The Irishman: a mournful, protracted, somewhat dissatisfying swansong

Image Courtesy of Netflix UK

The best way to describe The Irishman, more than cinema, is as a 4-episode, high-production-valued miniseries, where episodes 1 and 2 are mediocre, episode 3 is good and 4 is great. Just about great enough to justify sitting through the first two.

The film marks the reunion tour for director Martin Scorsese and his frequent past collaborators Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, with whom he made some of his most defining films in Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, along with fellow acting legend (a status that grows more baffling with one overacted role after another) Al Pacino in the role of teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa, and much of the technical crew with whom Scorsese made his name, prominently his esteemed editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The film also features, in more minor roles Boardwalk Empire alums Stephen Graham, Aleksa Palladino and Bobby Cannavale and Taxi Driver's Harvey Keitel. Even taken out of story context, The Irishman reads as a last hurrah for many of those who made the gangster movie genre what it was.

The film follows Frank Sheeran (DeNiro), a truck driver who through mafia ties rose up to become the right hand man to two different fathers, mafia boss Russ Bufalino (Pesci) and Pacino's Hoffa, and is eventually excruciatingly forced to pick a side between them, and finally, to live with his decision, this last part delivering by far the film's best material.

We follow Sheeran across more than 60 years of his life, from his recent emergence from the Army, to his last days in a hospice, all the while played by DeNiro through some often extremely distracting de-aging visual effects, with middle-aged faces on doddering septuagenarian bodies. Throughout much of its run-time the film retreads the same familiar ground as Goodfellas and especially Casino, with intermittent reliance on voice-over and flashback narration, much of it centred around a fateful road trip in 1975. For a long time the film follows the same courtroom scenes, back-alley assassinations and backroom deals, very comfortable with its own usage of this time. There are occasional moments that feel like very barbed comments on our own political times, Hoffa attacks his political rival for spending too much time on the golf-course, and both the Kennedy assassinations and Watergate drift through the background of the film, leaving their inscrutable marks on the characters.

Gradually a cumulative effect to all these scenes begins to stack up, and unlike The Wolf of Wall Street or even, to be brutally honest, Goodfellas, a real sense of tragedy and pathos wafts in, as the cold hand of a different kind of mortality steals up on the characters. The film's third act is where Scorsese finally alights on new ground, that of old age and regret, with a truly existential sense of isolation closing in on Sheeran as his violent life drives away or outlasts anyone who ever cared for him. Left unable to truly repent or acknowledge his appalling crimes, he is left in frustrated solitude, stonewalled against human contact by his own stubbornness and lack of empathy. For the first time Scorsese truly seems to see the monstrousness in his gangster characters, and in so doing, makes them seem all the more human.

Many have taken issue with the relative lack of dialogue or screen time given to Sheeran's daughter Peggy, who has only 6 lines in the whole film. However, her silence is very much the point, and it’s that distance in the relationship that cuts so deeply. I had more of an issue with her lack of screen-time in that in her character, Scorsese was finally casting the dimmest of lights on a character his other films historically treated as mere props in shouted custody battles. Paquin gives a typically strong performance and had the film found its emotional core more definitively, she could have stolen the film.

DeNiro gives his best performance in more than a decade, largely through lack of competition, often very, very unconvincing as a young man but much more resonant when allowed to play his own age. Pesci reminds us what a sensitive actor he could be at times, displaying a subtlety that went unused in most of his prior roles with Scorsese, and Pacino is generally uneven as Hoffa, playing him as a bearish soulful sort, oblivious to the lion's den he is striding into. At times his warm, loving friendship with Sheeran becomes the true heart and soul of the film, and at others he is spraying his Pacino-isms all over perfectly good celluloid.

At 3 and a half hours it really is best suited to home viewing, where I feel the dodgy effects would be more passable, and the more patience testing scenes would be more forgivable. There are certainly times when this makes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood look as tight as a drum, but others where it captures a similar feeling of melancholy. Continuing in the vein of his superb return to form Silence, The Irishman is a more soulful and humane film than we are used to seeing from Scorsese, although one still pervaded by a regretful stoicism that never truly learned how to cry.

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