It’s been a long time coming, but the boys are back in town. The anticipation for Martin Scorsese’s self-confessed “passion project” reached fever pitch over the last couple of years with the promise uniting four titans of cinema and a ridiculous budget the likes of which a period drama has never seen. The Irishman is impossible to ignore, and with tabloid rhetoric, speculation and doubt foreshadowing its release, the film arrives to staggering expectations.
Thanks to Netflix – the only studio courageous enough to fund it – the film arrives direct into people’s lounge rooms, following a short series of event screenings at selected cinemas. To herald its release as an occasion would be an understatement, because not only does The Irishman deliver on its promise, it also announces itself as an instant classic and among the best films of the year.
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino make up two thirds of the billing, alongside the legendary Joe Pesci, who was coaxed out of retirement to fulfill Scorsese’s dream of bringing Charles Brandt’s novel “I Heard You Paint Houses” to the screen. That original title, I might add, is the one used on the screen itself – contrary to the poster title. The story follows Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro), a union official and family guy whose life saw him working alongside notorious mafioso Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and the polarising union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).
The film chronicles Sheeran’s life as a young man in the 1950s through to his senior years in a nursing home as he recounts the events that took place throughout those middle years. Using a series of incremental flashbacks, the film pinballs between time periods, offering a seamless account of crooked dealings, violent retributions and cold-blooded murders. His friendship and loyalty to Hoffa provides the anchor that grounds his story, which is incessantly second-guessed and undermined by his friendship with Bufalino and his mobster cronies.
Scorsese’s film is a meticulously crafted wiseguy film that concludes his unofficial mobster anthology, following iconic titles like Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino. As mentioned, The Irishman has been a passion project ever since De Niro introduced him to the book several years ago, making it his second so-called passion project in a row following Silence (2016). One look at this new historical drama and the passion is clear. The film plays like an ode to a bygone era, where stories and characters drove films, rather than IPs and figure-hugging latex. It is classic in every sense and illustrates his own highly publicised thoughts on the ever-popular superhero genre.
De Niro offers a fantastic performance, which is amongst his most reserved and mild-mannered. He portrays Sheeran as a family man first, and hitman second, which – in turn – casts a frosty chill over his character and makes for a fascinating and unpredictable portrayal. Pesci returns to the screen as though no time has passed at all. He resumes his career with the same treacherous charisma that defined his career so many years ago and gives the film some of its most unnerving moments. And with that said, the undeniable truth is that Pacino absolutely kills it with his show-stealing performance as Jimmy Hoffa. Approaching the role with a frivolous sense of liberty, Pacino brings his character to life with a heightened theatrical delivery that presents the union boss more gloriously and fantastically than ever before, carrying self-awareness with it at all times.
The side players are a who’s who of Hollywood talent including Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons and a massively understated performance from Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s long-suffering daughter who bares witness to her father’s criminal descent. They are just some of the impressive ensemble.
Of course the elephant in the room is the de-ageing method, which Scorsese laboured over for many years. His dissatisfaction with the process of digitally reducing his actor’s ages was well documented throughout the production, and his lack of confidence with the technology saw the budget spiral out of control. Now that the film has arrived, and is clearly so great, the question over the de-ageing factor remains. Does it work? Yeah… it does. It is distracting at first, especially on De Niro, but after a short while, as the story takes hold, the digital augmentation dissipates entirely. And where it was a little jarring on the big screen, watching the film on Netflix plays to the film’s advantage by reducing the scope and lessening the disparity.
The Irishman is a monumental marker-point for modern cinema, reminding us that storytelling is paramount. It represents an old guard with an invaluable voice, whose own career redefined how movies were made and continue to set the bar for aspiring filmmakers. It also rests on the cusp of a new era, where the delivery method is changing and the cinematic landscape is (de?)evolving. Furthermore (and most importantly), it is a masterstroke from a pioneer, whose voice will never waver and whose passion for cinema will forever guide us. Yes, I’m unabashedly impressed. The Irishman is Martin Scorsese at his best!
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★★
‘The Irishman’ can be streamed on Netflix right HERE.