At the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sits down and begins recounting to the camera the events of his tumultuous life. What follows is three and a half hours of enthralling cinema depicting a man who went from truck driver to mob hitman with chilling ease and little remorse. Two men dictate Franks path in life, high up mafioso Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and famed union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Along the way, these men lead Frank through the realms of violence, politics, and countless criminal acts, all leading him to the sombre ending where Frank, alone and estranged from his children, waits in a nursing home to die, reflecting, but never speaking on, the worst crime he ever committed, and the only one he may actually regret, the assassination of his friend Jimmy Hoffa.
No one in the world captures criminals as well as Scorsese, and there never will be. He approaches them with a sensitivity that sees them come across as human. They have feelings, they have families and people to care for, they profoundly respect each other and boast legitimate heartfelt friendships, and all of this serves to make them all the more terrifying. No Scorsese gangster is larger than life; they only think they are, and seeing them come back down to earth, as all of Scorsese’s gangsters do, has never been more haunting than in The Irishman.
In Goodfellas, Henry Hill loses everything, and the film ends. In The Irishman, we see throughout and come to dwell with Frank in his final years; we keep seeing him well after the credits of other Scorsese films would have rolled. Therein lies what makes this different to every other film Scorsese has ever made. Sheeran’s story is that of an entire life dedicated to crime all the way to the bitter end. He doesn’t get the cut to black or the sudden death the others get; he fades slowly and harrowingly. In what may well be his farewell to gangster movies, Scorsese delves deep into life and death and finds that evil men die bitterly, and when all is said and done, you know no one else ever could have made a film close to this in terms of storytelling.
The performances here are nothing short of a revelation, not because I didn’t believe the old legends capable, but because they managed to pull off three of the year’s best performances with digitally de-aged faces for lengthy periods of the vast runtime. All three are strong Oscar hopefuls, with Pacino being the best chance for a win. His take on Hoffa is impossible to take your eyes off. He’s vulgar, witty, insanely charismatic and dangerously prideful and Pacino nails every aspect.
And yet, he’s in a film that may well be host to Joe Pesci’s finest performance ever. He is so far removed from the psychos in Casino and Goodfellas. Russell is restrained. He never does the dirty work; he always has people to do it for him. He’s a character made for Pesci’s delicate touch. He is so brilliant at finding the right pitch for every character he plays, and he balances the entire film with how he goes about being Russel.
Finally, we come to De Niro, the most prolific of all Scorsese collaborators. He takes Sheeran and places him firmly in the list of memorable characters he has played in his lengthy, widely loved career. He is, at times, rightfully, outshined by Pacino, who has the livelier character, but in the final portion, where Sheeran is the only one left, De Niro firms The Irishman as his show. The regretful and sombre Sheeran is almost pathetic to look at. He declines to confess his crimes even to a priest, he stumbles his way to see his daughter at her work, and she ignores him and leaves.
I don’t think he knows why he did what he did, and he certainly doesn’t know why he’s the only one left when everyone else is gone, but I do know that his past forces him to try and find forgiveness wherever he can, even though he knows he’ll never find any. This is De Niro’s finest work of the millennium, as it is for most of the cast, and it’s truly unforgettable.
The de-aging is at first a tad jarring, almost comical, as it slightly warps now and then, particularly on Pesci, but by the end, there can be no doubting that no film has done it better to this point. There is a moment in The Irishman, and I couldn’t tell you when, where you simply stop noticing the de-aging technology is even being used. It’s a testament to the talent of everyone involved in the film that this concept could be successful to such an extent. Much of the praise has to go to the genius director, and rightfully so.
Still, his editor, one of the finest ever, Thelma Schoonmaker, pieces together Scorsese’s sprawling epic as only she can; speeding up and slowing down with hard-earned confidence and delivering maximum entertainment, she deserves as much praise as anyone.
In two distinctly different ways, The Irishman is the culmination of careers defined by crime, and it makes for one of the finest films of the decade.
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