No filmmaker has explored the complex worlds of mob bosses, wise guys, and the streetwise better than Martin Scorsese. Over his 50-plus year career he has frequently returned to these crime stories many of which have a strong moral point to make about the consequences that come with such a life. It’s too early to say whether his latest gangland epic “The Irishman” is his best, but the fact that it must be considered speaks volumes.
Taking from the vein of “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, Scorsese unwraps “The Irishman” through the narration of its central character. Our first glimpse of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sees him alone in a Pennsylvania nursing home. He begins telling his story which screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts from the biography “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. It spans three decades of mob jobs, labor corruption, and of course underworld violence.
Frank begins his story in the 1950’s as a World War II vet driving a truck for a meat distributor. He crosses paths with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the boss of a Pennsylvania crime family. Russell takes a liking to Frank and their chance meeting leads to a handful of odd jobs around town. Soon Frank is entrusted with bigger responsibilities which earns him even more respect among the local wise guys.
Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) who runs the Teamsters labor union out of Detroit. Turns out Jimmy is feeling heat from the federal government because of his ties with organized crime (among other things). Jimmy’s also dealing with an ambitious Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) who is working his way up the Teamsters rank. Jimmy becomes a mentor to Frank and makes him his #1 guy.
But as Hoffa’s relationship with the mob sours, Frank, who has close bonds with both, finds himself caught in the middle. While all of this is building up and playing out, a literal Who’s Who from the era’s real-life Mafia scene are represented in some fashion: Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, “Crazy” Joe Gallo, and even Albert Anastasia among others. As someone who has done a fair amount of reading on the history of La Cosa Nostra it’s impressive to see how Scorsese and Zaillian weave so many in and out of their story.
Equally impressive is watching big moments in American history unfold in the background – Bay of Pigs, JFK’s assassination and so on. It’s one of several things that gives this film its sense of time and place. And it’s one of many ways the film feels yanked right out of a time capsule. With a striking authenticity Scorsese paints a vivid portrait of America while highlighting the mob’s extensive influence.
There’s been a lot of talk about Scorsese bypassing the hiring of younger actors to help cover his sprawling timeline. Instead he uses some age-altering digital trickery that allows De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino to play their characters from their thirties to the seventies. Sometimes you can’t help but notice it, but not because it looks bad. It’s more of a subconscious thing. We know these actors are in their seventies so when we see them suddenly thirty years younger we can’t help but notice. Still it’s pretty incredible to see.
“The Irishman” features so many classic Scorsese trademarks. It features abrasive, complex, and well-developed characters. There is its heavy focus on crime, violence and corruption. We get Scorsese’s pitch-perfect use of period music. And there is always someone wrestling with guilt, penance, and consequences. In fact, we are steadily reminded of the consequences. Countless times Scorsese freezes the frame on a character with text stating the date and details of their murder. It’s as if Scorsese is drilling home the point that the lifestyle may appear glamorous, but it all too often ends in brutal, violent death.
So you could say “The Irishman” is above all things a tragedy. Underneath its veneer of wise guy tradition and violence lies the story of a man facing the music for his embrace of mob life and neglect of his family. It’s a masterwork of storytelling and moves at such a crisp pace despite being three and a half hours long. Moreover it truly feels like a movie only Martin Scorsese could have made.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
You definitely liked it better than me. I was bored out of my mind. But I admit I really don’t like mob movies at all. Plus De Niro, Pesci and Pacino it’s like I’ve seen them play these types before. But to each their own but just not my thing at all.
Oh I completely understand brother. These types of movies really are a thing all their own. I have several friends who would never even attempt to watch it. I actually like this better than Goodfellas. It’s less flashy and hip which I kinda like.
Someone recently said “subtle”. I appreciated that. I liked the details and the deaging was cool. I understand the complaint that putting a “young” face on an old body doesn’t blend, and that’s legit. I watched it in two days and wasn’t disapponted. For me, it was “less than” Goodfellas. But I’m older now and am glad it wasn’t too brutal or loud. I bet Pesci wins!
“Subtle” is a really good word for it. Goodfellas is flashy where The Irishman is indeed more subtle.
Another Netflix I have on my laptop as I will see this in the coming days but first, I need to tackle my final Blind Spot for the year.
Final Blind Spot? Tell me, I’m intrigued.
Oh that’s a heavy one. Well worth the time though.
I’d like to try a slice of cherry chocolate pie 🥧
Awesome write up as usual mate. I’m with you on everything, though I honestly barely batted an eye-lid re- the de-aging thing. Though I have a very weird brain haha, once I saw them all it just blended and I ceased to notice it.
But, boy, this movie…I was transfixed. I’ve already watched it twice. Marty’s last three films may average over three hours but damn that time flies!! What I liked most was that the crime-world stuff was kinda in the background when compared to the human relationships, friendships and betrayals. Plus that feeling of reality, Marty really managed to make a ‘based on a true story’ film feel authentic, more than any other imo. Yanked from a time capsule indeed.
I’m surprised you didn’t mention Peggy. She never says anything, but you see her face and you can tell what she is thinking, for all three different incarnations we see of her.
Ok I have to go watch this again! Marty’s last three films really show how much he has evolved I think. Who else could do Wolf of Wall Street, then Silence, and now this?
That last sentence of yours sums it all up perfectly, and I totally agree.
Totally authentic from its look to its characters to its storytelling. It’s stunning how ‘real’ this movie feels. And man those performances. Great seeing Pesci and Pacino get recognized but how on earth is De Niro not nominated for a Golden Globe? All three are pivotal pieces to the story.
Haha, that is why I have never paid attention to awards things. ESPECIALLY since Moonlight won. An okay film, but political correctness was the reason it won. Not that I liked La LA Land at ALL! 😛
And yes I’m writing my review, and the uber-realism is what stuck with me the most. Cos it IS a true story, you’ve got Bobby narrating (I always thing think is a good choice when adapting from a book) and…. jesus man, it -almost- feels like a documentary!! The acting all round was just freaking spot on. How old is Marty? I hope he keeps going!!! He’s gotta be my favourite director. #
BAH sorry for the long email again! I never use twitter, do you use the messenger app from facebook? I think its linked to facebook, its just called messenger
Oh boy…Moonlight. I’ve never understood the hype for that movie. For me it goes waaay down after Ali vanishes.
I dunno, I just didn’t quite get it. I mean okay, its depicting the life of a black man who is gay, I can’t imagine how awful that would be seeing other people are dickheads. But even that didn’t really com across as much as it should, That true feeling of HATE wasn’t there, or at least I didn’t feel it.
And then…. well, nothing happens. It won cos it ticked the right boxes. Thats it. I haven’t heard a thing about that director since, he did some other movie that seemed a bit aimless, I was too tired to go to watch it properly. Oh, and Pssssssssssssst: Uncut Gems screener is online if you don’t already have it. I’m gonna watch it now 😀
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Great review 🙂 While I would have loved it If you gave it 5 stars instead of 4.5., at least 4.5. is close to 5 stars and you do really seem to love a lot of things about it. One thing I really noticed about The Irishman (and I have seen it 6 times already) is that unlike Goodfellas and Casino, this one is a rather somber affair. While it undoubtedly has all of the energy of those earlier films, The Irishman comes off as a gangster epic as seen through the eyes of an elder, which in this case would be Robert De Niro’s character of Frank Sheehan. This is at the beginning, when we see in present day (though not 2019 of course) a now aged Sheehan in a retirement home telling his story to somebody. He is in some ways, a tragic character considering how he ended up alienating his whole family – especially his now grown children. I especially loved Scorsese’s use of The Five Satins “In the Still of the Night” to express the more somber tone of this film. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂
Thank you! It really is a tragedy and your also right in noting that it is a somber affair. I really do love it and plan on sitting down and showing it to my wife soon.
Spot on review, Keith. I watched this last night mostly and finished it this morning. I’m glad Scorcese used the same guys throughout instead of using younger actors as is so often done. Despite one part of your brain understanding who it is there is still a dissonance that interrupts the flow. I was blown away by how many well-known faces are in this! I also thought the pacing was excellent. This shows how well a movie can be made when the financial backers say, “do it right.” In addition to those freeze frames with the grisly deaths of so many, I love the way the camera lingers on the faces. Every director needs to study the pacing of this film and must demand they be given the time to develop the film how they see fit. I would go to see a lot more movies and pay a higher price to do it if they went back to quality, lengthier films.
Yes!!! Love the things you point out. It’s so incredibly well made. And the pacing is essential.