Few filmmakers in the history of cinema have accomplished as much as Martin Scorsese, proving to be a powerful visionary with thrillers, period pieces, historical biopics, and even kids movies throughout his decades-long legacy. Despite these many accomplishments, some audiences might closely associate the auteur with gangster movies, do in large part to his achievements with films like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. While some audiences might dismiss Scorsese's latest film, The Irishman, as being merely another entry into the well-worn territory of mob movies, the film instead delivers an emotionally devastating exploration of the price one pays for getting involved in organized crime, featuring arguably career-best performances by Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino.
Narrating the defining events of his life, Frank Sheeran (De Niro) chronicles the minor infractions he made as a delivery driver to make connections with powerful figures in his neighborhood and how those moments resulted in a stronger involvement in illicit activities, with corruption and murder infiltrating his entire lifestyle. As Frank climbs the ranks, he develops a close friendship with Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), the famed Teamster with a close connection to organized crime, putting the pair on a fateful path, regardless of the impact it has on Russell Bufalino (Pesci), another powerful figure in the world of organized crime.
While it's technically accurate to define The Irishman as a "mob movie," it's doing the experience a disservice to lump it in with all other, lesser entries in the genre. Scorsese's previous installments into the genre, featuring some of the same collaborators, offer a much more romanticized view of the lifestyle, even when depicting the ramifications of pursuing such a path. While some characters die, others are incarcerated, yet the complex and charming characters still offer the audience something enticing about the experience. The Irishman instead strips the lifestyle of all of its "glory," instead taking every opportunity to remind the audience of the destructive effects these decisions take on everyone close to these gangsters, including the countless depressing ways in which they meet their ends.
Despite the film uniting icons of a generation on all fronts, The Irishman succeeds in its subtleties. Scorsese has proven on countless occasions how flashy and joyful he can make even the most depraved of behaviors, relying on snappy editing and hip musical cues to engage the audience. The effectiveness of this film comes from how often violence is normalized, denying audiences any cathartic acts of revenge and merely showing how easily you can die alone on the street in the gutter, simply because your ambition extended your reach. The film's cinematography is as gripping as any Scorsese effort, though we spend more time in suburban neighborhoods, country clubs, and pristine offices than the gritty streets we've seen in Taxi Driver or Bringing Out the Dead.
Not only does Scorsese succeed with his restraint, but so do the film's stars. While De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci have all delivered audiences some all-time great cinematic characters, some of which were created in Scorsese films, it's their restraint and humanity that make their despicable actions all the more resonant. With Pacino's Hoffa having to convince everyone around him why he should be the president of the Teamsters, his confidence and charisma gives the film its most animated performance. Pesci, who earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Goodfellas, exudes a calm sense of intimidation, with every other character knowing how much he's capable of without the actor ever having to raise his voice.
Two-time Oscar-winner De Niro deserves the most credit among the accomplished cast, delivering the most effective performance with the smallest amount of material. While he's undoubtedly the main character, he feels more like a supporting character in the lives of others, often being denied his own agency in the service of others in hopes of climbing a ladder among criminals. He might not captivate the screen the ways Pacino does, but De Niro effortlessly expresses a silent grief and moroseness as he follows one order after another. The film's final act, specifically, has some of the actor's best work of his career as he witnesses the fallout of the life he has chosen to live.
The Irishman has understandably been described as an "epic," in large part thanks to its three-and-a-half-hour run time, a length necessary to feel the weight of the ordeal. While it might not have the same narrative highs and lows of other epic films, it maintains the bare minimum of momentum to keep the audience engaged, a feat made all the more possible with its compelling cast. The swollen run time makes the finale all the more fulfilling, not only for this adventure, but also to cap off Scorsese's legacy with mob films. If his earlier efforts made have enticed audiences to embrace organized crime, The Irishman serves as atonement for his earlier efforts, serving as a grim reminder of where such a life will lead you.
What heightens The Irishman above being reduced to merely another mob movie is what it has to say about the nature of mortality. Not only are we reminded of just how easily a life can be snuffed out without any pomp or circumstance, but we're also reminded of the inevitability of it all, forcing us to be confronted with the fact that, no matter what we accomplish with our lives, we will all meet our demise, in one way or another. Regardless of whether our end comes too soon as the result of a violent encounter or we're able to grow old in a retirement home, time catches up with us all. The same can be said of the film's cast and crew, who have given us decades of powerful experiences, yet might not ever reunite to give us an epic of this proportion.
While some audiences might see the credits involved with The Irishman and jump to conclusions about the film's merits, what we're given is so much more. Its narrative follows some of the expected tropes for a film about gangsters, but what it says about humanity is far more powerful than any of the misgivings the characters partake in, hopefully inspiring viewers to fully appreciate whatever life they have and those they're lucky enough to share it with, because when our time comes, nothing we did or didn't accomplish will matter. The Irishman will hopefully you can take comfort in having had a positive impact on those around you and allow you to take pride in having led a life worth living.
Rating: 5 out of 5