REEL Review – The Irishman (2019)

Director: Martin Scorsese | Runtime: 3h 29mins | Biography, Crime, Drama

Former hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) recounts his days working for the very pinnacle of organised crime. From his early beginnings under the wing of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and his involvement with larger than life Union boss, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

It’s been three years now since Scorsese graced us with Silence (2016), a slow-burning change of pace for the director that proved so much for his range and technique. His rebellion against the Gangster genre is not something new to Scorsese, but it was a successful decision nonetheless. But, for all his overlooked variety Scorsese will always be associated with the very pinnacle of modern crime films, and his latest feature attempts to be his biggest one yet. Reuniting with long-time friends Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, along with the wonderful Al Pacino, Scorsese’s newest Gangster movie is almost instantaneous in it’s style, and never loses that unique flare for both showmanship and craftsmanship throughout it’s three and a half hour run time.

The film fluctuates between three specific points in time, as Frank narrates the story in his older years from a wheelchair, the next is a mini road trip between Russell and Frank accompanied by their wives to a wedding, and the bulk of the film is the chronological lead up to the latter points in time. Each timeline plays a huge role in the stories finesse for structure, breaking up the times of excitement and giving you a short intermission allowing an older De Niro to give us some much needed reflection. Even the road trip acts as a catalyst for some comedy throughout the film, humanizing both Frank and Russell as everyday husbands bickering with their wives about smoking in the car. But while they may seem like unimportant diversions in an already hefty run time, both have a place in the central narrative and thematically.

In fact the road trip leads to one of the strongest scenes in the entire film, as De Niro, accompanied by Hoffa’s son Chuckie (Jesse Plemons), picks up Hoffa and take him to a quiet house in suburban Detroit. This scene is stripped of all flash and non-diagetic sound, and this slight change in pace makes for a tension build like no other. At first it seems drawn out, but it’s the meticulousness of the script and the direction that leaves you on edge, and even though you may know what’s coming you mostly definitely won’t be left unsatisfied. The fishy small-talk, the uncomfortable silences and the eventual bang all culminate into one of the best scenes you’ll see all year.

There is a beauty to how Scorsese portrays his Gangsters, not just in flash but in depth and innocent little comedic moments that really do wonders for the characters he’s working with. In a similar vein to Goodfellas‘ (1990) ‘how am I funny’ story, The Irishman has similar moments (although not quite as intense). Frank and Jimmy begin to form an odd couple dynamic, often joking, having the midnight talks in their pajamas, and one scene in particular where Frank storms out of a meeting like an insulted wife – all because Jimmy’s anger felt directed slightly too much towards Frank. It’s scenes like these, and the performances by both Pacino and De Niro, that build the relationship so subtly and intently. But throughout the film there is so much joy in Frank’s encounters and the relationships he builds, he and Russell feel so ingrained into each other, and his relationship with Peggy (his daughter) is so wonderfully jagged that without using any confrontation the film builds a fractured relationship between Father and Daughter so beautifully.

While it is difficult to see past the de-aging effects of De Niro’s performance (something that you easily become accustom to), there is a lot to be said for each performance given in this movie. Despite having four or five powerhouse performers within the film, it’s a testament to their ability that each performance, like the Gangster’s they play, is based on respect and hierarchy. Frank plays second-fiddle to almost every character in the movie, and De Niro understands that completely. His conversations with Pesci are whole-hearted but still keep within the confines of the characters stature, and even with the scenes alongside Al Pacino, De Niro happily lets him exude his expressiveness and fist-banging authority. With a cast as talented as it is there is no surprise that everyone is wonderful, Plemons, Paquin, Cannavale, Romano, Keitel and another standout performance by Stephen Graham, each performance does the word ‘ensemble’ justice. As for the Irishman himself, De Niro has never looked better. Despite having one of the most eclectic careers in Hollywood, he’s never been ‘at his best’ as much as he is with Scorsese.

Any critics of Scorsese (if there is any) seem to pick out this idea of glorification. In The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) many thought that Jordan Belfort’s life was glorified, and while it was a fever-dream of riches and success, Scorsese was sure to bring out the after-effects of such a lifestyle with an eventual downfall. With The Irishman, Scorsese’s ‘downfall’ is in latter story of Frank as an old man. Less of a downfall and more of a reflection, as Frank now bound to wheelchair is reminiscing about his days with Russell and Hoffa, with the world drastically changing around him. His family has detached themselves, and Peggy won’t even give him the time of day when he goes to see her at work. The biggest point to take here though, is that in reflection of all the high’s and conflict, Frank is left a lonely old man with only his regrets and memories. And while it’s difficult change of pace to adjust to (as it comes in the last half an hour), it’s an important one.

The Irishman may depend on a Crime/Political mixture that often can get ahead of itself, but if you stick with it you’ll be continuously rewarded with scene after scene of the highest quality. Often audiences get put-off by a lengthy run time and while this film doesn’t necessarily pass by with ease, it chooses it’s moments and fluidly follows it journey. Frank may just be an old man out of touch with the world he once ruled, but it’s safe to say that Scorsese has proved himself to be the opposite, giving the world his finest film in a long time.


Rating: 5 out of 5.


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