Martin Scorsese’s latest masterwork — The Irishman — explores a darker emotional theme than the filmmaker’s previous work. Based on a book and inspired by true events, this 209-minute epic examines how the desire for complete authority rots a man’s existence as the drama of the inner-workings of organized crime unfolds.
The Irishman opens with a beautiful handheld shot through a nursing home that lands on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) — what’s left of his hair is pure white and his hands and wrists covered in heavy gold jewelry. He begins to tell a complicated and detailed story of his life through flashback and voice-over — tools that Scorsese has often utilized effectively in his past projects.
Frank explains how everything changed for him one afternoon when he met a man named Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) at a service station right off the highway. This fateful encounter leads to many twists and turns, including a job ‘painting houses’ which is not exactly the same type of gig your mom needs someone to do to the kitchen. After earning the respect from Russell, Frank is introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Eventually, their power-hungry egos grow too big — interrupting even the worst mobster’s code of ethics.
The performances in The Irishman are just what one would expect from the established actors featured. This film marks the first collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino and the result is truly phenomenal. Pacino loses himself to the transformation of the erratic Hoffa so much so that grandparents all over America are going to think this guy is the real deal.
Though Pacino is impressive, the real talent lies in the nuanced performance of Joe Pesci. When I think of Pesci, I think of his character in Goodfellas where he is loud, proud, and impulsive which — apologies for the spoilers — ends up costing him his life. Russell Bufalino is the complete opposite, requiring Pesci to channel a specific calm demeanor in order to contrast Pacino’s character’s erratic decision-making. It is easy to predict both of their Oscar nominations but I hope to see Pesci come out recognized for the best performance of his career.
The Irishman joins the long list of films that proves Scorsese is the ultimate cinematic storyteller. His approach to the craft comes not only with a deep knowledge but with a sincere passion which is translated directly onto the screen. He wants his vision to be an experience of the five senses — not just a moving image that is easily ignored. His style includes cinema’s equivalent to literature’s imagery. There is so much to experience in The Irishman — the feeling of the cold meat freezers, the taste of fresh bread dipped in wine, the smell of freshly smoked cigarettes, and of course, the sight of everything through Frank Sheeran’s point of view. Every detail is in place — from the wife’s colorful 1970’s garb to the creativity of the camera’s location for specific shots — in order to transport the viewer into the vivid world of the plot.
The success of The Irishman’s brilliant craftsmanship is nicely accompanied by writing that makes every second of this long movie feel necessary in order to fully understand the complexity. The emotional intelligence leads the audience on — with tone shifts placed in unexpected places for comedic relief and enjoyable pacing. There are genuinely funny moments that break necessary plot tension so that the heaviness is subtle in how it descends, making the ending just as much a punch in the stomach as it was intended to be.
There is no arguing that The Irishman is a masterpiece. It is Scorsese revisiting themes seen in his past work with new elements of excitement, despair, and wit. The great performances and incredible filmmaking make this fictionalized tale of Frank Sheeran a story to end the decade, one that has seen many changes within the film industry — and hopefully introducing a new era of Martin Scorsese.