In his recent years, and more specifically in recent months, Martin Scorsese has really stepped away from the spotlight…oh my god, could you imagine if I was serious with that? The argument has been made that Scorsese made the controversial comments about Marvel movies in a deliberate manner as to promote his new film, The Irishman, due to release in the coming weeks in select theaters and on Netflix. My main issue with this hypothesis is the idea that Scorsese has to resort to cheap marketing ploys to garner attention to his films; every single one of his films made this century, sans Silence, has broken the $100 million mark at the box office, with most going on to scoring multiple Academy Award nominations, with 2006’s The Departed winning Best Picture. Scorsese doesn’t need to stoke controversy to get people to see his movies; all he has to do is put his name on it, and people will come.
In the case of The Irishman, this…sort of applies.
The Irishman, from a pure release standpoint, is unlike anything Scorsese has ever done before, which is going to lead to a major shift in how films are released and consumed by the general public. Being Scorsese’s first film released outside of the major Hollywood studio system since Boxcar Bertha in 1972, it also represents a major step for Netflix as a legitimate contender among traditional studios in terms of the quality of their content. What unfortunately hasn’t been a major step for Netflix is the way in which the film is released to the public. While Netflix is giving the film a limited theatrical release before its release on the streaming service on Nov. 27, a deal was not made on the film being released on a wide scale to most of the United States, with Netflix refusing to budge on its release window, even with AMC offering to take the theatrical exclusivity window down from 72 days to 60. This will lead to most viewers watching the film on a television, computer, tablet or cell phone, rather than being able to see it on the big screen. It’s an unfortunate by-product of the modernization of the film industry, but I’m hoping this gaffe in negotiations opens the door to both parties being willing to make greater compromises in the future.
But let’s forget about Marvel and Netflix and all of that filler…how is The Irishman? Pretty damn solid. It’s Scorsese being the most self-assured version of himself he can be, and that’s pretty spiffy.
Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a former WWII veteran turned small-time delivery driver in Philadelphia in the early 1960s. Thanks to some of his legal connections regarding a matter with his job, Frank finds himself rubbing shoulders with the upper hands of the Italian mob of Philadelphia, despite being Irish himself, this includes mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), who acts as Frank’s mentor and best friend. Over time, Frank’s effectiveness as someone who “paints houses” (a.k.a., an assassin for the mafia), leads him to the doorstep of famed union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who requests Frank’s assistance in providing protection. Throughout the years, Frank sees history pass him by, and has to make difficult decisions that will change his life, his family, and his work forever.
On paper, The Irishman sounds like a textbook Scorsese film in every way, and in a way, you wouldn’t really be incorrect in that assumption. The Irishman is Scorsese’s realization of how to perfectly master everything he’s done well in his career to a science, while still being able to make bold and risky decisions as a filmmaker that seeks to shape how movies will be made for generations to come. Perhaps the boldest decision made was the controversial decision to have the actors portray their characters at every age, spanning a 60-year time frame, using CGI techniques to age and de-age the actors at any given age they’re portrayed in. This decision was initially met with skepticism when the film was first being promoted, but as more and more people got to see the film, that skepticism turned to relief when it actually ended up being well-utilized for the most part. It takes a minute to get used to, almost like an IMAX 3D film is to your eyes during the first few minutes, but it becomes a seamless element of the film as it goes on. Occasionally, there are some discrepancies that would reveal the truth a bit too harshly, but for so few moments to occur in a film that touts this technology for three-and-a-half hours is impressive. Do I think this is the way of the future? Perhaps, but had I not seen Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep two days prior to seeing this film, witnessing how to properly approach de-aging techniques by using effective re-casting efforts, I probably would’ve felt more supportive of this. Both do their jobs shockingly well, and I believe both have a spot in filmmaking today, as long as they’re used tastefully and ethically.
Because of this grand time frame that the film exists in, the actors are given immense opportunities to grow and evolve their characters into multiple, different iterations, and the mastery of these performances speaks to the multi-generational grasp that each of these actors has had on their craft. De Niro, while not going incredibly far outside his comfort zone in his character type, builds an incredibly subtle and vulnerable character out of Frank, who might be viewed as a brute from the outside, but is given the time and energy to develop a softer side that often finds moments of remorse among his violent tendencies. De Niro gets to evolve the idea that violence affects far more than just those it’s being perpetrated against, but affects those closest to him, and it’s a heartbreaking twist on what we’ve come to expect from De Niro’s range as an actor. Pacino is also within his range here, but is also given leeway to build something far more human out of the mythical image of Jimmy Hoffa. Yet, it’s Pesci, coming out of the shadows of retirement, who steals the entire show as he makes damn sure that his reluctant decision to dignify Scorsese’s wish for him to be in the film is well-noted and worth not only his time, but the time of the viewer. He is not confined to the archetype of what we’ve come to expect from Pesci, but gives us a loving, beautiful take on the aging mobster. This is Pesci’s love letter to the cinema that groomed him into the actor he is today and a token of appreciation to Scorsese’s style as a filmmaker. I’m not sure there’s another supporting performance by a male actor this year that’s as genuinely crafted as Pesci’s performance is here.
At three-and-a-half hours almost on the dot, The Irishman is the longest major film to be released in a long time, but unlike so many other films testing the waters of extended runtimes (I’m looking at you, It: Chapter Two), The Irishman actually justifies its extended presence very quickly. As the film spans a long range of time, the film is naturally going to be a long one to be told, but this is also not Scorsese’s first rodeo in the game of making long films. Scorsese is a filmmaker who has a very acute awareness of pacing, and he knows how to build a story with efficiency and movement that rarely ever feels stagnant. There are a few times in the film’s second act that feel a bit slow, but in the grand scheme of things, Scorsese is a master when it comes to keeping a story moving. With the help of his longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker, he puts together something that always feels deliberate and relevant to the messages that want to be conveyed here.
Sure, once you remove all the hoopla surrounding the film’s release strategy, technological achievements, great acting, effective direction, and adept editing, you have something that feels more like a standard Scorsese picture than we’ve gotten in recent years, but (and it’s a big but), what if that’s exactly what we needed right now? Scorsese has run the gamut of scales, genres, actors, and story devices; he’s made family films and horror films and sports films; he’s shot movies on film, as digital, and in 3D; so why not return to your natural roots and attempt to flip the script on the niche genre that you yourself carved out? Some might think that’s jumping the shark, but I think that, from an objective standpoint, even if you don’t identify heavily with his filmography, it’s hard to argue that Scorsese hasn’t earned the complete right to do so at this point in his career. He proves that, even in familiarity, there are still risks to be taken, moves to be made, and boundaries to break, while still reinforcing everything audiences expect from a film like this carrying your namesake. The Irishman is a paradox of its own existence; it’s comfortable but entirely new at the same time. That’s a pretty cool thing to be able to achieve as a filmmaker.
In select theaters beginning November 1st, 2019.
Available for streaming on Netflix November 27th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.