The Irishman Review
Every frame of The Irishman is wrestling with its own mortality. Told entirely in flashback by an aged Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the film is at once a story of an elderly man looking back on former glories and mistakes, and a meta commentary on the actors’ screen personas as they look back on character archetypes that defined their earlier careers, all via CGI de-ageing technology that aims to take decades of their well worn faces. For this reason, those expecting director Martin Scorsese to have made another swaggering crime epic in the same vein as Goodfellas or Casino may come away disappointed.
This is a film haunted by the passage of time and the concept of leaving behind a worthwhile legacy - and on a first viewing, I was surprised by how cold I felt towards it, as it never manages to find equal balance between familiar Scorsese crime riffs and something far weightier. In its later stages, it spends so much time solemnly commentating on the legacy of former glories that it just left me wishing I was rewatching those former glories instead. There is much to admire within this film, but it’s the first Scorsese epic to leave me feeling every second of its runtime, where euphoric highs are matched by laborious lows, that feel identical to previous Scorsese crime films but with none of the energy to sustain interest.
Now in a care home, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran is reminiscing on his career as a hitman. Shortly after completing his service in WWII, he gets a job as a delivery driver in New York, where he meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), an associate who leads him towards his first hires as a hitman. The risky jobs he undertakes eventually capture the attention of famed union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who effectively hires Frank as his right hand man - trying his best to keep Frank out of the spotlight as he faces repeated enquiries about his ties to the criminal underworld.
Thematically, the use of CGI de-ageing technology makes sense; this is every bit about the actors and director looking back on their careers as it is a story of a man reminiscing on his. But there isn’t a single moment where it doesn’t prove distracting; sequences where Frank Sheeran is supposed to be in his 20s or 30s are fairly laughable when the technology struggles to make De Niro look any younger than a man in his mid 50s. Using different actors for when these characters are younger may have detracted from the meta theme Scorsese was reaching for, but it wouldn’t have felt like a distancing tool in the way it does here. After all, it’s hard to connect to the heart of the story when technology has been utilised to warp the faces of every lead actor onscreen. Maybe even shooting the film Wet Hot American Summer-style, and having the crew in their 70s claiming to be in their 30s without any de-ageing makeup, would have been less of a distraction.
The full power of the De Niro and Pesci performances, both of which are far more subtle than their previous works with Scorsese, is obfuscated by the technology they’re presented in - which leaves Al Pacino (who hasn't had as many years taken off him by the technology) as the lead who steals the show. Scorsese uses Pacino in the same way that Michael Mann did for Heat, being fully aware of the actor’s somewhat infamous inability to believably do comic acting, and using that struggle to coherently tell a joke as the backbone for the character. And like with Heat, that central tension results in a tremendously funny performance, that only heightens when he comes into contact with crime family member Anthony Provenzano, played brilliantly by Stephen Graham. For all of The Irishman’s quiet rumination on ageing and leaving behind a legacy, the film truly sings whenever Pacino is onscreen, suddenly remembering that the reason the likes of Goodfellas and Casino worked is because they were as consistently funny as they were deeply unsettling.
Steven Zaillian’s screenplay is largely to blame for the uncertainness of tone - a cursory look at his filmography is enough proof that he never feels fully comfortable penning lighthearted fare. But it is undeniably elevated somewhat by the performances. Pacino is so exhilarating to watch, it’s easy to overlook that the screenplay has characterised Hoffa somewhat lazily as a mirror of Donald Trump; a powerful political figure who claims to be on the side of the working classes, despite being knees deep in criminal activity, and on the side of a Republican party that favours the upper class. In the hands of Pacino, who is fully committing to a part in a way he hasn’t for years, it’s easy to overlook this lazy shorthand and be completely bowled over by it.
The Irishman is released in UK cinemas on November 8th and streamed on Netflix from November 27th