The Irishman NYFF Review: Martin Scorsese’s Epic Gangster Fairytale.
At the beginning of 2019, I was thinking about what the majority of people would consider their most anticipated film of the year. If I’m being completely honest, there hasn’t been a film this year with more anticipation than Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. While it wasn’t my personal pick for that top spot, it was up fairly high up there amongst my picks for the year. As a student of filmmaking, Scorsese has continuously inspired me with his craft and passion for bringing stories to life. When I heard about the excitement he had for making The Irishman, I was amped up to see what he’d bring to this project. While it’s not one of my favorites in his catalog, it’s an incredible entry and one that’s very layered when compared to his other work.
Based on Charles Brandt’s memoir I Heard You Painted Houses, The Irishman tackles the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) over the span of five decades. The film has an older Sheeran recounting his days from being a soldier in World War II to becoming a hitman, who worked alongside the Bufalino crime family. With a recommendation from Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), Sheeran gets to work alongside labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). There has been a long history surrounding how Sheeran was involved with the disappearance of Hoffa and we see a lot unfold during the film’s 209-minute runtime.
For a film to tackle nearly fifty years of history, it makes sense why Scorsese wouldn’t have been able to tell this story in under three and a half hours. The runtime is absolutely insane, as I walked in with slight caution due to it. Scorsese is no stranger to directing films with long runtimes, but I was afraid that this would be a huge stretch and of course, in typical Scorsese fashion, it worked very well for the tone he was trying to capture. It is very rare for his films to have a slow-burn presence and The Irishman, especially, showcases why we still support his work after an over 50-year-long career. He manages to add a sort of magic that other filmmakers lack and despite this film being very long and slowly paced, Scorsese knows how to keep his audience engaged. There was never an ounce of boredom from me when viewing this film.
Screenwriter Steven Zaillian, who won an Academy Award for Schindler’s List, does something completely unique with the gangster genre. While The Irishman is filled with the exciting, high-octane moments that fans enjoy from a majority of gangster/mob films, Zaillian manages to focus on the characters more than solely showing off the violence. We see the corruption in the business depicted terrifically here, but the arcs of the characters are fleshed out beautifully in The Irishman, especially Sheeran’s. This is an extremely subdued film, both from a directing and writing standpoint – which is surprising, as that’s rare for Scorsese. I’m always appreciative when filmmakers decide to go down a route of making their tones fresh and I was in tears of joy, as I realized this is something different from both, Zaillian and Scorsese.
I believe that saying the performances in The Irishman are good is a huge understatement, as they are all incredible – even the ones that have the smallest amounts of screen-time. This is the ninth collaboration between De Niro and Scorsese, with their last being 1995’s Casino. De Niro hasn’t been this strong in years and as per usual, he’s at his strongest when under Scorsese’s direction. Pacino as Hoffa is perfection and it blows my mind that 2019 not only marked the first time that he had worked with Quentin Tarantino but also Scorsese. This is a dream that I never thought would end up becoming a reality and he was absolutely terrific in the role as Jimmy Hoffa. However, the real standout of The Irishman for me is Pesci. For someone that hasn’t acted in nearly a decade, his work as Bufalino is top-notch and if this ends up being his last performance, he is going out with a bang!
The biggest question surrounding the release of The Irishman is the de-aging CGI work that was being used on a trio of actors. While the CGI took some time to get immersed in, I thought it was very impressive, the more the film went on. It didn’t distract me from the story and while it was odd to see a 76-year-old De Niro look about 40 years younger – there has to be a lot of credit given to the visual effects team behind The Irishman. I do hope one of the nominations it could snag is for Best Visual Effects since it plays an essential role in the film’s story. I remember when it was confirmed that the budget was $160 million, solely because of the de-aging work, and it left me terrified. It took me by surprise how incredible the CGI ended up being and I’m curious to see where the future lies for this form of technology.
I couldn’t have been more than satisfied with my viewing of The Irishman. To think that Scorsese is close to 80 years old and is still throwing out quality films is deeply inspiring to me. This is a man who knows what to do and while I’m not sure if this film will win everyone over, due to the runtime and pacing, it is a feast for the eyes. Netflix is appearing to have another strong awards season for themselves following last year’s Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. 2019 is shaping up to be a game-changer for the streaming service and I’m very excited to see how The Irishman does when it’s released on Netflix in November. Scorsese hasn’t lost his game yet and I don’t see it happening anytime soon either.