I managed to catch The Irishman in the movie theater before it debuts on Netflix November 27. In many ways, it’s Martin Scorsese’s elegiac masterpiece, a culmination of the techniques, actors, subject matter, and themes of much of his earlier work. But it does deeper, at a slightly slower pace, and smartly trades excitement for complexity and depth.
Like much of his earlier work, The Irishman includes the sweeping camera movement, violence, freeze frames, direct address, and text on the screen, as well as enough F-bombs to change the rating of the movie playing in the theater next door. But in spite of its gangster characters and shocking violence, it’s actually softer in tone and look than many of its predecessors that it resembles, e.g., Taxi Driver and especially Goodfellas. As primarily a memory piece of the wildly conflicted DeNiro character, Frank Sheeran, there is a through-line of recollection that holds the story together (helping viewers through the 3.5-hour running time), even with all the twists and turns and character introductions. The cinematography by Rodrigo Pietro (Oscar nominations for Brokeback Mountain and Scorsese’s Silence) is reminiscent of Godfather Two’s honeyed look of reminiscence, if not as dark.
The screenplay by Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball, Gangs of New York) manages to structure an easily understandable story that’s all over the map chronologically, and that expertly captures the language of a group of people who hint, obfuscate, and consistently use metaphor as a substitute for directness (see the talk about “painting houses” in the beginning). It’s something of a triumph to cover this much territory with such specificity of character.
Probably the second most talked about aspect of this film is the de-aging process used on the leads (DeNiro and Pesci especially). It’s a bit startling to see younger versions of these stars in the film, but the digital work is essentially invisible, and marks a new technological high for the process. The only actor that this doesn’t work for is Anna Paquin, who looks too old when she plays younger, and then looks her proper age later (a distraction).
The acting is top-notch, and marks the return of actor DeNiro and the physical return of Pesci, who hasn’t had a real presence in a film in 20 years and who steals the film. Pesci has almost always been good, but he scales new heights here; he’s simply great, and plays a quiet but intense character 180 degrees removed from his Oscar-winning role in Goodfellas. DeNiro had almost been lost to us in second-rate projects and in roles that bordered on self-parody. He’s marvelous here, holding the film together and signaling unresolved contradictions that his character is unable to even address, much less work through.
Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa (yes, that Jimmy Hoffa), and as expected, adds to the production cost of the film by chewing the scenery in half his scenes. But when he’s not playing the demonstrative side of Hoffa to grand effect, his scenes are beautifully and realistically played. As a kind of reunion of Scorsese greats, we also see Harvey Keitel, but in a surprisingly minor role. Ray Romano is only a surprise to those that didn’t see his fine work in The Big Sick, and here he plays wildly against type as a lawyer slickly and intelligently defending the worst of the worst.
Unfortunately, the biggest topic of discussion about this film is not about this film at all. It’s about the fact that this is a Netflix production, and is only playing in theaters for three weeks before hitting the streaming service. Apparently no other studio or organization was willing to pay the $160 million production cost, but that hasn’t stopped the sniping and griping that’s gone with wondering what to do with an epic film by one of our greatest directors that couldn’t have been made any other way. (Scorsese’s recent comments about “cinema” and superhero movies have only muddied the waters of critical discussion.)
What should be the number one topic is the film itself. Once the brouhaha about its production and the director’s controversial comments has passed, perhaps more attention can be paid to this marvelous entry into the Scorsese canon. Yes, it’s vintage Scorsese, but it’s also slower Scorsese, softer Scorsese (and these are all relative terms) and much more reflective Scorsese. This is about a man facing the end of his life (Sheeran) by a man nearing the end of his (Scorsese). Sin, forgiveness, unforgiveness, absolution, repentance, God—these are themes that are there to be explored and examined, and they give this film a depth and resonance not found in his previous work that wasn’t Silence. Sheeran’s struggles with accepting responsibility for his past actions, for example, are painful to watch while exciting to see from a director better known for edge and showing characters with a decided lack of regret. Between his daughter (Paquin) and a sincere and helpful priest, Sheeran and we as viewers are challenged to provide a moral context to what the film shows us that takes the film to heights of complexity that we don’t find in Scorsese’s violent films.
If Scorsese ends his career here, The Irishman is a fitting climax to a brilliant career. But if the subtleties and depths of the film point to a new direction, we can only look forward to what might be next.