Scorsese’s sweeping mob epic pulls no punches.
The first and perhaps most important thing to note about the latest film from legendary director Martin Scorsese is that watching it does not feel like a three-and-a-half hour experience. Rarely does a film come along that warrants such a lengthy commitment, but everything about The Irishman feels meticulously crafted to stay engaging from beginning to end. With most eyes that will reach the film coming from Netflix subscribers, audiences can engage with it in whatever capacity they want, including pausing, rewinding, or even just taking a break to finish it later. But that only matters if people actually want to keep watching, and the real secret behind The Irishman is that it just happens to be almost impossible to look away from. At some point time becomes that last thing on the mind when taking in the sheer talent on display here.
Scorsese has always been a pretty experimental director, especially in the last two decades, but he is perhaps best known for his films exploring the complex world of crime and the mob, films like GoodFellas and The Departed. With The Irishman, Scorsese takes a different approach in telling the seedy tales of former mob hitman Frank Sheeran, pulling more from sweeping epics like The Godfather than his own previous works. There are staples of typical Scorsese peppered throughout, but there seems to be an effort on his part to make something more transcendent, resulting in a film that perfectly bridges the gap between his older and newer work. It also allows for a more contemplative story, one that manifests as a reflection on legacy, responsibility, and the nature of how one life can impact another. The most intense scenes here are not gunfights or car chases, but quiet dinners and disapproving glances, giving the actors the ability to perform without being rushed along to the next big scene.
While Scorsese certainly does his part in creating a stable frame, it would all be for nothing if not for the brilliant acting on display from everyone involved. One of the biggest stories surrounding The Irishman was how the film utilizes deaging technology to allow actors to play their characters across the decades the film covers, and it feels perfectly implemented. Aside from being impressive on a purely technical level, it gives Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci the ability to give some of their best performances in recent years, playing off each other in a natural and exciting way while maintaining their mannerisms and physical qualities. De Niro in particular shines, feeling restrained yet powerfully emotional with the ability to switch between strength and uncertainty within the space of minutes. Even the supporting actors stand their ground, with everyone from Ray Romano to Anna Paquin bringing a level of professionalism and commitment that makes each character feel completely distinct. Everyone doing their part really helps build the world of the film, and provides a well-oiled delivery method for Scorsese to wax poetic throughout.
At its core, The Irishman feels like a meditation on death, occasionally manifesting in pretty abstract ways. Of course there is going to be death when the mob is involved, but Scorsese never glamorizes it, and instead presents it not even as an inevitability but instead as a promise. Minor characters get text that only gives their name, how they died, and when they died. Historical events like the Kennedy assassination are given significance both thematically and within the story. Even the framing device of the film, told through the eyes of a much older Frank Sheeran sitting alone in a nursing home, gives the feeling of death close by. At 77 Scorsese is most likely thinking about death as well, so it would make sense that his most grandiose project to date would largely focus on it, using his characters and their situations to reflect on how death impacts people. It ends up giving the film a much more personal feeling in almost a self-portrait way, as if Scorsese simply opened up his brain and filmed the result of whatever spilled out from it.
The Irishman is not the final film Scorsese will direct, but it very much feels like it could have been. The film operates in some ways as a kind of career retrospective, delivering what many audiences have come to expect from him on a grander scale and with a greater sense of purpose. With how dense the film is everyone will likely come away with a unique interpretation, giving a reason to carefully consume and think about the film instead of simply putting it on in the background like so many other Netflix productions feel designed for. The length may initially scare some people away, and may also affect its long term appeal and rewatchability; but it ultimately becomes a strength, as it allows Scorsese to tell the story he wanted to while still somehow managing to feel tightly constructed. There are so many ways the film could have collapsed under its own ambition, but it holds strong and stands not just as one of the best films of modern Scorsese, but also as one of the best of the year.