‘The Irishman’ Review: Martin Scorsese’s sprawling elegy to the gangster genre

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman
“When I was young, I thought house painters painted houses. What did I know? I was a working guy,” says a wheelchair bound Frank Sheeran, the eponymous character in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman (based on the 2004 book titled IHeard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt), in the film's opening scene. The meaning of the phrase is simple: To paint a house is to kill a man in the mafia terminology. The paint is the blood that splatters on the wall and floors. The Irishman chronicles a true story about Sheeran—a high-ranking official in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) who was accused of having links to the Bufalino crime family. The character of Sheeran is essayed by Robert De Niro, marking the two-time Oscar-winning actor’s ninth feature film with Scorsese.

The Irishman also stars Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in the pivotal roles of the American labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa and the Italian-American Mafioso Russell Bufalino, respectively. Since, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are all in their late 70s, the film had to rely on a state-of-the-art de-aging technology for those sequences in which they were required to look younger as per the demands of the screenplay, developed by Steven Zaillian based on Brandt’s book. With a production budget of approx. USD 160 million, The Irishman is among the most expensive films of Scorsese's career. The project remained in the development limbo for several years before finally becoming a reality, thanks to the financial backing that came from Netflix at just the right time for Scorsese.
Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman
Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino and Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman
During the 1990s, Scorsese made two riveting films which pretty much established him as a master of the gangster genre: Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Coincidentally, both these films also star Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. In fact, in a way, The Irishman can be seen as the third part of the trilogy. The film begins in 1950s Philadelphia where Sheeran, a World War II veteran, drives meat packing delivery trucks. It is here that he gets in touch with Russell Bufalino and his life changes for ever. Soon he becomes Bufalino’s go-to man and gradually he starts painting houses as per the mafioso’s instructions. Impressed by Sheeran’s loyalty and dedication, Russell introduces him to Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the IBT, who enjoys financial ties with the Bufalino crime family. What ensues is a sprawling saga of epic proportions with each frame unfolding like visual poetry. Even the goriest scenes in the film seem to possess a lyrical quality seldom seen in cinema nowadays. The credit of course goes to both Scorsese as well as his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto whose fluid camera strokes give the film a life of its own. The brilliant use of slomos, Robbie Robertson’s moody background music (and the absence of it during a pivotal sequence)  and Thelma Schoonmaker’s purposeful editing immensely add to the film’s aesthetic appeal.
Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman
Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman
The Irishman has a vast panoply of characters and countless subplots but there is not even an iota of incoherence as everything is tied up ever so neatly. The clever interplay between dialogues and voiceovers is another major highlight of the film. Perhaps, the only blemish is the de-aging technology which is still in its nascent stage. The film is bound to remind one of some of the best gangster / mafia films of all time, in particular Goodfellas and The Godfather. But, The Irishman is far more contemplative and personal than all of them. Yes, it’s narrated in Scorsese’s trademark style. But the final half an hour is what separates it from all other gangster films. During the last 30 odd minutes, the film unfolds like an elegy; it’s poignant, contemplative and deeply powerful. In these final moments, there is a sudden realization of regret, guilt, and abject solitude as a formidable character finally comes to terms with the reality of his actions while being at his most vulnerable.
Al Pacino and Robert De Niro
A Still from The Irishman
The acting performances are all topnotch. While De Niro leads from the front, delivering yet another unforgettable performance that easily rates with his best. He goes through an entire gamut of emotions. It is, however, slightly low-key and understated just like his impeccable performance in Sergio Leone’s magnum opus Once Upon a Time in America. It’s a complete performance in every possible manner. Al Pacino, on the other hand, is electrifying to watch as Jimmy Hoffa. He plays the character with such youthful exuberance that one is reminded of Pacino of old. The scenes he shares with De Niro are pure gold. After the frugality of Heat and the nearly forgettable Righteous Kill, the duo dearly needed something like The Irishman to finally quench the thirst of their fans. As for Pesci, he is one actor who never fails to impress. You give him any role and he will ensure that it’s turned into something memorable. Here again he delivers a delightful performance that vied with Pacino’s for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Also, Harvey Keitel is menacing to watch in his cameo appearance as the Sicilian-American mobster Angelo Bruno.
Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in the aforementioned opening scene of The Irishman
Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran in the aforementioned opening scene of The Irishman
The Irishman can be described as a requiem for all the gangster / mafia films that came before it. It is to the gangster genre what Unforgiven proved to be for the Western genre. Despite a running time of 209 minutes, The Irishman proves to be an endlessly engaging cinematic experience. Scorsese succeeds in the nigh impossible task of making old, dilapidated-looking men look uber-cool. He demonstrates yet again why at 77 he is still a force to be reckoned with as far as the world of cinema is concerned. And while he may not be in the business of painting houses, he certainly knows how to paint the cinematic canvas. 

The Irishman had its world premiere at the 57th New York Film Festival on September 27, 2019. It received widespread critical acclaim with unanimous praise for Scorsese's direction and the performances of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci. It bagged a total of 10 Oscar nominations. The Irishman is currently streaming on Netflix.

Rating: 9.5/10

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