Director Martin Scorsese is known for many kinds of films, but he’s probably most famous for his gangster movies, despite having only made four in his 50-year career. He’s also famous for his collaborations with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, so imagine the excitement when it was announced he would reteam with them and do another mob film based on the true story of the much speculated about disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, this time with Al Pacino joining them. Does his newest film deserve to be up there with Goodfellas? Yes. The Irishman is a masterpiece.
In a nursing home, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) recounts his life story, starting from the 1950’s and mainly covering the 60’s and 70’s. He goes over his job as a hitman, his role as a father to his daughters, his dealings with both crime boss Russell Bulfino (Joe Pesci) and union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and how he was eventually involved in Hoffa’s disappearance.
The Irishman’s screenplay is one of writer Steven Zaillian’s best. So much happens in the narrative and yet nothing feels superfluous, as every element flows into each other nicely. The narration is handled excellently, as it helps to condense a complex and sprawling epic into something cohesive, with the non-linear structure also making it not feel like a standard biopic. It’s totally engaging from start to finish and never boring. The dialogue is also rich, real and very funny. There are quite a few hilarious moments and the overall tone is admittedly lighter than you might expect, yet there is also enough heart, drama and tension to keep it from being too slight. The third act is intense, emotionally charged and satisfying all at once, with the ending itself being abrupt yet appropriate. During the last 20 minutes and the end credits, I was left with a melancholic feeling, like I had just heard the life story of someone on their deathbed.
The three central characters are extremely well rounded. Whilst Frank Sheeran’s un-exuberant and un-assertive personality might seem strange for a main protagonist, what makes him interesting is how much he is used by those around him. He’s an observer that does what he can to please his partners and as a result fosters some good relationships, yet neglects his family and does little to show that he has any genuine goals in life. Russel Bulfino seems like a wise and likeable grandfatherly figure on the surface, yet he also shows himself to be such a manipulative professional that he fails to connect with people in the same way that Frank or Jimmy do. Jimmy Hoffa is on the surface an obnoxious arrogant loudmouth, but the more you see of him the more you see that he’s a pure-hearted ambitious man willing to go down for his beliefs. He’s probably the most sympathetic of the three. These characters also get enough screen-time to register and their relationships are fully fleshed out, with the friendship between Jimmy and Frank being one of the most interesting I’ve seen all year. What starts out as a simple employee/boss dynamic soon evolves into something complex and heart-breaking.
All three lead performances are wonderful. Al Pacino is at his most charismatic and intense, Joe Pesci is quiet and understated yet by the end chillingly sociopathic and De Niro matches the two perfectly by being mostly understated yet also emotionally vulnerable in a manner that will surprise people. The supporting cast shine as well, even if players like Harvey Keitel and Jesse Plemons could have received bigger roles.
Technically speaking, The Irishman is a knockout. Despite plenty of similarities to his early works, this is very much late period Scorsese, so do not expect the energy of Goodfellas or even The Wolf of Wall Street. The cinematography is masterful, the music is perfectly used and thankfully absent when it needs to be and the editing makes the mammoth 210 minute runtime feel far shorter. The subtlety is what ties this film together, especially in how Scorsese refuses to tell the audience how to feel at every point, making every emotion earned and natural. Even the de-aging, whilst distracting at first does grow on you as the film goes on and thankfully it stops being used after an hour.
The Irishman is not only one of Scorsese’s best films but a strong contender for best film of 2019. Regardless of whether you watch it at home or at the cinema, it’ll probably be an experience that’ll stay with you for a while. What an accomplishment.