Review: Scorsese Never Misses a Beat with ‘The Irishman’s Immersive and Captivating Storytelling
Victoria Stuewe ’20 / Emertainment Monthly Movies Editor
The Irishman is a wholly immersive, contemplative, harrowing piece of cinema. The film grabs you and never releases, even after the final shot that leaves a deep impression in its simplicity and forlorn. It’s entirely Martin Scorsese, yet unique to his past work; it’s incredible to realize the breadth he has in terms of thematic material. Most impressively, he made a 209-minute film consistently exhilarating. Presenting such engaging entertainment while still exhibiting complex themes, The Irishman pushes Scorsese into a new and exciting chapter in his film career.
Based on the narrative nonfiction novel I Heard You Paint Houses, the film traces the adulthood of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his dealings with politics and crime. After meeting the Bufalino crime family, including Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), his closest ally, Sheeran becomes a hitman. As time goes on, he furthers his reputation in the gallows, eventually garnering his “Irishman” nickname and becoming infamous for “painting houses.” Building his status, he gets acquainted with Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), leading to a split in loyalties between the mob and a corrupt politician.
The runtime may seem long, but every moment is necessary. Scorsese successfully uses the time to build an entire world, to define complex relationships, and to connect the audience to the story. Pieced together so expertly by the legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, it might as well be sacrilege to even consider cutting any scene. A suggestive, bubbling tension gains momentum as the film pushes on, creating a distinct atmosphere that immerses you even more into the story of Frank Sheeran.
The performances indicate a perfect example as to why people have lauded De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci throughout their illustrious careers. De Niro exhibits a perfect balance of quiet reserve and viciousness that sizzles throughout the film. Sheeran is an observer; he barely talks, primarily explaining the film through narration, and yet, you can still interpret deep characterization through De Niro’s piercing gazes. Exhibiting such control in public while letting it all out during his vicious crimes, Sheeran is a silent enigma.
While not his career-best, Pacino still demands attention through his brazen and, quite frankly, hilarious speeches that overwhelm the room — fitting, though, for the politician he plays. He may be on screen less than De Niro and Pesci, but his presence lingers throughout.
Pesci is truly remarkable. Despite having to come out of retirement, he proves his worth with playing a character so unlike his more famous gangster-type roles in the past. Known for such bombastic and flamboyant characters, he opts to play with restraint and poise. It might seem unusual, but the effect is clear: he is utterly terrifying. Through implication and innuendo, Pesci makes words feel even more violent than Sheeran’s murders. His delivery and execution leave a deep impression. Memorable and thoroughly impressive, Pesci’s venture out of retirement was entirely worth the wait.
As with many Scorsese films, The Irishman is complex and intricately woven to create a vivid picture of a beaten-down character. Again and again, he proves his expertise as a fantastic visual storyteller. With deliberate camera movements and framing and with his direction of facial expressions and body movements, it’s incredibly easy to see why Scorsese’s medium is cinema. He uses the camera and the imagery it makes to tell a story that might appear familiar on the surface, but is so utterly different than his earlier work. It’s meditative, it’s humble, it doesn’t glamourize crime like in Goodfellas or Casino — there’s no shopping spree or house tour in this film. No, Sheeran is just like any other man, which makes The Irishman all the more chilling to watch.
It is so easy to fall into the depths of this film and the character study that it is, but one concern is that it doesn’t necessarily challenge or experiment as much as one would hope. The film is filled with what Scorsese does best, but doesn’t try anything new; it feels like a 70s film with a meditative director. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it is something to be desired in what has been harkened to be his “Swan Song.” Perhaps this is a good thing; this isn’t the end of his career by a long shot, only an end to a penultimate chapter with more still to come.
In essence, the crux of the film exemplifies the fear of aging and the consequences of the life of crime. As mentioned previously, none of his films have really explored the aftermath and negative effects created due to indiscretion — or at least, none as much as this one. Focusing on the later part of Sheeran’s life, it becomes apparent that life with riches and fame might not end up being as satisfying as one might think. You see Sheeran and the others deteriorate, as one will do when a person ages. It may seem that Henry Hill from Goodfellas or Nicky Santoro from Casino are, in a way, immortal, or at least, unaging. You may get a sense of this with a change of hairstyle or clothing, but not as much on a physical level. This is what makes The Irishman so jarring. Throughout the film, as you are introduced to the cast, you’re also given their cause and date of death. You watch both Sheeran and Bufalino age in prison to the point of having to rely on crutches and wheelchairs. Everyone has an end — even the biggest criminals in the world.
This all leads up to the end, and that last shot is so effective. Even after three and a half hours of content, the last moments of the film are still as gratifying as the beginning. From the first long shot to the melancholic finish, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that there was one, consistent storyteller throughout the course of the movie. It may scare some off with such a hefty length, but it’s entirely and utterly worth it. Escape into the odyssey that is The Irishman; this is the type of film that makes cinema art.
Overall Grade: A
The Irishman is now playing in select cities for a limited time. It will be released worldwide on Netflix on November 27.
Note: It is imperative that you see this in the theaters. It cannot be stressed enough that this deserves to be seen on a giant screen with a minimal amount of distractions so that it can be enjoyed to its fullest extent. Don’t wait until it comes on Netflix; sit back and enjoy the journey.
Watch The Trailer: