Netflix Now: The Irishman (2019) - Reviewed

Martin Scorsese is one of several directors who have been around since the beginning of the New Hollywood Cinema era, and luckily for us, he's one of the very few who still has the ability to make great cinema.  With The Irishman, Scorsese is returning to the genre that he has largely defined over the course of the last 40 years.  I should state up front that this was my top anticipated film of 2019, for several reasons.  Aside from the fact that a new Scorsese film is always a time for celebration, there are several aspects of The Irishman that make it especially exciting.  Not only is it his first gangster film since The Departed, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, but it also marks a return for Robert De Niro, who hasn't worked with Scorsese since Casino, 24 years ago.  The same goes for Joe Pesci, who actually came out of retirement to appear in the film.  The Irishman also has the distinction of being the first time that Al Pacino has worked with Scorsese, as well as being only the fourth film that he has appeared in with De Niro, following The Godfather: Part II, Heat, and Righteous Kill.  

Based on the 2004 memoir, I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman follows the life of Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, an alleged hit man and enforcer for the Bufalino crime family.  Told in typical Scorsese fashion through a series of flashbacks and narration, Sheeran, played by De Niro walks us through his life, from his humble beginnings as a delivery truck driver in post-war America, to his involvements with notorious mobsters, and eventually to his friendship and possible murder of Jimmy Hoffa, played by Pacino.  Clocking in at a runtime of 209 minutes, The Irishman has the distinction of becoming Martin Scorsese's longest film to date.  You need not worry however, as the combination of Scorsese's masterful storytelling and that of his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, not only keeps you engaged throughout the runtime, but somehow actually leaves you wanting just a little more.  

Al Pacino is already garnering critical acclaim for his portrayal of Hoffa, and rightfully so, but for me, the real standout is Joe Pesci, as Russell Bufalino, the mob boss, who takes Sheeran under his wing and introduces him to the mobster underworld.  Maybe part of it stems from the mere excitement of getting to see Pesci act again, but I feel like it's mostly due to the nuance and authenticity he brings to the role of Bufalino.  Yes, we shouldn't forget that these men are dangerous criminals, but there's also a charisma there that you can't help but get caught up in.  The brutality of the mafia is ever present, but the sense of genuine friendship that you witness between Sheeran and Bufalino over the years is nothing if not heartfelt.

Several people have already asked me how The Irishman compares to the likes of Goodfellas and Casino, which, of course, has not been an easy question to answer.  I've watched those two films countless times over the years, and The Irishman has only been with me for a few days.  It definitely has the familiar tone and style to those films.  Like I said before, the film has a similar style in the way it jumps back and forth between a couple different timelines, accompanied by a voiceover narration throughout the film by De Niro as Frank Sheeran.  Some of the CGI de-aging might be a tad off-putting at first, but it becomes an afterthought almost immediately.  You get too engaged in the film to waste time thinking about how young Robert De Niro looks.  There are several offshoots and anecdotes about various true-life mobsters who had their interactions with Sheeran and company, mostly to both thrillingly violent and comedic effect. 

Despite all these familiarities, there's something uniquely different about The Irishman, thus allowing it to set itself apart from Scorsese's other mob dramas.  Perhaps the biggest difference is the way in which The Irishman takes you on a journey not only with the mafia and the Teamsters, but also through their relationship with the cultural landscape in post-war America as well.  Sometimes their actions affect the cultural landscape, and sometimes the cultural landscape affects them.  Having not read the book, I would occasionally find myself wondering when certain aspects of the story were taking place.  As soon as I found myself asking these questions, a major historical event would occur, thereby answering said questions.

Watching this film, you get the sense that Scorsese isn't afraid to slow things down, and take his time letting certain aspects of the story gradually reveal themselves, to skillful effect.  The fact that he's able to accomplish this while still keeping you engaged for a three and a half hour film shows a level of expert proficiency rarely seen in filmmaking today.  After the film finished, I spent the rest of the evening, and most of the next day, pondering what I'd seen, wondering if it had fulfilled the impossible expectations I had mounted upon it.  I was given my answer when I sat down that next evening and realized that I was ready and willing sit through the whole three and a half hours all over again, just like that.  I read somewhere once that every decade, Martin Scorsese made one masterpiece.  In the '70s: Taxi Driver, '80s: Raging Bull, '90s: Goodfellas, '00s: The Departed, and now, in the final months of the 2010s, just in time, I think I know the next one...

The Irishman is playing in select cinemas beginning November 1st, and streaming on Netflix beginning November 27.

--Derek Miranda