It is hard to put into words just what Martin Scorsese means to me as a film fan, as I’m sure everybody reading this could attest to. His influence on cinema, filmmaking, and pop culture is absolutely unparalleled; come on, I even named my pet hedgehog after the infamous Travis Bickle from 1976’s Taxi Driver!
Responsible for making some of the greatest films of all time, near enough inventing – or certainly popularising – an entire genre, and with countless masterpieces under his belt, Scorsese is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors of all time. What is so wonderful about Scorsese is his undeniable passion for cinema. Rather endearingly, he nearly always refers to his movie’s as “pictures” and there is just something so wonderfully old school and charming about this. Despite the controversy around his recent statements on Marvel movies, it is clear that what he has said comes from the deep desire to see the rich history of cinema reflected in modern movies, and whilst not entirely in agreement, there is an awful lot of truth to what he has been saying as well.
The Irishman is notable for so many reasons, and this review will probably barely scratch the surface of those. It marks the incredible 9th feature film collaboration between Scorsese and actor Robert DeNiro, whose previous works together could almost pass as the IMDb’s top 10. It also sees the return of Joe Pesci, effectively coming out of retirement to star in this, and who of course previously worked with both Scorsese and DeNiro in 1995 classic Casino. Other notable factors are that this film marks the first time Al Pacino has worked with Scorsese – something I fact-checked multiple times because it just seemed impossible to me! When you add to that the films usage of pretty incredible de-ageing technology, and of course the fact that this is being billed as Scorsese’s return to the genre where he made his name, that’s a lot to get excited about before you even get into the minutiae of what makes the film so great.
Perhaps it is just that magic Marty touch, but The Irishman straightaway feels like an instant classic. It is old-fashioned, classic filmmaking which seamlessly blends modern technology with incredible performances, and of course that expert directorial hand. There is simply nothing like watching a new Scorsese “picture” and The Irishman has all the elements you would expect and want, plus a surprisingly reflective and self-referential edge to it as well.
In many ways, this is Scorsese “returning” to the crime, gangster genre, but it is also vastly different from any of his previous works. It seems to be taking a step away from the violent and criminal acts, looking at them from an almost nostalgic perspective and frequently pauses to subtly explore the characters actions and the long-term effects this has on them as well. The background characters, some of which we only see briefly, are often given small bios detailing their grisly ends. It is a wonderfully nuanced way of emphasising how widespread the violence was in the criminal underworld, without necessarily showing every single death and violent outcome.
The narrative focuses on DeNiro’s character, Frank Sheeran, visiting him at various points in his life. He narrates a lot of it in his twilight years, nearing the end of his life and looking back on the events as we see them unfold. I initially had concerns about the de-ageing technology as the nature of the story means its use is prolific throughout. Whilst at first it is a little jarring to see a young DeNiro on the screen once again, it is relatively easy to settle into and the considered pacing of the film means you barely notice the subtle ageing of the character as the film progresses, even though it does flit around between time periods. It really is quite astonishing what the technology is able to achieve, and there is a real thrill particularly in seeing Pesci and DeNiro appear together on screen, not too far away from their 1995 selves in Casino.
As with any Scorsese picture, the performances are always amazing, and that is certainly the case with The Irishman. What can you say about DeNiro that hasn’t been said already? He is as always, fantastic in The Irishman, and in particular, in the scenes where he has been aged up, there is an emotional potency that was a real gut-punch. It is almost as if he is fondly looking back on his own career, and the incredible films him and Scorsese have made together; it is simply magnificent to watch. Undoubtedly the best performance of the film is from Joe Pesci, and in a just world, he would absolutely be in consideration come Awards season. It’s not only made me want to revisit his equally awesome performance in Casino but it has made me desperate to see more of him on screen in the future. Perhaps following the success of this, he could be persuaded to come out of retirement again should the right role come up. Completing the triple header of performances, Al Pacino is on fine shouty form, but the character he is playing is one which requires this brashness so he is the perfect fit for it. Scorsese seems to have a way of reigning this in as well, harnessing what Pacino does best.
If it isn’t hyperbolic to say, The Irishman is yet another masterpiece from the master filmmaker, and one which can quite easily stand alongside the films previously mentioned here, and of course all of the other incredible pieces of work in Scorsese’s filmography. It is perhaps worth knowing that this might not be the “gangster” film you’re expecting from Scorsese, but it is exactly the sort of gangster film he should be making at this point in his career. It’s reflective, powerfully, surprisingly emotional and a perfect tribute to both his films that have come before this, and the man himself. Truly exceptional.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin