Though Martin Scorsese‘s career has spanned more than half a century and across a variety of genres, the few gangster films he has directed have made such a profound impact on the genre that his name has become nearly synonymous with mob movies. With The Irishman, Scorsese aims high, taking on one of history’s most famous incidents of gangster violence: the disappearance of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. Recruiting an all-star team of actors and filmmakers with wide experience in the genre, Scorsese has created a three-and-a-half-hour gangster film that fits firmly within the ranks of his earlier work and shows the heights the genre can reach in spectacular fashion. While he demonstrated his skill as a director from the very beginning, throughout his lengthy career Martin Scorsese has continued to mature as a filmmaker and to experiment with techniques and technologies to push the medium forward. Even in a film like The Irishman, which takes so much inspiration from his past work that it could have been a simple retread of his greatest hits, Scorsese keeps it fresh and original, building upon the themes found more commonly in his religious works and adding a healthy dose of comedy.
The Irishman has a daunting runtime at 209 minutes, but it never once feels its length. This could be due to the compelling nature of the performances, or Steven Zaillan‘s (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York) frequently humorous screenplay, which conveys a dry wit and unwavering stubbornness in almost every line, even as the violence is extreme and the thematic content is dense.But the credit for the film’s steady clip is most likely due to Scorsese’s most frequent collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker. The film jumps across many storylines throughout different points in history, but never loses focus and always finds just the right way to keep it engaging.
The film’s narrative is spread over a period of roughly 60 years, which meant that heavy makeup had to be applied to many of the actors but, as the central cast is mostly comprised of actors in their seventies, CGI effects were used for even more convincing de-aging. Though the de-aging technologies were met with skepticism prior to the film’s premiere, they are not terribly noticeable after a somewhat jarring introduction and never distract from the film any more than the similar applications in Captain Marvel or Gemini Man.
Although The Irishman would not have been possible in the past due to its reliance on modern CGI technologies, the performances are even more integral to making it convincing. Unlike most of the main cast, Al Pacino has never worked with Martin Scorsese before, but he still turns in perhaps the most exciting of the performances. The role has him playing Jimmy Hoffa, a man who wants to do good for his community but isn’t afraid to get involved in crime to make that happen, which plays tremendously to the strengths of some of his greatest past performances in gangster classics like The Godfather and Scarface. Despite this, the character is never quite as serious as those roles and in moments like a repeated tirade against lateness, Pacino brings a levity to the screen that isn’t often seen in his more serious roles.
Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (and Harvey Keitel, though his role is so small in comparison that it hardly bears mentioning) have been longtime collaborators of Scorsese’s, and De Niro and Pesci have even won Academy Awards for their work in his films. Having worked with the actors since they were all young men, Scorsese is able to draw forward performances from them that are reminiscent of those they gave in their youth, but it is clear that the performers have matured as actors since the early days of their collaborations. Pesci plays such a restrained character that its hard to believe he is the same man who played the delightfully unhinged Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas. Still, it is perhaps in the numerous scenes that De Niro and Pacino share that this maturity is best displayed. Where the two brought so much star power to Heat that the scenes they shared threatened to explode, here they are much more laid back and quietly confident in their performances, never trying to be overly showy but still succeeding in obtaining that same riveting power.
Though De Niro’s work portraying a young man is an interesting exploration of his acting prowess, the film’s most moving scenes are those where he plays an elderly man reflecting on his life. In these scenes it becomes clear why Scorsese collected so many of his regulars and turned once again to the world of gangsters for inspiration. There comes a time when, for better or worse, one must confront their own mortality and the consequences of what they have done in life. The film goes even further to question if someone can be truly responsible for everything in their life, and if owning up to it makes any difference. Some of Scorsese’s films have often confronted these ideas head-on through the lens of religion, while his crime films have more subtly focused on gradual moral decay. Here, he shows us those bad people that we sympathize with that have so often been the focus of his crime-focused work while being quietly reflective and meditative in the manner of the films that wrestled with his religious views and his Catholic upbringing. Few directors can ever hope to direct one classic, but since the 1970’s Martin Scorsese has made at least one every decade. Only time will tell, but he very well may have done it once again with The Irishman.