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  • Writer's pictureNiall Glynn

Review- The Irishman

Has any filmmaker ever been associated with a single genre as deeply as Martin Scorsese and the gangster picture? Despite his delving into religious epics, psychological character studies or even a 3D children’s film, it is his work focusing on brutal mafiosa that seems to resonate the strongest for many.

However, Scorsese is no longer the same filmmaker who made Goodfellas or Casino. Affected by the terminal disease we are all born with: time. Now a wiser creative he has poured this newfound wisdom into The Irishman, a gangster picture that redefines what they can achieve.

The Irishman follows the career of mob hitman Frank Sheeran from humble beginnings stealing meat to his career highlight as a union supervisor. Along the way his friendship with Jimmy Hoffa is put to the ultimate test as his gangster background proves incompatible with the (relatively) straight-shooting Hoffa.

After decades of flirting with Leonardo DiCaprio as a new leading man Scorsese reunites with his first muse Robert De Niro. Past glories however are ignored as De Niro inhabits the part of Frank Sheeran. Whereas Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta or Rupert Pupkin were defined by the extremes of their personalities Frank is more of a dull yes-man, coming into a life of crime almost through apathy than ambition. As he begins to taste success, he swaps his wife for a younger model with the cold logic of a man looking for a new automobile. He justifies his brutal actions using his family as an excuse without knowing how to love them, it’s wonderful hypocrisy. His entire character can be summarised as De Niro was in Taxi Driver decades before, ‘’partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction.’’

Easily seduced to a life of violent gains by Joe Pesci’s Russell Buffalino Frank easily slips back into the soldier mentality he once knew during WW2. Pesci too subverts expectations, playing Russ with the patience of a Shaolin monk, quietly affirming decisions of life and death with a definitive ‘it’s what it is.’

However, Sheeran is challenged in his lifestyle by two central relationships: the silent life-spanning condemnation he faces from his daughter (Anna Paquin) and his heart-wrenching bromance with Union maestro Jimmy Hoffa. Al Pacino’s first collaboration with Scorsese is a triumph, balancing Pacino’s propensity for excess with the soulful deft touches that made him such a star. He’s also the comedic heart of the film, devouring sundaes with childlike glee with the same intensity he uses to besmirch John F. Kennedy and people who are late for meetings.

Both devastating in its portrayal of the passing of time and the degradation of the human body and soul The Irishman is possibly Scorsese’s funniest film to date. Characters are regularly introduced with text that informs us when they’ll die. The appropriate way to transport fish is discussed during a loaded car journey. The size of a man’s ears is vital to a criminal plot. The absurdity of life is never lost on The Irishman, but the passive acceptance of all the players is equally hilarious and truthful. It’s what it is.

Despite these laughs the relationship between Hoffa and Sheeran is the films greatest asset. Hoffa is a man who never settles for anything less than he thinks he deserves and it’s not hard to see how the complacent Sheeran would be mystified and impressed by his bull-headed ambition. Unfortunately, this also makes it crystal clear why Frank’s crime family come to fear the man. So much of the tragic events leading to Hoffa’s demise are built on a lack of communication between these men, what they can’t say to one another. Frank spends his life unable to talk to his daughter, her accusing glare cutting his meek attempts at authority short.

Perhaps the one arguable misstep is the pronounced use of de-ageing special effects to tell the genre-spanning tale. Although fairly consistent and never terribly distracting there is a definite disconnect when we see say a younger Sheeran pummelling a greengrocer but with the physical speed and grace of a man in his seventies. Scorsese’s commitment to his actors is commendable but moments like these threaten to break the illusion so wonderfully crafted in other areas. A chink in the armour is unavoidable in an epic of this scale and it’s refreshing that it’s merely a technical issue in this day and age.

The film has received mild backlash to its three and a half hour running time that seems incredibly foolish in hindsight. After viewing it’s hard to see how the story Scorsese wanted to tell could be told in any less time. Thanks to editing legend and longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker the story ebbs and flows beautifully while in the vein of his previous films. The soundtrack is impeccable, filling each era with an indelible authenticity.  

The final act is quietly devastating as our remaining characters face imprisonment both in maximum-security jails and in their decrepit crumbling bodies. As in his previous crime films, the falsity of these criminal lifestyles always reaps what they sow. Upon hearing a former associate has passed an elderly Sheeran instinctively asks who killed him. The concept of natural death is lost on someone who lived by the sword.

The Irishman is a fantastic modern work from one of the greatest working directors. Is it a tragedy that it didn’t receive a wider theatrical release? Definitely. However the sheer fact that it exists and is so widely available. A blessing.

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