Martin Scorsese's directing career stretches back more than five decades and spans a wide variety of genres, from dark dramas and mainstream thrillers to comedies, kids' movies, biopics, and biblical epics. But for many viewers, it's his violent and sprawling crime movies that define this most revered of directors. Classics such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino have given Scorsese some of his most significant critical acclaim and commercial success and continue to influence filmmakers today. His latest movie, The Irishman, returns him to this world, but with some important changes.
When Scorsese's uproarious The Wolf of Wall Street was released in 2013, it was notable that the movie seemed like the work of a younger filmmaker; the energy, pace, and sheer audacity of the film was not what you expect from a 71-year-old. Conversely, The Irishman feels like it has been made by an older man, in all the best ways. It's a controlled, mature crime movie, the work of an experienced filmmaker taking a more reflective approach to familiar subject matter. It also reunites him with some of the actors who have become synonymous with his movies over the decades.
It's based on the real-life memoir of Frank Sheeran, the titular Irishman played by Robert De Niro. The film spans many decades, and begins with the 80-something Sheeran, looking back on his life from the comfort of a nursing home. Sheeran is a former World War II soldier who is taken under the wing of Philadelphia gangster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Bufalino is impressed by Sheeran's quiet ruthlessness, willingness to follow orders, and ability to get things done without asking questions, and soon Sheeran is working as an enforcer and hitman for the mob. When Bufalino introduces him to notorious Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), Sheeran gets involved with the unions, at first acting as a heavy for Hoffa before being asked to run his own union chapter. But with the mob becoming increasingly involved with the unions, and Robert Kennedy pursuing an anti-corruption crusade against them, Sheeran finds himself caught in the middle.
The Irishman might not have the restless energy of Casino or Goodfellas, but it is unmistakably a Scorsese movie. The long opening steadicam shot down a corridor (albeit in a care home rather than a nightclub), immaculate period detail, the montages, the use of songs, the voiceover, the violence, the language--this is 100% a Scorsese joint. And for the first hour or so, we are in familiar territory. Sheeran becomes part of the gang run by much-feared crime boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), and asked to perform various jobs, from sabotaging a rival cab company to performing a variety of bloody hits.
These scenes are highly enjoyable, and frequently very funny, and it's great to see some of the old gang back together. Pesci came out of retirement for his role, and De Niro and Keitel haven't appeared in a Scorsese movie together since Taxi Driver in 1976; there are also some strong supporting performances from the likes of Ray Romano and Bobby Cannavale. But it's hard to escape the feeling that it's all a bit safe; Scorsese does this sort of thing better than anyone, but frankly, we've been here many times before.
But as the story progresses through the decades, and the characters head through middle age to their twilight years, The Irishman becomes something deeper and more contemplative. The relationship between Sheeran and Bufalino marks the earlier sections, but it's the one between Sheeran and Hoffa that becomes the movie's driving narrative. Remarkably, this is Pacino's first Scorsese movie, and he delivers his best performance in years, playing Hoffa as a charismatic and ambitious leader who is revered by the workers he represents, but is also controlled by a huge ego that ultimately becomes his undoing. Despite their differences, the fast-talking Hoffa and monosyllabic Sheeran become genuine friends, aging, old-fashioned men trying to stay afloat in a world that is moving too rapidly for them. The scenes between De Niro and Pacino are a powerful reminder why these two stars were such acting icons throughout the 1970s.
At 210 minutes, The Irishman is a very long film; as it shifts into its final section, a point where most movies would ratchet up the tension, the pace slows further. But far from dragging, it gains a power that makes it more than just another enjoyable gangster movie. It becomes a film about regret and reflecting on a long life to see how one's actions have affected friends and family. Scorsese has always been fascinated by the themes of moral and spiritual redemption, and how his characters can reconcile their faith with their violent deeds, and in this regard, The Irishman is as potent as anything in his filmography.
Much has been made of Scorsese's decision to use digital de-aging on his actors to allow them to appear as younger versions of themselves. There's no denying that this technology has improved vastly over the past few years, but it's not quite there; the first time we see "young" renditions of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci is a little jarring--it's extremely impressive but not entirely convincing. However, the eye quickly adjusts and the skill of the actors' performances make up for any visual deficiencies. It's certainly no less convincing than 46-year-old De Niro playing a man in his mid-20s in the early scenes of Goodfellas.
The Irishman is unlikely to be Scorsese's last movie--the De Niro/DiCaprio-starring thriller Killers of the Flower Moon is on the way, and there's a long-planned Theodore Roosevelt biopic waiting in the wings too. Nevertheless, it feels like a career summation, a mature and dignified work that could only be made by an older filmmaker able to look back on his life and his work. And while Frank Sheeran is left as an old man filled only with shame and regret, Scorsese proves that his powers as a filmmaker remain at full strength.
Reviewed at London Film Festival 2019.