Martin Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman, has arrived on Netflix, offering more than your typical mob film along with some stellar performances. Check out our full review!
There’s been a lot of chatter about The Irishman even before it’s launch on the streaming platform, mostly regarding Scorsese’s comments on Marvel films that still seem to have the internet in a tizzy. I’m not going to go into those, that’s a whole ‘nother deal. Instead, I’m going to stick to the film itself and my thoughts on the mob drama; a genre I’m admittedly not normally into. So let’s break it down!
The film follows the life of Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran, a mob hitman for the Bufalino Crime Family. It’s told through various flashbacks (some doubling onto one another) as told by Sheeran himself (Robert De Niro) as an old man in a nursing home. He seems to be telling his life story/confessing his biggest crimes, to a journalist who we never actually see. The result is it feels like he’s talking directly to us, the audience.
Based on the non-fiction book, I Heard You Paint Houses, the film focuses much of its (rather lengthy) runtime on Sheeran’s work and association with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). This makes sense considering Sheeran’s biggest claim before passing away was that HE was the one who killed the notorious Teamster, supposedly settling the mystery once and for all.
The film takes us through a number of different exploits, however, showing how Sheeran initially came into contact with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) to his life as an aging mobster, ultimately all alone. Hell, we even get glimpses of Sheeran’s time in World War II. In all, it’s a fairly comprehensive look at his rise through the mafia into one of their most trusted enforcers.
There are a lot of aspects in the story, with a number of characters (both minor and major) spread throughout. Some characters that you think are minor, just one-shot people, pop up later in the film, making their previous appearance suddenly more significant. Even so, the film is laid out so well that it never felt difficult, or complicated to keep up with.
Drama Over Epic
It’s just really smooth storytelling that’s subtle in execution, but no less impactful. Mob films aren’t exactly my cup of tea. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy them for what they are and appreciate what some of them have done for cinema in general (Godfather), but they aren’t exactly high on my list of films to watch or come back to regularly.
This is where The Irishman seems to set itself apart. More than a mafia film, it plays out more like a drama/biopic. Sure there’s some of the violence and criminal aspects you’d expect, but they aren’t romanticized. Instead the film shows these moments for what they are (things that happened) and leaves the interpretation up to the audience. Obviously we know these things are wrong, but The Irishman puts them through a more intimate and human lens. We can see the impact Frank’s actions ultimately has on his family life and how his work begins to impact him the older he gets.
It makes for an interesting dilemma, as there were points in the film where I found myself feeling genuine empathy for Frank. I felt a sense of pride and joy he felt during highlights of his life, and the sorrow/remorse at other things. It’s a credit to the storytelling prowess that I was able to so strongly connect to this character who, ultimately, is something of a monster. On one hand I love it when a film can suck me in so thoroughly and engage my emotions effortless. On the other hand, however, I’m not sure I’m quite comfortable with the idea of empathizing with a real-life mafia hitman. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since finishing up the film, but likely a topic for another time. For the purposes of review, I was impressed with its ability to humanize everyone and put audiences on that emotional level.
Of course, a big part of that is due to the strength of the actors. Scorsese has assembled a veritable who’s who of iconic mob actors and they all do a phenomenal job in bringing these characters to life on the screen. They were almost instantly engaging, yet still entirely natural. Even though these are BIG NAMES, the film makes sure you see them as their characters first and foremost.
Pacing and Flow
The Irishman is a long movie; coming in at three and a half hours. I know there have been plenty of reviews out there saying it doesn’t feel like that long, or that it flies by...But I’m here to tell you, it FEELS like a three and a half hour movie. I don’t mean this in a bad way, as I was thoroughly enjoying myself the whole time. But there’s no denying that it’s a long one. This is where I feel Netflix works in the film’s favor. Being a streaming title, it’s far easier to take breaks and come back to it when needed.
I’m sure there are some fellow film writers out there clutching pearls at the idea of breaking up the movie watching experience, but friends, sometimes you just have to rest your damn eyeballs or get a snack. Honestly, though, it's another mark in The Irishman’s favor that I was able to take a break away from it and dive right back in without missing a beat.
This is even more impressive considering how the story jumps around various time periods. There was never a point where I felt confused or lost in the timeframe. Between the deft visual cues and narration, the film manages to keep you grounded seamlessly.
The slower pacing of the film also ensure that even the smaller moments have a big impact. While there are several scenes in the film that don’t feel like they add to the overall story, I can’t honestly say it would have been better to cut them either. Those scenes add something valuable to the characterizations, or just in helping to set the tone for the next big story beat. While the film is long and FEELS long, I can’t imagine it having the same emotional impact without the pace/flow it ended up with.
Of course, there’s no way to discuss The Irishman without a mention on the VFX used in the film. Perhaps even more than Scorsese’s comments about Marvel, the film’s de-aging visuals have been the subject of much discussion before the film’s debut. If you’ve seen the trailers, then you have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
The de-aging isn’t perfect and there are a few moments of uncanny valley that kind of threw me for a loop. By and large, however, the VFX work is impressive and within a couple short moments of any given scene I no longer noticed the effects. So yeah, there will be times (especially on the bigger time jumps) where the effects will catch you off guard, but it’s a temporary feeling and I can’t say it ever really pulled me out of the film. It may not be seamless, but it’s a damn impressive feat.