Martin Scorsese. Robert de Niro. Joe Pesci. Al Pacino. If you’re a fan of crime dramas then you know that these names are responsible for some of the best and the most influential films in the genre. In 1990, director Scorsese released the seminal classic GoodFellas starring both De Niro and Pesci in roles that would help define both the genre and their individual careers. It’s a film that’s hailed as the best crime film since its release and the best film in the director’s repertoire. Five years later, that same trio would work on another renowned crime film – Casino (1995). The fourth man, Pacino, made a name for himself in the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972) and would later solidify is status in the genre with his iconic performance in Scarface (1983). But never he joined forces with Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci until now.
The Irishman (2019) is epic crime film based on the narrative nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses (2004) by former investigator-turned-writer Charles Brandt, which details the life of hitman Frank Sheeran as he confesses to his association to the Bufalino crime family and his murder of controversial labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa.
Set in the 1950s, truck driver Frank Sheeran (De Niro) is brought into the fold of the Bufalino crime family by mobster Russell Bufalino (Pesci). After having worked closely with Russell as a hitman, Frank is brought into the employ of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) who has ties to the family.
First off, I am a huge fan of crime dramas especially ones directed by Martin Scorsese, who is one of my favorite directors of all time. I was truly excited by the prospect of having these three big names in the genre work with my favorite director to create a crime film centered around one of the most famous crime conspiracies of all time. The Irishman did not disappoint.
The character of Frank Sheeran is portrayed masterfully by De Niro as a man who is first-and-foremost loyal beyond all reason. Loyalty is a major theme in the film and we see Frank’s tested time and time again. And each time, he delivers without question – at least when it comes to the mob.
On the other hand, it’s clear from early on in the film that he pays for his loyalty dearly with all but abandoning his loyalties to his family – this is displayed most plainly with the crumbling relationship he shares with his daughter Peggy. And in the end, his loyalties are put through the ultimate test when he is asked to murder Jimmy Hoffa – someone he has also pledged his loyalty to.
Through the film’s epilogue, Frank looks back with an emptiness rather than with a sense of pride. He finds that loyalties can often contradict and those conflicts will only lead to a failure thereof. In the end, he was both steadfast in his ideals but, ironically, also failed to uphold them.
De Niro’s sympathetic performance projects a stoicism and a conviction that lends itself to the kind of character film analysts thrive on; perfectly delivering on the remorse that Frank was left with in the end.
Pesci delivers a role contrary to the hot-headed bruisers he’s known for. As both Tommy DeVito and Nicky Santoro, the actor has always delivered a energetic performance to characters who emit an aura that leaves everyone else feeling like they’re walking on eggshells every time they enter a room.
In The Irishman, however, Pesci’s Russell Bufalino is calm, classy, and collected. Not once in the entire film did he have to raise his voice. And yet, Pesci manges to have his presence be felt in every scene. Russell, in spite of his quiet, is no less menacing than Tommy or Nicky – and that is Pesci all the way. His is arguably the best performance in the entire movie.
Pacino provides the best performance he’s given in years as the charismatic and ambitious Jimmy Hoffa. The actor’s commanding delivery makes him nothing short of believable as the famous Teamster – cool, enterprising, and intrepid without fault. It’s undeniable proof that Pacino still has what it takes.
All three actors delivered what felt like the culmination of their years of experience in both the industry and the genre. The Irishman was everything they had and you feel that. And the same can be said for Scorsese.
The director’s entire career, everything he’s done prior, his mastery of the craft culminates in this one film; a film that has Scorsese’s signature written in every minute of its 210-minute run time.
It features the dynamic cinematography that Scorsese is known for. His excellent eye of production design. His beloved style of fourth wall breaking monologues and intelligent use of casual violence to develop scenes. But most of all, The Irishman is the kind of character study that Scorsese excels at.
While you do feel every minute of it’s admittedly long length, the film is certainly captivating and deserves your full attention. While other crime dramas, including some of Scorsese’s own have focused on the limelight and the thrills associated with the genre, The Irishman isn’t afraid to show you the mundane parts of crime; the parts that breathe a sense of humanity into its characters.
The film doesn’t shy away from taking its time to develop each of its characters into sympathetic individuals who exist beyond the confines of the film. It often stops to smell the flowers and invites you to do that same. All in the name of building to its gut-wrenching final act where Frank’s character arc comes full circle in the most satisfying way.
Its dialogue feels organic in a lot of ways. Ways that feel like it drew most of its power from the innate chemistry between the actors and the chemistry they had with the genre itself. The film’s scriptwriter Steven Zaillian also wrote Schindler’s List, which was another film that drew emotional gravitas from the realistic delivery of its dialogue.
The Irishman is an apotheosis of the crime genre that Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino helped build. Its actors deliver some of the best performances in their respective careers – careers that, while not absent imperfections, are undeniably impressive as they are. And while it’s ungodly length is initially unattractive, it never fails to keep you interested. But ultimately, the film is the purest form of Scorsese’s voice as a director. Absolutely masterful.
What’s favorite Scorsese film? And did you think that The Irishman is his best film to date? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. Also, share this post on social media if you enjoyed it. Even if you didn’t, I’d very much appreciate it.
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