If you want to be knowledgeable about a subject, it makes a lot of sense to study the masters. Few working filmmakers understand the craftsmanship more than Martin Scorsese. Not every story he chooses to tell will work for everyone – and that’s actually part of the beauty of his films. He isn’t trying to please everyone. The movies are telling a specific story in the method he wants to tell it – and if it clicks for you, it will be pure cinematic goodness. The Irishman (2019) exists because Netflix funded the movie when no one else would let him make it. That is both mind-boggling and exciting, as it shows a major problem with the majority of the industry, but shines a bright beam of hope for filmmakers looking to craft original stories that they want to tell rather than create tentpoles that look to appease the masses.
This movie tells Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) story, who starts as a soldier, becomes a truck driver, ends up as a hitman for the mob – and good friends with many important people. It is based on a book by Charles Brandt called “I Heard You Paint Houses”, after interviewing the real-life Frank Sheeran. The movie operates as if the confessions by Sheeran to Brandt are true, but this has been widely discredited (at least to a major detail in the climax of the story).
Sheeran’s life changes when his truck breaks down and he encounters Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Later, after Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) wins a case for Sheeran, Russell starts to give Frank work. His desire to please and his willingness to follow orders helps him move through the ranks, where he ends up assisting Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and his teamsters. The friendships that Frank forms and the spots they eventually put him in make for great drama and story. Scorsese’s decision to tell the story non-linearly while weaving the various timelines helps to keep everything moving, despite its over three-hour runtime.
Pesci was the absolute highlight for me – not to take away from Pacino and De Niro, who also did great work. Pesci is so against type, especially compared to his other Scorsese performances. As Russell, Pesci is allowed to be calm and chill, whereas he is usually a small package ready to explode. Here, all of that is hidden under the surface. You see him plotting, you see him manipulating, and you can read each reaction in the smallest of mannerisms. It is such a constrained performance, and so different than many of Pesci’s other roles.
The digital de-aging in this film proves one major thing; you can’t make old men nimble. For the most part, I think the faces and eyes look unnatural, but good overall. The big catch is revealed when Frank has to defend his daughter, who was harassed by a local grocery store owner. Frank beats him and it becomes clear that he is far older than the Frank we are looking at. His movements are stiff and awkward as he beats the man who offended his daughter. It didn’t take me out of the film, but it was noticeable where this technology is limited in function – and an argument for the old method of casting another, younger actor to play to these moments.
If you haven’t watched the Irishman yet for whatever reason, you definitely should. You may not enjoy the film, but pay attention to its construction. Everything is intentional. The pacing – while some may find it slow – is by design. Scorsese allows us to sit with these characters and witness their story. When the film ends, you know who these people are – and if you pick-up on the themes, you’ll be rewarded for it. The Irishman earns the Must See rating.