In Hollywood, it is hard to think of a longer-lasting creative partnership than Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Having already made eight films together since 1973, The Irishman is their first collaboration since 1995’s Casino. It also reunites them with Joe Pesci and marks the first Scorsese film starring Al Pacino. However, it is (ironically) due to Netflix that this 12-year labour of love is hitting cinemas.
Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman is about Frank Sheeran (
As The Irishman‘s opening tracking shot guides audiences through a retirement home, there is a sense of foreboding. While we wonder about the setting and see the wheelchair-bound Sheeran call himself a ‘warrior’, it sets the tone for his lucrative life.
De Niro’s insightful and dangerously quiet Sheeran comes across as the perfect hitman. As this role gradually changes, it throws him deeper into the underworld and makes his family life non-existent. One person notably affected is his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), whose unspoken awareness of his double life drives them apart.
Another relationship that slowly deteriorates in The Irishman is the one between Sheeran and Teamster Union president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Bonding through candid conversations, there is a sense of trust that makes Sheeran Hoffa’s ‘safety blanket’. Slowly overcome by stubbornness and pride, Hoffa’s growing pettiness against rival Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba) further strains their friendship. Hoffa’s arrogance only worsens the situation and unsurprisingly makes him more of a mafia target.
Pacino is predictably bold as Hoffa, who becomes more of a caricature as the film progresses. In contrast, Pesci’s performance as Russ Bufalino is surprisingly low-key. Unlike his performances in Casino and Goodfellas, his demeanour is subtle and quiet that hints his power and influence as a crime boss. His casting also wonderfully supports De Niro’s commanding performance as Sheeran while creating a solid foundation for the narrative.
Known for his work on Schindler’s List, Steven Zaillian’s in-depth screenplay covers such a long era that The Irishman occasionally loses its focal point. Between Hoffa, the Bufalinos and ongoing political issues, the film needs Sheeran to bookmark its many plot elements. With so much to juggle, the pace becomes inconsistent and the great supporting cast, including Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel and Stephen Graham, mostly goes unnoticed.
Rodrigo Prieto incorporates muted colours and a grainy appearance in his cinematography, so The Irishman captures a nostalgic era of decadence and controlled chaos. The visuals also complement Scorsese’s direction, reminding audiences of his skill behind the camera and his knowledge of crime films. Beautifully reflects a dubious time of history, he demonstrates more restraint here than his last crime film, The Wolf of Wall Street. Along with muted references to Casino and Goodfellas, The Irishman comes across as an instalment in Scorsese’s mafia cinematic universe.
Overall, The Irishman is an epic feat of filmmaking. With three consistent lead performances and an unmistakable triumph for Scorsese, it is one of the finest crime films in recent years.
Director: Martin Scorsese, Steven Zaillian (screenwriter)
Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin
Runtime: 209 minutes