Martin Scorsese has done it again with “The Irishman.” It feels like after years of films like “Bright” and “Bird Box,” Netflix has finally done it. They’ve landed a movie that will go down in history as something that matters. “The Irishman” will stand on its own as a landmark in Scorsese’s filmography. Of that, I have very little doubt.
On the surface, the new Netflix film from the prolific crime and gangster film director is a standard affair. In a team of what feels like all of the greats of the genre, Robert De Niro stars alongside Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in the seedy world of the 1950s and 1960s Italian mob. De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, the titular “Irishman,” which is certainly an interesting casting choice. De Niro is an obviously Italian man, and slapping an Irish surname on him doesn’t really change that fact.
I only bring this up because it kind of makes the title of the movie … pointless? Sheeran is of Irish descent but learned Italian fighting in Italy in World War II, which is briefly addressed. Occasionally other characters refer to him as “Irish,” but his being Irish is not particularly relevant to the plot and does not feel like it warrants being the title of this film. I’m nitpicking because this is a great film, aside from a few minor gripes, so when something that feels this central is this wildly off-base it gets a spotlight.
But I’m getting off track. The story follows Sheeran as he meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a prominent member of the Italian mob in the Philly/Jersey/New York area. Russell takes a liking to Sheeran and starts having him run some jobs for him. Frank declares, followed by a title screen repeating it, that he “paints houses.”
Sure would have been a cool name for the movie.
Russell then puts Sheeran in touch with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the infamous president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters during the 60s and 70s. As Sheeran begins to work for Hoffa, the two get close and he becomes a sort of number two for Hoffa’s less legal Union activities. The story then jumps between three general time periods as it unfolds, Sheeran meeting and joining with Bufalino, meeting and working with Hoffa, and then faux interview segments with an old haggard Sheeran in a nursing home, reflecting back on the story we are watching unfold.
With its three and a half-hour run-time, what this story turns into is a slow-burn, character-driven epic. Though it’s more “Goodfellas” than “Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Irishman” goes even further than “Goodfellas,” sacrificing scenes of action, violence, drug use and nudity to focus on building tension in its darker moments, establishing strong characters and allowing its emotional beats to take their time and sink in. And it’s not only a better film for it, but one that stands out among Scorsese’s other films. It has all of Scorsese’s personality and dark humor infused into the script and the dialogue, only it feels more mature.
Some part of these intricate relationships that you grow to really care about would have suffered and that’s where this movie shines the most. It also kept things light when it needed to. One little touch I appreciate a lot is as new characters or bit characters would be introduced, there would be a freeze frame and their name would come on screen with the date they died and how they died, which led to some gut-busting dark comedy.
It’s also a beautiful movie. Visually, the aesthetic and crisp visuals of the sets and cinematography are alluring. It’s easy to sink into the world that this movie has built and not realize you’re diving deep two hours in. The music is also a fun mix of 50s and 60s jazzy tracks as well as a tense and dynamic orchestral soundtrack. It’s an easy movie to sink into, though it may be worth a pause when you’re watching on Netflix for a snack and bathroom break.
I have very few negative things to say about this movie. It’s a masterclass in film making and though the runtime may dissuade some and it may not be for those who aren’t a fan of the genre, there is so much good here that it can’t be ignored. It would be unfair to do so.