As I sit watching the closing moments of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – an epic account of the life of World War II veteran turned Mafia hitman, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) – I couldn’t help but think that I was witnessing the end of an era.
Spanning six decades, The Irishman follows Frank from his humble beginnings as a truck driver to a fully-fledged member of the Bufalino crime family after a chance meeting with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). At three hours 30 minutes, The Irishman has plenty of opportunity to document and flesh out Frank’s rise from mob enforcer to hired muscle for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). With this being a Netflix-backed production (alongside the colossal runtime), you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Irishman is leaning towards mini-series status, but it feels decidedly cinematic, unshackled and free of studio interference. Seamlessly intertwining the varying time periods, thanks to deft editing and storytelling, Netflix spared no expense when it came to ensuring the authenticity of what’s depicted. The de-aging of De Niro, Pesci and Pacino respectfully, although slightly jarring at first, is up there with some of the finest VFX work seen in 2019 – by the time the credits roll you’ll stop looking for the imperfections and appreciate its cohesiveness.
The last time we saw De Niro and Pesci onscreen together was for 1995’s Casino (discounting Pesci’s The Good Shepard cameo). Having been quite literally coaxed out of retirement by Scorsese, watching Pesci alongside De Niro again was like he’d never gone away – the performances are quite simply stellar. With the addition of Pacino (unbelievably Scorsese's first time directing him), we are witnessing three acting legends flawlessly share the limelight. It’s a wondrous sight. De Niro is the best he’s been in years, a timely reminder of what a truly fine actor he is. Evoking the sorrowful tone of the film, De Niro uses his eyes and facial expressions to impeccably convey his internal dilemmas.
Pacino, on the other hand, is on top scenery-chewing form. He has The Irishman’s funniest lines, delivered perfectly and warranting laugh-out-load reactions. It’s Pesci though, that’s the understated powerhouse of this epic. Those familiar with Goodfellas and Casino will know of Pesci’s malevolent incarnations – with his Goodfellas performance as Tommy DeVito earning him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor – but for The Irishman we get to see a completely polarised take on those characters. Pesci’s Russell Bufalino, although ruthless, has an air of tenderness, focusing more on his friendship with Frank rather than his exploits as a crime boss. It’s testament to Pesci’s talent as an actor – a graceful performance which is more astonishing when you consider that he hasn’t really been in the game for 20 years.
Adapted by screenwriter Steve Zaillian from Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman is a more sombre, contemplative approach to the crime genre from Scorsese. He emphasises the effects of decades of violence and corruption and the toll it takes on one’s wellbeing, rather than supplying a more familiar piece of exploitative crime cinema. This is Scorsese showing his effortless evolution as a filmmaker, displaying age and wisdom in favour of the break-neck narratives and inner working montages that have become synonymous with his previous gangster ventures. That’s not to say that his hallmarks are not there – the directing and tone are unmistakably Scorsese. He’s there in the narration, the beautifully constructed shots (the opening tracking shot is simply wonderful), the terrifyingly tense scenes and the unflinching, dispassionate violence but with a tone that evokes melancholy as opposed to shock moments. The Irishman feels dialled down; it’s a story of an ageing gangster looking back on his life – mirrored by an almost retrospective look on the careers of all involved. There is an air of maturity running throughout – years of perfecting his craft that culminates to what feels almost like a swansong.
And that’s just it; the air of sadness that The Irishman’s themes elicit is made all the more poignant when you consider that you may never see this kind of talent, on and off screen, working together again.