There’s a moment in The Sopranos, another Mafia-infused mortality epic, in which Tony Soprano attempts to remind his dementia-stricken uncle of who he once was. “You and my dad, you two ran North Jersey,” he tells him. “Hmm, well that’s nice,” replies a placid Uncle Junior, oblivious to the long life that led up to this point. It is a similar sense of melancholy and futility that saturates The Irishman, a fatalistic behemoth of a film from Martin Scorsese that paints a bleak picture of Mob life.
Adapted from Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses and scripted by Steven Zaillian, The Irishman tracks the life of the titular mafioso Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), centring on his involvement with the disappearance of union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film’s scale is immense, spanning roughly fifty years and clocking in a run time of 3.5 hours. One potential pitfall with this scale is making actors in their mid-seventies look half that age. But the de-ageing technology here is exceptional. It’s not unnoticeable, particularly if you’re looking for it, but after a few minutes you forget that the actors have even been digitally altered at all.
The three poster-boys for the film deliver flawless performances. Most of the comedy comes from Pacino’s expressive Hoffa, and his performance as the Mafia-adjacent Teamster makes you pine for a box-set of Pacino-Scorsese collaborations that don’t exist, this being the first time they’ve worked together. Joe Pesci’s retirement-busting turn as Russell Bufalino is exquisite, emanating a quiet menace throughout. But it’s De Niro who takes the spotlight, putting in one of his finest and most sensitive performances to date. He’s no stranger to gangster roles, but this one is more subdued and pensive than usual. There are also impressive performances by actors in supporting roles, including Stephen Graham, Anna Paquin, Ray Romano, and Bobby Cannavale.
There’s a sense of dread pervading every scene of The Irishman. This is often the case with crime dramas, the frequent moral being ‘crime doesn’t pay,’ but here there is no glamorous lifestyle to offset the inevitable retribution. Mob business is sad and mournful, violence is quick and final. Often, when an ancillary character is introduced, the action pauses and an expiry date is stamped on them, telling us how and when they’ll die. And as the decades relentlessly march on over the course of the film’s run time, these dates quickly come and go.
The Irishman is a masterpiece of storytelling and Scorsese’s direction is bolstered by a thoughtful and well-paced script, Rodrigo Prieto’s understated but quietly beautiful cinematography, and pitch-perfect editing by Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. Ultimately, it is a film about isolation and regret. It asks familiar questions about the price of immorality, but provides a much more vulnerable answer than we’ve seen before. “I heard you paint houses,” Jimmy Hoffa says to Frank Sheeran in their first conversation. He certainly does, but why?
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, Joe Pesci, Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale Director: Martin Scorsese Writer: Steven Zaillian Rating: 15 Duration: 209 minutes Released by: Netflix Release date: 8th November (Cinemas) 27th November (Netflix)