2019, R, 209 mins.
Robert De Niro as Frank 'The Irishman' Sheeran / Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa / Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino / Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno / Bobby Cannavale as Joe Gallo / Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino / Stephen Graham as Anthony Provenzano / Kathrine Narducci as Carrie Bufalino / Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran
Directed by Martin Scorsese / Written by Steve Zaillian, based on the book by Charles Brandt
At the risk of opening up a comparative can of worms here, THE IRISHMAN is the AVENGERS: END GAME of Martin Scorsese films, which euphorically showcases the acclaimed Oscar winning director returning to the mafia drama after a long absence with all of his acting super heroes that have graced his previous films in tow, featuring the likes of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. THE IRISHMAN marks the first collaboration between Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci since 1995's CASINO, with Pesci in particular coming out of a long self-imposed retirement. This is also Scorsese's first mob/crime effort since his 2006's Best Picture winning effort on THE DEPARTED. And, to add extra unbridled excitement to the mix, THE IRISHMAN astoundingly represents the first teaming of star Al Pacino and Scorsese.
So, yeah, to say
that there are unprecedented levels of giddy anticipation for loyal
Scorsese devotees that matches the biggest efforts in the MCU would be the
grandest of understatements.
THE IRISHMAN feels like a grand culmination of 77-year-old filmmaker's
entire crime centric career, which kicked off 46 years ago with MEAN
STREETS and coasted confidently on through to later films like GOODFELLAS,
CASINO, GANGS OF NEW YORK, and
THE DEPARTED. What's so
fundamentally different this go around, though, is the fact that Scorsese
has forged an unprecedented partnership with Netflix to see his 3 hour and
29 minute and $180 million budgeted production to final fruition, after
being in years of development hell and a waiting period of required time
for moviemaking technology to catch up with his vision (more on that in a
bit). Despite the fact that
Scorsese has abandoned a traditional studio and full theatrical release
model (which is par for the course for most Netflix films), THE IRISHMAN
was given an early and far too short theatrical release window, and I made
a personal and committed effort to screen the film as the director
intended it. After devoting
nearly four hours of my time in a darkened cinema I can now proudly
proclaim that THE IRISHMAN is far and away the best film that I've seen in
2019, an epic, sprawling, and audaciously crafted crime drama that
masterfully spans nearly five decades in the lives of its respective
characters and more than highlights Scorsese working at the peak of his
takes inspiration from the 2004 non-fiction book I HEAR YOU PAINT FENCES
(which is the film's unofficial title, with no reference being made to THE
IRISHMAN in the credits) by Charles Brandt, who chronicled the life of
Frank Sheeran, who claimed up until the point of his death in 2003 that he
was not only a mafia thug that "painted houses" (mob code for
blowing people's brains out on the walls during targeted hits), but that
he was also primarily responsible for killing and ensuring the infamous
disappearance of Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa. The last part has never been historically substantiated, so
it should be noted that THE IRISHMAN could be aptly described as being
loosely based on history (the film is entirely told from Sheeran's
perspective, employing a voiceover narration track from this retirement
home residing and approaching death hitman).
Whether this man did indeed kill Hoffa is up for debate, but the
film is a vast and enthralling kaleidoscope of his memories traversing
through his history in crime and how that intersected with many
significant historical events (like JFK's election and subsequent
assassination, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and, yes, Hoffa's own up and down
legacy as the leader of the Teamsters).
According the Sheeran, Hoffa was "as big as Elvis" in the
50's and "bigger than the Beatles in the 60s," not to mention
second to the president for being the most powerfully influential man in
America at his peak.
THE IRISHMAN arguably has the least glamorous opening of any Scorsese crime flick, shown with a slow and lingering camera in one beautiful take careening through the lonely halls of a retirement nursing home before landing on the well past his prime and wheelchair riddled Sheeran (De Niro), who then proceeds to break the fourth wall by becoming the narrative's storyteller. What ensues is a mosaic of his life's memories, from his time serving in WWII that then cascades through the 40s right up until the 2000s. In an early memory we witness Sheeran as a lowly truck driver post-war, during which time he has a very chance meeting while fixing his rig with a prominent and powerful Pennsylvanian based mobster named Russell Bufalino (Pesci), and through him Sheeran gets introduced to the rest of this crime family, including the likes of Felix DiTullion (Bobby Cannavale) and the "Gentle Don" Angelo Bruno (Keitel). By the time we roll on into the 1950s Sheeran has become a loyal member of this family, committing multiple hits...er...house painting jobs...up until the point when he has a meet and greet with Teamster President Hoffa (Pacino), which builds to a long friendship and business liaison between Hoffa and the mob back home. Unfortunately, Hoffa's limitless ambition and drive to re-claim power of the Teamsters leads to Bufalino and Bruno concluding that he needs to be taken care of...and with Sheeran being torn between both sides.
And we all know
what happened (or, do we?) to Hoffa in July of 1975.
and critics have stated that Scorsese is just up to his old bag of mob
genre tricks here in THE IRISHMAN, but nothing can really be further from
the truth. Teaming up with
screenwriter Steven Zaillian (who most famously wrote SCHINDLER'S LIST and
later GANGS OF NEW YORK and the terribly underrated MONEYBALL),
Scorsese has a different thematic end game with THE IRISHMAN. This film is steeped in mafia lore and history, to be sure,
but it's almost less an examination of the mob and more an enthralling
commentary on mortality, loss, regret, and what it means to live
and ultimately die alone and with the whirlwind of conflicting emotions
that runs through someone that has committed unpardonable crimes for most
of his life, leaving physical and emotional scars on countless lives.
Death is a constant in the film (Scorsese utilizes freeze frames
and semi-amusing title cards that explain the grisly details of nearly
every mobster and player that's introduced) and reminds viewers that these
tough guys and goodfellas either die dreadful deaths, or in Sheeran's
case, live an isolated existence as a melancholic old man that will most
likely die pathetic and alone. Scorsese's technique is even
more stylistically relaxed and observant this go around as opposed to
being kinetic, leaving THE IRISHMAN feeling more calmly reflective in
tone. There's a potent sense of sadness and loss that
permeates all throughout this film.
Tied to all of
this is the manner that Scorsese tries to relay the enormity of Sheeran's
life, which results in THE IRISHMAN emerging as a technical triumph on top
of being a bravura piece of storytelling.
Scorsese has never been a VFX heavy director (even though he's no
stranger to using mostly invisible CGI in many of his latest films), but
here he takes his craft to a whole new uncharted level of using
unprecedented - and well publicized pre-release - de-aging digital effects
to make De Niro, Pesci, Pacino and company look credibly young in many of
the film's flashbacks. And
we're not just talking a few fleeting shots here and there, but entire
sections of the film's runtime, sometimes showing Sheeran, for example, as
young as in his thirties and as old as his 80s.
If you get over the fact that most of these actors are well into
their 70s and the initial weirdness of seeing them play their character's
vastly younger doppelgangers through much of the film, the CG effects
slowly start to creep into the background without drawing much attention
to themselves, mostly because the performances and scripting are so spot
on that you become immersed in the enormity of it all.
Scorsese, like so very few directors, knows that the best usage of
CGI is for propelling storytelling forward and not for obtrusive eye candy
purposes. The more time you
spend with Sheeran and the players around him the less conscious you're
aware that you're looking at digital tinkering at play...and that's what
makes the efforts here so pioneering and revelatory.
Aiding all of
this are the superbly rendered performances by this impossibly assembled
cast; THE IRISHMAN is pure acting Valhalla.
Pesci himself reportedly had to be asked 50 times to return to the
silver screen after his retirement to portray yet another mob figure, but
his portrayal of one of the leaders on the Bufalino crime family is almost
an anti-Pesci performance when compared to his past work. In
this film he plays a man that has attained limitless power as a mob boss,
whereas in GOODFELLAS and CASINO he played a loose cannoned hothead trying
to attain power. One of the
pleasures of THE IRISHMAN is seeing him play his boss with such a cold,
detached, and calm spoken ruthlessness.
Pacino, on the other hand, serves as an obvious performance foil to
Pesci (and how wonderful is it to see these two heavyweights of the mob
genre finally play opposite of one another), and his work as the larger
than life, but still laced with insecurities and trust issues Hoffa shows
Pacino in sublime scenery chewing mode.
It's a role that plays into Pacino's obvious strengths as a
theatrical actor, but it's also a sly piece of acting in terms of giving
us a layered portrait of this beleaguered historical figure driven by an
awful lot of stubborn pride. Pacino has not been this mesmerizing in a film in years.
Of course, much
of the film is centered on Hoffa's relationship with Sheeran, which gives
the enterprise an understated meta quality, seeing as Pacino and De Niro
have become screen legends and mutual friends outside of acting and
haven't really done anything of substance since their epic pairing in
1995's HEAT. Watching Pacino
and De Niro carry entire sections of THE IRISHMAN is intoxicating on
multiple levels, stemming from the performers' long standing real
friendship, which allows for them to have such well realized chemistry
here. To be fair, De Niro's
post-Scorsese film career has not been all that stellar (I'd even boldly
suggest that he's wallowed into multiple garbage roles that have
diminished his stature in the industry as of late).
Yet, in a fitting full circle manner, De Niro gives his finest and
most layered performance in decades as Sheeran, especially for the
deceptively subtle and understated things he does here to suggest how the
totality of this man's dangerous life and malicious actions are starting
to catch up with him. This is
all driven home during the film's ultra slow burn, but intensely
suspenseful final half hour where viewers can fully grasp whole the
enormity of Sheeran's relationship with crime and how that has built to a
turning point moment when he's devastatingly torn between loyalty to his
mob bosses and his friendship with Hoffa.
De Niro has a heartbreaking moment on the phone very late in the
film that's almost as painful to endure as a similarly and crushingly
awkward phone scene with Travis Bickle in TAXI
DRIVER. To see De
Niro reclaim his past acting mojo is glorious, to be sure.
There have been
some complaints about THE IRISHMAN in regards to his massive running time
and its female characters. In
terms of its length, THE IRISHMAN earns its 209 minutes because of the way
it respects filmgoers' attention spans and patience, and long-time
Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker has done an Oscar nomination worthy job
of making all of this multiple time spanning material coalesce fluidly
together and to give the narrative a strong forward momentum that rarely
feels dull (granted, this movie could have benefited from an intermission
for its theatrical release for those with weak bladders).
And in terms of the lack of development of its female characters,
it should be reiterated that THE IRISHMAN is told through the narrow
tunnel visioned eyes and POV of Sheeran, and because he unpardonably
neglected his wife and kids (by his own admission) in life it's fitting
that they're given limited screentime here.
Anna Paquin shows up late in the film as Sheeran's long suffering
adult daughter, whose younger self had to endure decades of mistrust and
fear of her father and the self destructive career he took on. Paquin says so very little in the film, but her silence and
penetratingly disapproving stares communicate decades of hurt and in
encapsulating the tragedy of Sheeran's family life.
Some have also been critical of Scorsese for being hypocritical as an unwavering champion of the power of cinema and pure cinema consumption models that now has turned his back on that to make a film for an online streaming giant. That's unfair. I highly doubt that any major Hollywood studio would have greenlit a near $200 million budgeted crime drama with a running time coming awfully close to four hours, so I see Scorsese's partnership with Netflix born more out of creative necessity than selling out of his longstanding principles. And kudos needs to being given to Netflix for supporting this artist and his vision of his film. Lastly, Netflix ensures exposure of THE IRISHMAN to the widest possible audience, something that a theatrical release model would have not allowed with limited showtime options being available because of its runtime (that, and a certain House of Mouse studio that owns an alarmingly large chunk of the industry has a dictatorial stranglehold on what's playing in cinemas these days). If you have to see THE IRISHMAN via streaming, then so be it, but if you can screen it in a cinema as opposed to your laptop or, God forbid, smart phone then seek it out in a cinema. There's a reason you should: At home you have power over the film: it can be paused, stopped, broken up into multiple viewing sections, and so forth. When you see THE IRISHMAN in a cinema the film has power over you, and for three-plus hours I felt it wash over and immerse me in Sheeran's history with the mob and Hoffa, so much so that you really felt like you've taken his life's journey with him.
That's why THE IRISHMAN deserves a cinematic consumption model. And that's why it's the best film of 2019.
To quote Pesci's Buffalino, "It's what it is."