Dir: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin, Kathrine Narducci, Stephanie Kurtzuba, and Ray Romano
A deliberate camera wanders elegantly through a nursing home, down hallways and past medical staff, finally coming to rest in a cold and lonesome room where one single old man sits, almost waiting for the arrival of someone to engage his company. This all happens as “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins sets the mood for the story about to be told, a tale of murder and mobsters, tough guys with tough tales, with both the known and unknown elements of history equally famous and infamous supplying influence.
“The Irishman”, from director Martin Scorsese, is another gangster story from the auteur many would identify as the curator of the modern mob movie. Films like “Goodfellas”, “Casino”, and “The Departed” all tackled stories of money, power, respect and the violence, arrogance, and betrayal that permeates those areas. “The Irishman” sets a different mood, the familiar elements are all still present but the emotion and intention are different this time around. Scorsese tells a tale that focuses on loss and remorse, decision and intention; it’s a three and a half-hour long cinematic achievement from one of the greatest film directors of all time.
Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is the Irishman and also the lone elder waiting in the nursing home to tell a story about his life. Frank, after being a soldier in World War II, made a living as a truck driver in Pennsylvania, but after a chance meeting with a local gangster named Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), Frank takes a role as “the muscle” for the Philadelphia mob. It doesn’t take long for Frank to impress the higher-ups, opening an opportunity for him to work with James Riddle Hoffa (Al Pacino), president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The plot for “The Irishman” is an interesting device, told with voice-over narration from Frank, who is in the nursing home, and with the same emphasis that old men recall stories about long-forgotten fishing trips or family vacations from the past. Frank looks back on the past, recalling the events that will eventually lead to the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa while taking moments to talk about other gangsters, family life, and historical events pertinent to Frank and his journey through time. With such an extensive running time, it might seem like all these elements would become convoluted or muddle the emotion for the characters. It’s the exact opposite, the deliberate pacing and extensive time spent wandering through time with Frank and other associates helps in establishing the conflict Frank develops as elements of betrayal and loyalty arise throughout his life. It’s less about the history of things or the structure of the mob and more about the emotion of everything that happens to the characters.
The script allows so much for the cast to work with, it’s a beautiful thing watching these amazing actors work in this film. De Niro is fantastic throughout, offering a character that starts as a loyal soldier who matures into a leader who is conflicted yet still devoted to his superiors. It’s a fascinating transition for the character, but also, transformation as De Niro and others in the cast are digitally de-aged for the film, an effect that is strange at first but quickly dissipates. Al Pacino plays Hoffa with a combination of big bold swagger when in the public eye but also sensitivity in smaller scenes when he and Frank are sharing hotel rooms or having ice cream with the family. Joe Pesci completely captivating here; the actor, who hasn’t been in much on the silver screen since the ’90s, composes a quiet character, doing more with subtle glances and small expressions than big dialog moments or boastful gangster antics like we’ve seen in the past.
The look of the film, photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, is stunning at times. The film seems to glow during flashbacks and slowly desaturate as Frank and Russell make a fateful road trip with their wives. The beginning long, continuous shot is beautifully composed and a scene involving a big celebration for Frank looms with ominous intentions.
“The Irishman” comes at an interesting time in the career of Martin Scorsese who recently has come under criticism from some film fans concerning his views on the state of cinema and the connection to Marvel comic book movies. Film is a subjective art-form, but if anyone has the right to make comments on the art of cinema, it’s Martin Scorsese. If the auteur’s past catalog doesn’t prove that point, “The Irishman” displays all the reasons why cinema should be regarded with the kind of seriousness Scorsese commands.
4.50 out of 5.00