It is hard to believe that is was almost 25 years ago that Martin Scorsese brought us Casino, starring Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro. A film that many thought would mark the end of the Pesci – DeNiro partnership born in the 1980 film Raging Bull. While Al Pacino although having worked De Niro on The Godfather, never crossed paths with Martin Scorsese as a director. However, with The Irishman, Pesci, De Niro and Scorsese come back together, finally joined by Pacino. While creating a film that is not only an outstanding crime/drama, but also an epic swan song to a journey started in Goodfellas. Playing homage to a catalogue of work in which De Niro, Pesci, Pacino and Scorsese have equally pushed the boundaries of film.
The Irishman takes us through three decades in the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro). A real life union boss and fixer who died in 2003 aged 83. Scorsese weaves an intricate and sprawling drama based on Charles Brandt’s novel ‘I Heard You Paint Houses‘. From Sheeran’s humble routes as meat van driver in the 50s. Through to his early forays in crime, and eventual partnership with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci). A partnership that would lead to his eventual employment in a crime ring and union racket. Where Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) would become the nearest thing to a friend he could hope for.
Meanwhile, the journey of all three men is contextualised by the changing political and social face of America, from John F. Kennedy’s election and the Bay of Pigs fiasco to the Cuban missile crisis. While, in turn dovetailing the overarching narrative of Hoffa’s union activity to Robert Kennedy’s campaign against organised crime, JFK’s assassination and Watergate.
In many ways, The Irishman feels a natural successor to Goodfellas, despite focusing on a highly different narrative. With the adrenaline soaked energy of Goodfellas replaced by far more melancholic pace. As focus is drawn to the social and emotional loss of a life lived on the edges of society. With the bravado of youth replaced by slow onset of old age and invisibility.
At three and a half hours in length, The Irishman manages to hold the viewers attention throughout. It’s slow burning plot, coupled with dialogue and editing that keeps the viewer glued to the screen. While De Niro, Pesci and Pacino hold each scene with a vice like grip. With a script that not only allows for beautifully intimate scenes of dialogue. But also navigates a maze of morality, mortality and politics.
Both direction and editing are trademark Scorsese and Schoonmaker. Echoing the class and skill of a body of work built over a 40 year partnership. While also embracing and adapting to a changing film industry with a Netflix funded film. However, despite the obvious wonders and bravery of the Netflix era. There is also a pervading sense of sadness at The Irishman bypassing the cinema screen in favour of a TV or iPad. The artistry and sheer spectacle of this epic and sweeping drama watered down somewhat by a straight to streaming release.
Whether or not you feel that Frank holds any true remorse for his life by the finale is up to you. But the journey provides a nuanced exploration of the decisions an individual takes in life. And the finality of those decisions in creating the self imposed cage of isolation in old age.
Director: Martin Scorsese