Understated truck driver Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) is swept into the world of organised crime after meeting mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Frank soon becomes an enforcer and hitman, and a bit-part player in much of America’s history making moments in the 60s and 70s – including the presumed assassination of union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
You can’t get more Scorsese than this – a gangster movie about the Italian American mob starring favoured alumni, DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino. But The Irishman actually delivers a more meditative musing on the life of a gangster than Scorsese’s previous work, ambling through pivotal points in American history and connecting dots between true events and potential fiction. This is made more compelling by the film’s adaptation from the real-life Frank Sheeran’s untrustworthy memoir.
If you have heard anything else about The Irishman, it’s that it’s LONG. At 3.5 hours, no amount of blood-soaked violence could hasten the narrative; but this meandering pace has charm. One of the narrative devices framing the story, Frank (DeNiro) and his mentor Russell (Pesci) on a road trip, is apt because the pair stop so frequently along the way. The film as a whole does that too, as we regularly step aside from the main narrative for colourful but irrelevant interludes. It leaves us equal parts anxious to get back enroute but thankful for the chance to take our time with the enthralling scenery.
This sprawling narrative is a two-sided coin; both the film’s highlight and its step backwards from definition as an instant classic. The screenplay, adapted by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), is a great example of narrative over-indulgence. The Irishman’s first segment is taut as we dive into Frank’s encounter with the mob and subsequent recruitment as a hitman. However, as we stroll towards the film’s middle, too many diversions from the main narrative leave characters underdeveloped. Towards the end we refocus again, but by then we have lost some sense of who everyone is. The story’s lack of female characters is also a major flaw, with interesting figures like Frank’s icy daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) mere ghosts in the background. With more prudent editing, the script could have been a model for excellence.
The real strength of The Irishman is its immaculate directing. Scorsese masters his camera work to marginalise Frank as a protagonist, feeding a metaphor about history playing out regardless of the people around it so central to the film. This alienation does take away from our connection with the main characters, but not in the same way a lesser film fails to build connections at all. In The Irishman, it’s simply that we take a higher view of events, like historians. The aging and anti-aging camera technology and practical effects were also artful, despite the derision of some critics. The whole package is a prime example of Scorsese at his.
The acting is as strong as you would expect from such an experienced cast. DeNiro is restrained, if a little rinse and-repeat, as Frank. Pesci, in his first onscreen role for years, is excellent as mob boss Russell, the calm and calculating antithesis to his volatile characters in Scorsese’s previous work. Pacino is near-bombastic as the legendary Jimmy Hoffa, with his oddball personality growing on you quickly. The support, especially Stephen Graham, are also excellent.
The Irishman is now undoubtedly Netflix’s flagship project – and while it will definitely be an Oscar darling, it lacks all the elements needed to make it a true Hollywood great.
The Irishman is another epic in Scorsese’s storied career. Only its self-awareness as an epic holds the film back from greatness. 7/10.