The Irishman (2019) Review

*Warning for mild spoilers*

I remember the first time I heard about The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s latest feature. I was initially excited, seeing the likes of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci all set to star. Scorsese’s previous film, Silence, is something I consider a masterpiece, and from any other director it would be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Scorsese, as we all know, is not such a director. He’s made about as many masterworks as some directors have made films. He’s been on the top of his game for decades now and deserves all of the plaudits he’s received, even if I believe his Best Director Academy Award came for the wrong film, but that’s neither here not there. You’re here to read my thoughts about The Irishman, which are plentiful.

Much like the movie’s now infamous runtime of 209 minutes, I have a lot to say about this movie. I want to start by stating that I did not see this in cinemas, although I would have liked to. Instead, I returned from work, filled up my water bottle and hit play on Netflix, and the rest is history.

209 minutes later, I see the words “Directed by Martin Scorsese” and I resurface from the almost complete immersion into this movie’s world. My first thought? “Was that really three-and-a-half hours?” Initially, I refused to believe it, half-expecting a mid-movie credits roll fake out a la Vice (2018). Sure enough, the movie was over and I can honestly say I rarely experience total immersion into a film that I didn’t see in the cinemas like I did with this one. It’s edited and paced so gorgeously that the runtime isn’t even an issue. I had heard this from the first reactions to the movie and refused to believe that a 209 minute movie wasn’t going to drag. the bloated length did dull my excitement somewhat as I think I doubted that the story would have enough content to fill the runtime. But there is very little filler content in this story. Almost every scene has a huge purpose to either build the story world or to connect us to the characters.

I also want to address a small controversy about this film in relation to Anna Paquin’s lack of dialogue. Without context, I too rolled my eyes and berated Scorsese for ignoring a female viewpoint in favour of the many white men the story focuses on. Much unlike a similar issue with another 2019 film from a respected director that garnered the same sort of reaction, Anna Paquin’s silence speaks volumes. Context matters. Every time she’s on screen, her steely gaze tells you everything. Dialogue is important in a film, sure, but it’s not always necessary. Peggy’s characterisation relies on Paquin’s ability to convey complex emotions and thoughts without saying a word and she nails it. Truly great face acting is sometimes overlooked in favour of bombastic, explosive line delivery which is a crying shame when great actors can give such nuanced performances with just a look or a change in demeanour. Paquin’s ability should not be overlooked here just because she has very little dialogue. Could the movie have featured women in a more prominent role? Sure. Does Paquin’s lack of dialogue render her a useless character? Not by a long shot. She’s an emotional catalyst and brings out a lot of vulnerability in Frank (Robert DeNiro) which helps the movie and the audience’s sense of empathy in relation to its protagonist.

Now, let’s get into the film.

The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran who, through intelligent hypodiegetic framing, retells his involvement in the downfall of Union President and somewhat notorious criminal Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Using Sheeran as the audience’s window is a great idea for this story, as it allows a more relatable lens through which to position us. Most of us aren’t in the mafia, and neither was Frank initially, and the first act takes the time to really build Frank as a kindhearted working man, by which point the audience have taken a liking to him and his lifestyle. We next meet Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci) whose intriguing introduction, aided by Sheeran’s introspective insights, immediately let us take note of his mysterious nature and we know that we haven’t seen the last of him, not by any means.

It’s little under 45 minutes when Pacino makes his first appearance as Hoffa, during a phone call with Frank. From then on, in my personal opinion, right up until the last 45 minutes, it’s his movie. Although we’re still following Frank through his ascension, the more entangled he becomes with Hoffa, the more Pacino is allowed to shine and remind us that he’s still one of the greatest actors to ever live. This is where the reverse of the Paquin thing becomes apparent. Pacino’s performance is absolutely more extroverted and grandiose, but DeNiro’s more reserved and quiet turn allows him to steer the narrative for a while, and with it the interest of the audience. When a screen legend is stealing scenes left and right, you can’t help but become ridiculously engrossed by his charisma and natural likability.

That’s not to take anything away from Robert DeNiro though, who turns in what his easily his best performance perhaps of the century. He does so much with the smallest glances. There’s a shot of him sitting on a plane and Scorsese lets the camera linger on him for a few seconds, his eyes glistening with the weight of his choices, only really digesting them as they sink into the ground, buried forever under the guilt and the heartbreaking finality of a life lived fully. Again, a brilliant example of face acting. But DeNiro is really allowed to shine during the last 30 minutes, as many have pointed out. The entire arc of his character enters a stunning diminuendo as he’s left to reflect on his life and everything he’s been through right in front of our eyes. Scorsese leaves nothing out, letting us into everything, and it’s incredibly well done. Being the point of which you might be feeling the fatigue of the movie’s length, De Niro’s ensures that your eyes don’t leave the screen. His performance is engrossing, captivating, and everything that you need to close out the story. And his last line delivery? Chills.

I think this is the most reserved I’ve ever seen Joe Pesci be in all of his roles. There’s no grand speech, no outbursts, there’s a lot of fantastic deliveries and body language work from him. I’d dare say it’s the weakest of the trio, mostly because a good chunk of the movie features him interspersed with De Niro and Pacino’s double act. But when he comes, you don’t miss it. He has a line about an hour from the end which absolutely kills me thinking about it, it’s so well written and delivered that it doubles the expected impact and really sets up the finale so brilliantly. His nonchalance and quiet authority is unwavering, and it works superbly. He could’ve played this a completely different way, indulging his more bombastic instincts a la Goodfellas, but Scorsese’s direction allows for a gentler perspective which pushes the narrative on in very interesting ways. It’s an interesting turn from Pesci and it’s a delight to see.

While I thought the performances were the main strengths of the movie for me, the screenplay and direction should not be ignored. Steve Zaillian could easily swipe Oscar #2 for this masterful piece of writing and it would be highly deserved. The dialogue is excellent and it’s always woven into brilliant scene-writing, which of course in turn is complemented by Scorsese’s tight, controlled direction. A film like this could easily have gotten away from him with its sprawling narrative and all, but he handles it like the visionary he is. His framing is appropriately great and you always see exactly what you need to, the focus is always exactly where it should be in every moment. It’s genius work and some of his best direction.

I want to also praise Thelma Schoonmaker endlessly for her editing here. It’s masterfully done, scenes blending into each other, moments paced so well that the second hour flies by and you’re wondering how you got there. The editing and pacing was so important to whether this movie remained great or dissolved into tiresome drivel, but Schoonmaker controls the cuts and the scene edits so well that it doesn’t even slightly become an issue.

The only slight nitpick I have with this film, because you know the more you like something the more you feel you have to nitpick because there has to be something wrong with it, is that sometimes the visual effects and de-ageing aren’t as stellar as they could be. That’s it. That’s all. And even then, considering what they did pull off, I can’t even fault it for sometimes lapsing. I think there are maybe four or five shots in the entire thing where it’s noticeable. The rest is so expertly rendered and streamlined into the movie that honestly you forget it’s even happening, content to let the movie play out.

So The Irishman is and out-and-out masterpiece. From being something I didn’t expect to have this much adoration for to a movie that I consider basically flawless, and I imagine that will only rise on repeat watches. If I can ever scrape together three-and-a-half hours to sit down for this again, I know I’ll only be more enthralled by its mastery and the pure superlative craft that is on display. Oscars all round!

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