Film Review: The Irishman
Director: Martin Scorsese
In Theaters 11.22
Academy Award–winning director Martin Scorsese (The Departed, Goodfellas, Raging Bull) tackles the story of what happened to Jimmy Hoffa with The Irishman. Although, the film is less about the mystery and more about exploring themes of loyalty and violence, the link between power and corruption, and—perhaps most of all—regret.
As the film opens, the strains of “In The Still of the Night” play on the soundtrack as we are introduced to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a World War II vet who sits in a wheelchair in a nursing home and recounts his rise from a Teamster truck driver to a mafia hitman, as well as his relationship with Hoffa (Al Pacino). The classic song by The Five Satins plays a major role in the film, perhaps as important as the iconic stars. It evokes a sense of loneliness, longing and lamentation. Scorsese paints a picture of a man who went from serving in the Army, where he and others would hold Nazi prisoners at gunpoint and make them dig their own graves before executing them, to one day executing people for a living in his civilian life. He sees both as merely a job to be done.
As Frank rises through the ranks, he becomes friends with Teamster boss Hoffa, a magnetic figure who is as charismatic as he is egomaniacal and corrupt. Jimmy becomes something of a mentor to Frank, and the friendship and professional relationship becomes so tight that Jimmy becomes a favorite uncle to Frank’s daughter, Peggy.
Scorsese and De Niro are obviously very at home with this genre, but what sets The Irishman apart from Goodfellas and Casino is a sense of maturity that comes from the two great artists tackling this material in their late 70s. There is a sense of world weariness and a search for meaning as Frank looks back on his career that is soulful and almost spiritual, recalling Silence as much as it does Scorsese’s previous mob films. De Niro hasn’t been this good in decades, and it’s one of the defining performances of his career. Pacino is mesmerizing as Hoffa, combining the larger-than-life aspects of the character with a quiet humanity. Joe Pesci, who came out retirement to do the film, gives arguably the most restrained performance of his career, and it’s a privilege to watch him work. The “digital makeup” that is used to make the actors younger is a bit distracting at first, but once you get used to it becomes an effective storytelling tool.
The Irishman is one of the very best films of 2019 and a crowning achievement for one of the all-time great cinematic storytellers. If it takes the backing of Netflix to get a film like this made, more power to them (but all the same, do yourself a favor and see it on the big screen while you have the chance). –Patrick Gibbs