The Irishman

His story changed history.

The Irishman has been Martin Scorsese’s passion since 2007 and sees him reunited with the Goodfellas and Casino pairing of Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. De Niro is Frank Sheeran, a Second World War veteran whose ensuing career as a truck driver belied his cold-blooded ability to kill with little remorse. But he soon found his way into a life of crime, first with some light theft and ultimately as an efficient killer, working for mob boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci). The two became close, leading Sheeran to also work alongside Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose corrupt tactics as a union leader made him a target to both the authorities and the criminal underworld.

Poster for the Scorsese crime epic The IrishmanScorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian decide to tell Sheeran’s story at three different ages, with the actors playing their characters over the span of 50 years, thanks to cutting-edge ‘de-aging’ technology. As one might expect from a director of such loving precision, The Irishman is exquisitely made, every detail carefully considered, every location perfectly picked. It feels utterly transporting, a film to be savoured on a big, crisp screen rather than half-watched on a smartphone.

The performances soar in this film. De Niro’s well-documented decline, from Oscar-winning lightning bolt to mostly hapless hired hand, has allowed many to lose sight of his abilities and to lose hope that he might reconnect with his former glorious self. It’s a joy to see him cruising at the top of his game again. Pacino has suffered a similar crash, wasting himself in ill-fitting dirge, and while he does fall into some of his scenery-chewing old tricks here, it’s the best we have seen from him in years.

The film’s ace is a quietly electrifying Pesci, in his first role since 2010, an astounding reminder of his big-screen presence with a character dramatically distant from his previous Scorsese incarnations. He’s rational and professional, much like the film’s plot, which eschews the brash debauchery of Goodfellas or Casino for something far more grounded. There’s humour, plenty of it, but rather than watching men commit crimes to pay for extravagant luxuries, we see them do it for their family’s survival, or at least that’s how they might justify it.

And it’s in this introspection where the film gets really interesting. When a director returns to a genre they’re most associated with, it can often feel like a greatest hits montage. For much of its duration, The Irishman covers familiar ground but is slickly entertaining. In the last 30 minutes, as the pace slows, the quips subside and the violence quells, we are suddenly made aware of the ultimate price of this lifestyle and of the crushing savagery of old age. It’s a finale of stifling bleakness, of the pathetic emptiness of crime and of men who mistake their priorities in life, the discovery arriving all too late. There’s an almost meta-maturity, as if Scorsese is also looking back on his own career, the film leaving us with a haunting reminder not to glamorise violent men and the wreckage they leave behind.

– Benjamin Lee, The Guardian

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