audience.
Much of the conversation around the film has focused on the de-aging tech that has swept through cinema in recent years. The story follows the (distinctly non-Irish) titular Irishman Frank Sheeran through his years with the mob, tracking him from his young adulthood all the way through to his final days, entirely through digital alteration of DeNiro’s performance. For the most part, the result is impressive, but occasionally so much so that it’s distracting; the non-linear story jumps between timeframes frequently, and when you’ve bought into DeNiro at his youngest looking completely natural, even his own unaltered ‘present day’ self begins to look uncanny. The remarkable work done on the actors’ faces cannot necessarily be said for their body language either, with a handful of scenes clearly executed by 70-year old actors, and not the youthful heads pasted onto them. The film’s other elephant in the room is its runtime; 200 minutes is long, and I wish I could say it doesn’t feel like three and a half hours, but it truly does. It’s hard to trust someone telling you to ‘give it a few hours’ for a film to truly get going, but if anybody can say it, Martin Scorsese and his forty-year partnership with editor Thelma Schoonmaker have earned that right.
To go along with the changing cinematic landscape Scorsese has highlighted, comes a somewhat unconventional release for The Irishman. Inexplicably, a Scorsese-directed mob film starring De Niro, Pacino and Pesci wasn’t considered a ‘safe bet’ and was turned down by almost every major studio until it found its home with Netflix. Whilst the company rolled out their widest theatrical release yet, it was clearly more of an obligation than anything else, and the fact remains that most audiences’ first encounter with the film will be on the streaming service. How the film will fare on the small screen remains to be seen, but if you have the (considerable) time to spare, and the willingness to engage with it, I can think of few better ways to pass a gloomy Winter’s evening than The Irishman.
The Irishman is now streaming on Netflix.