Anyone walking into The Irishman or sitting down in their living room to watch it when it debuts on Netflix at the end of November, may find themselves taken somewhat aback from a Martin Scorsese crime picture that unfolds as melancholically and retrospectively as this one does.
De Niro is there, Joe Pesci has returned, they’ve roped in Al Pacino, there’s a small appearance from Harvey Keitel, the film deploys freeze frames, a voice over, all sorts of mob related detail and there are crime families and gangsters and an assortment of characters being, shall we say, ‘whacked’.
Unlike the onslaught of pace that went into Goodfellas or Casino, the latter of which has thankfully been going through a period of reappraisal as a worthy addition to the Scorsese cannon, The Irishman has more melancholy themes it wants to deal with.
While the film is set to debut on Netflix at the end of November, the film has been given a limited cinema run, the appropriate place to see some of the best work in years coming from De Niro and Pacino, and a lovely reminder of the versatility of Joe Pesci who has been absent from our screens for too long.
An expansive film in terms of time frame, and length, clocking in at a lengthy but never overbearing three and a half hours, the film covers the life of Frank Sheeran, portrayed by De Niro, and his falling into the company of crime boss Russell Bufalino, played by Pesci, and eventually into the circle of Jimmy Hoffa, a brilliantly blustering Pacino.
Given the expansive time frame of the movie, the film has made extensive use of de-aging CGI to make the three leads look younger. For the most part it works wonders; the film ends up being so engrossing that while the de-aging is particularly noticeable on De Niro at first, you end up forgetting about it the longer the film goes on. In fact, if anything ends up being distracting, it’s the blue contact lenses that De Niro wears as Sheeran, but even this ends up working wonders, the eyes becoming ever sadder and haunted as the running time goes on.
There is an enveloping sadness at the heart of The Irishman that becomes inescapable, and it hits like a hammer once the film enters its third act, a final stretch that could arguably be the greatest thing that Scorsese has ever made but which could only have come from him today as opposed to the fiery talent that brought the world Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.
Memory, nostalgia and longing are the main concerns here. For the first hour, the film plays out as if Scorsese and his cast are embracing on a nostalgic trip down memory lane with a tale of crime, gangsters, complete with voice overs, freeze frames and some wonderful observational humour as pertains to the ins and outs of being involved in organised crime. Things take a more dense turn with the introduction of Pacino as Hoffa and Stephen Graham as his rival Tony Pro, the latter channelling a little bit of Pesci here with an incendiary anger that explodes at various times, sometimes humorously so in his altercations with Hoffa, not least in a meeting where punctuality and appropriate dress attire are argued and subsequently punched about.
There are points in the middle of the film where the level of detail involving the Teamsters can be dense, but the story telling is grand, epic and wonderful and just the experience of once again seeing De Niro and Pesci in a Scorsese film, this time with Pacino, makes the film such a joy to see on a large cinema screen.
That this is Pacino’s first time in a Scorsese picture is a shock; if there was anyone that should have appeared in a Scorsese film by now it really ought to have been him. This may only be Pacino and De Niro’s third film together (although, really who counts Righteous Kill, it would almost be better if Michael Mann’s Heat was the only film they appeared on screen together in) but one still can’t help but get a buzz seeing them on screen together, and here the screen time is expansive; it’s not just a key scene where they drink coffee, it’s them on screen together for a large majority of the film and their time together is majestic.
Where their screen time in Heat was punctuated by a tension since they were on opposite sides of the law, there is a joy here at seeing them play characters who treat each other with a degree of warmth and friendship. Kept apart by the time frame at the heart of The Godfather Part II, and playing cops and robbers in Heat, here they play scenes like old pros just enjoying their time together and honestly just the sight of them enjoying each other’s company is almost enough.
De Niro is a wonderful actor, but seeing him slumming in it the likes of Dirty Grandpa has been a depressing experience mainly because of the legacy the actor has as one of modern Hollywood’s true greats, and the same goes for Pacino who, lest we forget, slummed it in Jack and Jill. Seeing them delivering the magic words scripted by Steven Zaillian and being directed as brilliantly here as they are by Scorsese is electrifying.
Their scenes crackle with comedic energy at points, and then with an intensity at others. A Hoffa screaming session turns into Sheeran being offended at being called very swear word under the sun, only for Hoffa not to have realised that Sheeran was even there, and the performances from Pacino and De Niro in that moment are wonderfully funny, and yet towards the end the film dives into darker territory and given historical facts, we know Hoffa is not coming out of this well.
The film feels as if it’s building itself up to Hoffa being assassinated by Sheeran and it is a key moment of the drama for sure; where Scorsese in previous crime films might have zipped along with a high attention to detail and voice over about what it is about to happen to Hoffa, he instead takes his time, the film slowly detailing Sheeran getting on a plane, his drive to the house where the hit is going down, an argument over a spilled fish in the back seat of a car, eventually picking Hoffa up outside a restaurant. The hit, when it goes down, is fast and over before you even know it.
It’s an electrifying piece of cinema filled with detail, but detail that the film lingers on to an almost unbearable degree.
It really ought to be the end of the film, but it then devotes its final stretch to watching De Niro, who we’ve seen go from being young again to middle age, to being an old man left alone, with his friends having died and his daughter, an intensely quiet Anna Paquin, refusing to speak to him, with nothing but an empty room, an open door and his own memories to keep him company.
Advancing years, memories of the so called good old days and a melancholic sense that one can never gets those days back are what the film has been building itself up to stealthily over its running time. Given that previous De Niro/Scorsese productions have built themselves up to the explosive finales of films such as Taxi Driver and the comedic intensity of The King of Comedy, this more reflective final act feels incredibly personal.
Watching the film, one gets the inescapable feeling that this may very well be the last time that we’ll see De Niro, Pesci and Pacino on screen together, these three bastions and the key crime movie director putting on to the screen something about their legacy and their work in the genre in a way that feels almost unbearably sad and elegiac.
They’re still with us, yes, but time waits for nobody in the end, and they aren’t getting any younger. I realise they may sound dreadfully maudlin, but there’s something about The Irishman that truly feels like not only the last word in the genre from these four, but maybe the last word in the genre itself.
The film feels as if it’s functioning as a goodbye to the genre from the four guys whose work has had the most profound impact on it; together they’ve starred in or directed The Godfather Trilogy, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, Scarface, Casino, Carlito’s Way and Heat, their work, their performances and their direction defining and impacting on the genre, and in American cinema in a way that has been truly unforgettable.
It gives The Irishman an unforgettable poignancy; the film ends with Pacino’s character assassinated, Pesci making his way to church before his death and De Niro alone, nothing but his memories and an open door to keep his company, with death on the way.
It brings to an end an incredible piece of work. It may very well bring to an end a brilliant legacy in American filmmaking and we may never see the like of it again.