After sitting through the 209-minute running time of Scorsese's The Irishman, it's easy to understand why the notoriously prickly and particular director opted to place his long-awaited magnum opus in the hands of Netflix.
Netflix offered Scorsese something that he valued even more than financial rewards - nearly complete artistic control, an irresistible offer sure to seduce one of contemporary cinema's most acclaimed and artistically precise filmmakers.
Paramount, as we know now, resisted this type of freedom and resisted the film's burgeoning budget heading north of a $150 million budget. It wasn't an unreasonable response, of course, but it wasn't Netflix's response and, as a result, The Irishman was ultimately made exactly the way Scorsese wanted to make it and is now headed into distribution, and awards season, with a limited theatrical release and a much longer life via the usual Netflix channels.
With any, or at least most, fears about box-office failure removed, The Irishman will head into awards season dependent upon the Scorsese name and Scorsese's cast to overcome any continuing Netflix/Amazon resistance among the Hollywood "old guard" to ensure the film's critical, if not financial, success.
The Irishman has been referred to as Scorsese's "costly experiment," though there's little experimental about it other than Scorsese's insistence on utilizing the still imperfect de-aging digital effects that immerse themselves throughout the film. The Irishman represents a cinematic safe house for Scorsese, a return to the type of filmmaking that nearly everyone would agree he does best and an opportunity to work once again with familiar screen mates whose last names are enough to recognize them like De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino. A Scorsese passion project for at least the past 10 years, The Irishman is based upon a debunked Charles Brandt book that, nonetheless, makes for interesting and entertaining cinema.
De Niro is Frank Sheeran, a World War II vet who largely served in Italy and returned from the war with more than a little bit of seething rage and a quiet personality that mostly masked it. Taking up life as a truck driver, he soon found his way into a life of ordinary light theft that would eventually lead him down the road to a role working for Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). It was a relationship that would eventually lead him into the complicated world of corrupt yet esteemed labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose mysterious death in 1982 remains the subject of much debate.
Brandt's book, originally published as I Heard You Paint Houses, purports to solve the mystery and it's largely that story that Steven Zaillian's screenplay brings to life here. The story unfolds over three periods of Sheeran's life and it's his mid-40's incarnation via digital de-aging that is the film's most jarring and de-humanizing effect. If you can recall, and I still can't forget, the soulless eyes of Zemeckis's The Polar Express, you'll have some idea of what to expect from De Niro's piercing gaze that is less piercing and more zombie-like in a vast sea of visual emptiness that is occasionally disturbing and occasionally befitting of its character.
It may not bother you. It bothered me.
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of the film's digital de-aging process is simply how much it contrasts with Scorsese's otherwise precision filmmaking and Bob Shaw's lovingly created, beautifully developed production design and the transporting original music of Robbie Roberts and lensing by Rodrigo Prieto. Set amidst the immersive qualities of The Irishman, it's the digital de-aging process that, at least at times, uncomfortably stands out.
It has been years since we've seen this De Niro, once universally recognized as one of Hollywood's greatest actors before subjecting himself to a freefall where he's become more recognized for Meet the Parents than masterful cinema. This isn't so much a comeback for De Niro. De Niro has never been gone. However, The Irishman is a reminder that De Niro is one of Hollywood's true greats with a performance that sizzles and puts him back at the top of his game.
The same could be said for Pacino, of course. Pacino's freefall has been even more pronounced, few directors able to rein in the actor's impulsive scenery-chewing and the result being Pacino's fine legacy being reduced to not much more than a cinematic footnote. Scorsese knows precisely how to bring out Pacino's best and that's exactly what he does here. Pacino's turn as Hoffa is a beautiful thing to behold, though it's destined to take a back seat come awards season to Pesci's revelatory and film-stealing turn as Bufalino.
Indeed, while De Niro's clearly the star here it's Pesci who steals the film. On-screen for the first time since 2010, Pesci gives what may amount to being the best performance of his career and, at least for my money, the true Oscar-worthy performance in the film. Pesci grounds the film, his usual brashness replaced by something more disciplined and refined and precise. Pesci's performance is, strangely enough, the film's emotional core until a closing 30 minutes paints the kind of portrait you'd never expect a Scorsese film to paint.
Scorsese tries to infuse The Irishman with an emotional core throughout the film, often succeeding when Pesci is on the screen yet more often than not falling short when weakly exploring this chosen life and the ways in which it destroyed the very families it was trying to protect. Sheeran's daughters are portrayed practically as detached emoticons, one daughter so eerily resembling Wednesday Addams throughout the film that it's hard not to laugh every time she shows up traumatized by yet another of her father's evil doings. These scenes with the daughters, even toward the film's end, may be intentionally flat but they add little to the film's tapestry and feel strangely out of place in a film that is otherwise so immersive.
Yet, it's in the film's final 30 minutes that The Irishman's emotional core and introspective nature comes fully to life as otherwise ordinary men are left to deal with the not so ordinary choices they made and the ways in which they are left to make sense of things that simply don't make sense. Those who survived, most notably Sheeran himself, are left to wither away defeated not by other men or other crimes or guns or knives but by the inevitable failings of their own bodies and the abandonment by families who'd rather have had their presence than their presents. Scorsese takes a decidedly non-sentimental approach here and it's bravura filmmaking - he doesn't sentimentalize these men or excuse their choices.
In essence, he grieves right along with them.
There's a bleakness here that's undeniable, a stark reality that the poor choices we make in life follow us into our graves and leave behind the ripples and waves of everything we've done. The bravado has calmed, the toxic masculinity subsided, and even the humor has been replaced by something resembling resignation but not quite remorse. It's the closing 30 minutes of The Irishman that have stayed with me the most, their simplicity and matter-of-factness haunting my entire being even as I write these few final closing words.
The Irishman is a good film, maybe even a very good film, being masqueraded as a great film. I would argue that it's intentionally not a great film because a truly great film would have somehow justified everything that Scorsese is trying not to justify here. Blessed with great performances by its leading trio and an ensemble that falls into line sublimely, The Irishman feels like the work of a 76-year-old director whose greatness has never been questioned but whose entire career is now being looked at through the inner soul's rear-view mirror. Scorsese will almost unquestionably end up with yet another Oscar nod for his work here, while nods for De Niro and Pesci also seem mostly assured. Production nods will definitely follow, though a nod for Zaillian's script would be disappointing with Zaillian's exact, culturally accurate dialogue unable to mask the film's historical inaccuracies and mostly de-bunked attempt at fact-making.
Opening in limited release and set for my hometown of Indy on November 22nd just ahead of its Netflix release, The Irishman is a film that seems like typical Scorsese until it doesn't seem like typical Scorsese anymore. The Irishman is an earthy, grounded work that sizzles and burns, understands and grieves. It's a film that delicately tells an indelicate story, portraying savagery of life choices woven into the tapestry of familial loyalties both real and imagined. While not quite the masterpiece that many are proclaiming it to be, once the dust settles and the fervor subsides The Irishman will be recognized for what it actually is - a damn fine film from one of Hollywood's most passionate defenders and dependable filmmakers.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic