Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a Teamster pulling petty thefts from the truck he drives when he forms a friendship with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). This pulls Frank into the upper echelons of the mob, and ultimately a close connection with the firebrand leader of the Teamster’s union, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
For as much as The Irishman is a piece of art it may also be remembered for the numbers. The Netflix film carries an estimated budget of $200m, much of it going into the facial de-ageing technology of De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino’s characters. This is the ninth work Scorsese has directed De Niro in, going back to 1973 (Scorsese first directed Keitel in 1967). Perhaps most notably of all, The Irishman is 210 minutes long.
This is a length that is exhausting and potentially crippling to the film. While Scorsese is no stranger to helming a three hour work, never before have conversations felt so circular and interminable, never has the sheer amount of information being unloaded reached past saturation point. If an hour had been lost from this work and the focus kept more tightly on Frank’s friendship with Hoffa (how this relationship came to be so close is also underdeveloped), this could have been a far more engaging picture. Netflix giving carte blanche has led to a feeling equivalent to playing tennis with the net down.
The film both goes very, very deep into mob actions while also taking a surface level approach. This is combined well with the fates of supporting characters written underneath their screenshots, casually reminding the viewer of how fleeting and gory life can be in this world. The dingy restaurants, the rushed hits, the montages of criminal activity that Scorsese pioneered are all here as well, even if what was once so dynamic is starting to feel a little tired.
The production values to the piece are excellent, able to ground the work in some of the most authentic recapturing of the American 60s put on screen. The facial CGI may be called a middling success, with these men looking as they did decades ago, though De Niro never really acts like a young man. In one particular scene where he beats up a butcher, no amount of technical wizardry can hid his creaking physicality.
The actor most able to recapture his glory days is Pacino, and Hoffa at his most animated is some of the films more entertaining moments. Unfortunately these scenes pass too quickly and in recreating the events leading up to his disappearance the film finds itself in an hour long rut.
What really pulls The Irishman together is the final chronological segments, when the de-ageing is off and the old men are old. As Frank sits on his own defending dead men on a code long forgotten, all of the heartbreak and pain he caused in his life rings out so brutally as totally, utterly worthless. We’re all going to die, but is this the way you want to be remembered? Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street all have these denouements, but the awareness that so many involved in this film are sitting on the edge of eternity themselves gives this work its most poignant shroud of all.
If you want a gangster film that couples the themes of mortality with the violence of its subjects, The Irishman is up there with Once Upon A Time In America. If you’re looking for something with the pace of Goodfellas or the craziness of The Wolf of Wall Street, you could be forgiven for staying away.