Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is truly a triumphant work of ambition and grandeur, and not just because of its groundbreaking de-aging digital effects that transform its older lead actors back into much younger looking men. While that has been the main spotlight of the films notoriety, as well as being an enormously expensive project that exceeded 140 million dollars–which is unorthodox for any project nowadays that isn’t a superhero movie, Scorsese’s latest ambitious endeavor ended up being financed and distributed by Netflix instead of by any major Hollywood studio. What makes “The Irishman” truly an extraordinary accomplishment is its melancholic meditation and muted expedition on the isolation of what organized crime ultimately leaves on the individual.
This is a film that takes the viewer into a long itinerary about the conjoined forces between youth and time, age and corruption, regret and ultimately redemption. Clocking in at exactly 3 1/2 hours, the Frank Sheeran-Jimmy Hoffa sprawling true story saga may be long, but the journey is advantageous. Not only is this the first collaboration between Martin Scorsese and his erstwhile fellow actor Robert De Niro have had together since the 1995 masterpiece “Casino”, the film also marks the first time Scorsese has ever worked with Al Pacino. Joe Pesci also returns on the screen for the first time in years, and of course each of these iconic actors get to look much younger with their digital face-lifts.
Despite all the buzz and hoopla, “The Irishman” is ultimately an elegiac chronicle of crime about the solitude and emptiness the organized crime lifestyle brings. Just as Scorsese’s previous film “Silence” examined the gulf between faith and conviction, Scorsese crafts a versatile, varied work of art that ranks up there with “Silence” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” as being one of Scorsese’s most mature and contemplative efforts to date. Structured around the process of regret and the passage of time, “The Irishman” opens in a retirement home of Frank Sheeran’s (De Niro) expressing his reflections and memories of his staggering mafia career as the song “The Still of the Night” by the Five Satins ballads in the background, the film starts off with Sheeran apprising the audience of the burden the organized lifestyle engraves on the soul during the course of his career.
“The Irishman” theoretically solves the enigma of Teamster’s Union leader and his bizarre disappearance in the summer of 1975. Based on the 2004 book by Charles Brandt, “I Heard You Paint Houses”, that is based on Sheeran’s own interviews Brandt had with him on what led to the disappearance of Hoffa. The book is a collage of confessions of the details in which Sheeran claimed he killed Hoffa at the decree of his crime bosses. Yet Scorsese along with screenwriter Steven Zallian are more interested in Sheeran’s mentee into the organized crime world. Like “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, the film authentically examines how a crime syndicate conducts and operates. The film examines the conflicting moral codes, the double crosses, and even language and code names of the Mafia culture. For example, the usage of the phrase “painting houses” is just a term for doing a hit on someone.
Despite the films unexpected melancholic and somber tone, the first half of “The Irishman” still plays out like “Goodfellas” and “Casino”. The exuberant energy is still to be found, along with the breezy pacing and vigorous narration. The saga begins in the 1950’s of Sheeran as a union driver, who ends up working under the Bufalino’s, a powerful crime family that is led by Russel Bufalino (Pesci). While Pesci delivers his combative peculiarities, yet there is something very restraint and even delicate to his performance here than his previous iconic characters. “The Irishman” changes tonally once the inevitable victim Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) enters the film during the 1960’s, a magnetic Union leader and empowering public speaker that fights for the working class. Hoffa is also a close friend of the Bufalino’s, he requests security which leads to Sheeran protecting him and becoming his right hand man. The two men become close friends, in which their bond leads both men down a journey of loyalty, family, deception, and tragic betrayal. Hoffa eventually falls apart, he is charged, tried, and imprisoned with bribery and other scandals. Hoffa eventually becomes self-destructive and caustic once he is released from prison in 1971 as he starts demanding his old status back. With his populist impertinence and entitlement running amok, Pacino manifests the role of Hoffa as a loose cannon who becomes a complete embarrassment not only to himself, but to his mob associates around him. Pacino is truly extraordinary here, he possibly delivers his greatest performance in decades. Pacino takes his lunacy that often feels like caricature as he transforms these eccentricities with more dimension and despair.
De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is the most tone-downed performance in the film. Frank is the type of man that mostly observes and bottles up his anxieties inside until they just rapture with primal violence. A great moment in the film includes Frank confronting and assaulting a grocery store owner after he disrespects his daughter Peggy, this particular moment shows the primal nature Frank has repressed within. The incident ultimately disconnects and destroys his relationship with Peggy. There have been some criticisms of Paquin having very little dialogue in the film, in fact outside of Josephine Hoffa (Welker White), there is almost a complete absence of women in the saga. All around this is a sprawling saga about history unfolding in a certain time and space that is being generated by very corruptible and violent men. There is a powerful moment of Paquin expressing so much without saying a word as she re-encounters a much older Frank years later at a funeral. During this moment, as Frank is elderly and crippled it feels shattering and heartbreaking in just how Frank’s unscrupulous choices in life created the disconnection with his daughter. It is there where Frank truly feels isolated, somewhere where we all don’t want to be once we become elderly.