The film earns its three-and-a-half hour runtime by patiently developing its characters and pacing its action.
Martin Scorsese’s mob epic, “The Irishman” (2019), follows the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a Teamsters Union official and alleged hitman for the Philadelphia mob in the 60s and 70s. The film, adapted by Steven Zaillian (“Schindler's List”) from the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, is framed by the narrative of a retired Sheeran, who is recalling the story of his employment with Russel Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his involvement in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Through voiceover narration rife with mob-talk, one-liners, and flashbacks within flashbacks, a complicated and tragic tale unfolds.
Though the film’s genre does not break much new ground for the director or actors, it does offer a deeper investigation of the tropes, and explores the inner turmoil of troubling figures most often depicted as cold-hearted criminals.
With a runtime of nearly three and a half hours, the film is Scorsese’s longest to date, as well as the longest mainstream release in over twenty years. Despite this, the film rarely feels slow, with a multi-layered plot that spans nearly five decades, and a pace that allows viewers to dwell with the characters as they evolve. That said, there are two parts of the film that feel slower than necessary: the forty-five minute build-up to the introduction of Hoffa, and the almost one-hour long falling action after the climactic moment of his death. The relationship between Sheeran and Hoffa—ending in murderous betrayal—is the emotional center of the story, but the internal conflict for Sheeran is revealed more through the silent role of his daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin), than through the loud and often profanity-ridden interactions between De Niro and Pacino.
This is not to say the actors don't deliver incredible performances, but instead, highlight the weight that is given to a character who is, for the most part, relegated to the background. It is her recognition of her father’s deeds, and his understanding that she knows more than she will ever say, that adds a deeper awareness to every criminal act Sheeran commits.
Even with its more contemplative moments, fans of action in crime dramas will not be disappointed. There are plenty of bloody sidewalk-shootings, violent lessons taught, and messages sent through exploding vehicles—including an entire parking lot of taxi cabs. Again, Scorsese turns a critical eye on some of these tropes, many of which he has helped develop over his career. In one such moment, Scorsese exhibits the danger placed on the families of mob-connected individuals when Jo Hoffa (Welker White) fearfully starts her car after being removed from her Union job. This peril for anyone but the top of the mob food chain is also shown through text, which is flashed over each of Sheeran’s victims during their first on-screen appearance. This is the case even if we do not see that eventual murder.
It is impossible to discuss “The Irishman” without acknowledging the visual effects technology that made it possible. As the film flashes back through the decades, the three lead actors, all in their 70s, are digitally de-aged. The effect is alarmingly convincing. The actors only crest into the uncanny valley when they are on camera with actual young men, when the contrast highlights the age in their movements and speech patterns. Regardless, the film serves as a promise for future digital effects of this kind.
- Final Thoughts -
“The Irishman” may be long (if you want to watch it in two sittings, I’d recommend breaking around the 1:25-1:40 mark. After that you should stick it out to the end), but it earns most of its length through the patient development of characters, the masterful pacing of action, and the performances of the three veteran leads. Scorsese is working in a familiar genre, but still manages to offer something new by subtly twisting conventions without stepping too far from expectations. Much more could be said about the successes of this film, and where it does fall short, it does so lightly. If you have a taste for Scorsese’s work, or just the genre itself, “The Irishman” will be worth your time.
("The Irishman" image courtesy of Netflix)