I must admit, I went into The Irishman somewhat dreading it. American crime films have always been somewhat of a blind spot for me as someone who tends towards foreign animation and camp horror movies, and I find the trials and tribulations of hard-lined machismo more irritating than affecting, particularly when it comes at the expense of female characters. A 210-minute long movie in a genre I find difficult to connect to? I guess I’ll sit through it for the sake of Scorsese’s importance, especially as I have the fortunate opportunity to watch it on the big screen. But as it turned out, this apprehension was entirely unfounded and unfair – The Irishman is possibly the finest reflection on gangster movies that I’ve ever seen, as well as a compelling, hilarious, heartbreaking epic in its own right.
The majority of the film follows the life and times of Frank Sheeran, the Irishman that made his way into the Sicilian mob in Pennsylvania through his willingness to do their dirty work – which mostly consists of shooting rival mobsters in the head. After decades of doing this, working his way up the ranks along the way, he lands a job with the infamous Jimmy Hoffa, whose mysterious disappearance is re-mythologized by Scorsese. Throughout, the narration of these non-chronologically ordered events is provided by Robert De Niro as Sheeran, whose unreliability and tendency to gloss over his own misdeeds is both funny and terrifying, lending a sense of solipsism to the character that explains his disturbing casualness in enacting brutal violence.
All of this is par for the course within the genre it so brilliantly examines, though Scorsese hints at the simulacrum of this fleeting glory throughout. Sheeran, as the titular Irishman, is by nature an outsider imitating another way of life, who has to hide the resulting emotions behind several layers of masculine expectation. Even their dialogue reflects this, as every character speaks in so many layered euphemisms that definitions sometimes need to be provided by Sheeran in the narration, and simple requests between mobsters quickly descend into loud confusion. Eventually, and inevitably, his friends start to die off, leaving him to contemplate what he has done with his life, and where all of his former power has actually gotten him: the dour nursing home of the frame narrative. Indeed, the final twenty minutes are a quiet meditation on death that affected me for long after, and a sobering antidote to the superficiality and humor that precedes them.
Unsurprisingly, every actor involved is perfectly cast and delivering career-best performances. De Niro’s sternness is brilliant as an anchor for Joe Pesci’s quietly threatening yet oddly likable Russell and Al Pacino’s firecracker turn as Hoffa, while Anna Paquin provides a chilling reminder in her smaller role as Sheeran’s daughter Peggy that the chaos you’re witnessing isn’t occurring in a vacuum. The much-hyped de-aging technology even works pretty effectively once you’ve adjusted to the oddness of seeing a young De Niro again, and certainly doesn’t detract from the rest of the movie.
The Irishman will be released on Netflix worldwide in November, and while the runtime may be somewhat offputting, I can’t recommend it highly enough. This film alone is worth the price of joining the service for a month if you haven’t already, and it more than measures up to Scorsese’s best mob films. You won’t miss out on too much by watching on the small screen, as the power dynamics and explorations of the violent male psyche that play out are palpable and impactful on any device (as opposed to the Marvel films Scorsese apparently dislikes so much). The Irishman currently stands as the best film of the year, and if anything manages to top it, I will be absolutely thrilled.