“The Irishman” or “I Heard You Paint Houses,” as it appears in the title card, is director Martin Scorsese’s 24th feature film and ninth collaboration with actor Robert De Niro. The film is based on the novel of the same name, which documents the real-life events surrounding a truck driver turned hitman, Frank Sheeran, and his involvement in the infamous disappearance of Teamster Jimmy Hoffa.
After a long period in development hell during which studios were too hesitant to take the reins on Scorsese’s magnum opus crime epic, Netflix decided to finally deliver one of the most anticipated films in recent history. The $159 million film spans over the course of 30 years, and like most Scorsese films sports a lengthy runtime – in this case his longest film, clocking in at 209 minutes.
The film has an ensemble cast which is a dream come true for any mob movie connoisseur such as myself. The cast includes performances by Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin and Harvey Keitel among others; it’s the “Goodfellas” alumni reunited nearly 30 years later. It seems this film may have been written in the stars, but does it deliver?
Robert De Niro’s central performance of Frank Sheeran is reminiscent of Eastwood’s character in “Unforgiven” – a gunslinger going on a final ride with unfinished business, if you will.
Sheeran is a WWII veteran, still very much a soldier in a post-war America that forces him to adapt in order to avoid slipping through society’s cracks. Sheeran puts his skillset to use as a hitman for Russell Buffalino, a crime boss in Philadelphia portrayed by Joe Pesci, who came out of retirement to play the role. Pesci’s wonderful performance is a looming cloud of power that lingers throughout the film.
The same praise should be paid to the entire cast. No one is off of their game. Al Pacino gives one of his career best performances as Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa. His erratic but likable performance draws us to his character, and the chemistry he and De Niro have creates a fragile yin and yang relationship.
Scenes between Hoffa and Tony Pro, played by Stephen Graham, are among many of the highlights of this film. The inflated egos of these characters come into combat in these scenes and subsequently creates some of the greatest dramatic tension I’ve seen between two characters in a long time in cinema— well maybe since “Heat,” which also stars De Niro and Pacino.
The film makes sure to capitalize on every second of its three-and-a-half-hour runtime. Every shot is meticulously crafted to draw you into the dark world of Frank Sheeran, from the old school Mercury he drives to his bowling shirt and loose slacks to the wonderful soundtrack. Everything feels authentic; the journey from the first frame to the last is something of a criminal odyssey.
If you’re not familiar with his work, most of Scorsese’s films build upon a particular theme, often by recreating a certain period in history and adding vibrant charismatic characters to guide us through the world Scorsese has created. “The Irishman” is a Scorsese retrospective as well as a meditation on the realities of aging in a violent world. In an abstract and subtle way, it feels as if Scorsese is trying to make sense of it all himself and how it applies to his legacy as a filmmaker along with the viewers.
This is an old school film executed in an old school fashion by a seasoned director. Scorsese is definitely one of the best to ever grace the medium and this is his love letter to the kind of film he’s known to be the top in his class at making. This guy paved the way for men like Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, and it seems like he keeps finding ways to further perfect what many feel is already perfect art.
Scorsese has recently taken some heat from Marvel Stans for having a less than popular opinion on big budget marvel movies. I challenge anyone to watch the masterful direction in this film, paired with the wonderful editing by Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, and then try to compare it to “Iron Man 2.” It’s hard for me to not sympathize with Scorsese’s perspective after watching this film. The two types of films are simply not comparable. This film is art and drama at its highest form. I’ll save you the soapbox – you just need to see it for yourself.
“The Irishman” is a film that I’m afraid will be the last of its kind, at least for the foreseeable future. I’ve seen interviews where Scorsese himself said that Netflix is the only studio that was willing to make the kind of film that he wanted to make, and that other big studios were simply not willing anymore. I think those big studios should watch this film and then think long and hard about that stance.