What a powerfully moving story Martin Scorsese has told with The Irishman, a film about the guy who confessed to finally offing Jimmy Hoffa after their long friendship and various dirty dealings with unions and the mob. There are two things a lot of people are going to want to know about the film – the first is, what about the CGI? How weird is it? And the second, does it matter?
The answer to the first is that it feels a bit odd to the synapse between the human eye and mind, no doubt about it. Actors has always played around with age makeup but they can’t make themselves look younger, only older. Thus, in lieu of that, directors often hire younger actors to play the older actors young, like Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone that Marlon Brando portrayed as Don Corleone. But Scorsese, and other directors, have probably always wondered – what if you could get the same actors to play both young and old, even after the actors are older?
The result Scorsese achieves is interesting. It doesn’t interfere with enjoying the movie and it’s certainly not a reason to avoid the movie – it is just an aspect of the movie’s creative choices. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino are such good actors they are more than able to carry through the various eras the hearts and souls of the people they’ve brought to live consistently throughout the movie’s almost three hours.
The Irishman, like Ford v. Ferrari and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is a BIG HOLLYWOOD MOVIE – only this time, the new kid on the block is Netflix. With this film they are not joining the ranks of the arthouse indies (as they did last year with Roma), but they now endeavor to stand eye to eye with the five major studio families that have controlled Hollywood’s history for nearly a century. Netflix has come in big with The Irishman – a massive cast, all meticulously costumed through different decades, a script by Steve Zaillian, along with Scorsese’s collaborating editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker. The film spans the years between World War II, up through the ’70s, and continues to modern times. The filmmakers frame the story this way because they’re telling the story of a whole life, not just a part of it.
De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, who embeds himself into the underworld, mentored by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) who introduces him to the explosive, irascible Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). For much of the film we watch Sheeran “do guys” in encounters that are destined to end abruptly. But along the way he’s building significant friendships, and as with all things mafia, you never really know who your friends are and who’s gonna blow you up in your car or shoot you in the head.
What is so beautiful about this story is how it contemplates the end of a man’s life who moved through the lives of others as death personified, and does so with such finesse and empathy. It asks the question, how do you measure your life’s worth? What matters in the end? Mob movies almost always arrive at the same answer, whether it’s Godfather I and II, Goodfellas, Casino or now, The Irishman.
Scorsese’s own origin story as a filmmaker is famously infused with Catholicism since his early days, and he found a way to address those teachings by making films that dwell on the darker side of humanity – bloody, violent films with characters that abuse, murder and torture victims. Scorsese, in his own way, is examining his own life’s work by the end of this film as we see an old man looking back on decades of havoc.
But if you follow Scorsese on Instagram, you’ll see this is a man surrounded by friends and family, a man who’s admired worldwide. His legacy will never be reduced to the murder and mayhem he has delivered unto the world, but rather, the exceptional hand of a gifted master whose mind’s eye views movies in ways that no other mind can see.
When you see a Scorsese movie you know it’s his, because no one else – unless they’re copying him – makes movies like that. But Scorsese does something in this film he’s never done before. He utilizes the strength of silence in places where he would more typically fill the void with touchstone rock songs. Those signature songs turn up a few times, but more often it’s silence that serves to deliver mood, and the result is chilling. Like a few other notable films that rely on the tension created by silence – Hitchcock’s The Birds, The Coens’ No Country for Old Men – The Irishman follows the emotional journey of its main character without the aid of music cues to influence our feelings. We are left to quietly observe Sheeran, and await whatever surprise might happen next.
For all the risks that the groundbreaking de-aging technology involves, The Irishman is very much, at its heart, a traditional American film. It doesn’t need to move rapid-fire like so many of Scorsese’s movies do, because here he’s going for a slow coil. So that by the end of the lifetime that the movie unspools, we too are taking one last long look at all that came before – with Scorsese, with the mafia, and within ourselves.
The Irishman is one of the best films of the year.