Review: “The Irishman”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Everybody talking about “The Irishman” can’t seem to do so without bringing up its runtime, which at just shy of three and a half hours, is exceptionally long.  But director Martin Scorsese doesn’t waste a second of it, delivering an epic crime movie that initially just seems clever and entertaining, but ultimately serves as a moving look at growing old, a culmination of the gangster films that Scorsese has made up to this point in his career.

Set over the course of several decades, “The Irishman” flips between a few different time periods as Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) reflects on his life and career as a hitman for the mob.  A truck driver in the 1950s, Frank gets involved with lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), who introduces him to his cousin Russell (Joe Pesci), the head of a Philadelphia mob.  Russell befriends Frank and soon has him doing jobs for him, first smaller tasks, then larger hits, ultimately introducing him to Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who hires Frank as his bodyguard when he’s on the road.

Joe Pesci came out of retirement to play mafia boss Russell Bufalino in “The Irishman”

Scorsese paces “The Irishman” in such a way that makes the most of every moment.  It’s not a fast-paced movie—Scorsese takes his time, lingering on important conversations and moments—but it also never drags, and never feels like it could have—or should have—been cut down.  There are some violent scenes and plenty of tense moments, as to be expected from this sort of movie, but the gang violence doesn’t drive the action.  Scorsese concentrates less on actual violence, and more on the people behind it, and how it affects their lives and relationships.  The viewer does remain curiously detached from the main characters for most of the film; we’re not really prompted to sympathize with Frank, who seems like a nice guy but who also kills people for a living.  There is a crucial supporting character who comes into this in the form of Frank’s daughter Peggy (played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult).  From a young age, Peggy is the only one who views her Frank and the men he works with disgust, to the point where she never can get over what she knows her father has done, even in his advancing age.  She isn’t in the film a lot, and doesn’t say much, but Scorsese makes a point of frequently lingering on her face, and her presence is a constant reminder of Frank’s wrongdoing.

Al Pacino as Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa in “The Irishman”

De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci (who came out of retirement for this film) all deliver career-best performances.  We normally associate these actors with their tough guy film personas, but they all, De Niro in particular, have some surprisingly tender moments in this film that they nail beautifully.  This particularly becomes apparent in the last leg of the film, which defies convention.  Rather than ending the film when the characters are finally brought to justice for their various crimes, tying up their story in a clever bow, the film goes on, continuing to portray the characters as they get on in age.  Friends die off, the world around them changes, and they find that they aren’t as useful as they were when they were younger.  For a man who spent so much of his life surrounded by people of varying importance, the conclusion to Frank’s story is a sad and lonely one.  It’s a mature message from a mature filmmaker, and the film serves as a fitting tribute to Scorsese’s past movies while also hammering home the idea that there is no happy ending for these guys.

There are many other elements that come together to make “The Irishman” so great, from a hilarious running gag in which captions tell us the manner of death of gangsters who come in and out of the movie, to the music, which helps give us a snapshot of the time in which the events are taking place.  Even the aging and de-aging of the actors portraying them at various stages of their lives is believable, and that’s something that isn’t easy to pull off.  It may leave you feeling a little bit cold, but it’s also such a beautifully crafted piece of work, one that’s so consistently entertaining throughout its three and a half hour runtime, that you just can’t help but get drawn into it.

Runtime: 209 minutes. Rated R.

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