NYFF 57: “The Irishman” Is Scorsese’s Most Ambitious, Indulgent Film Yet

Martin Scorsese returns with another long, sumptuous opus, whose crackling performances and scintillating script are held up by some wonky de-aging tech and a leaden runtime.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 57th New York Film Festival.)

Around two hours into The Irishman, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) commits his umpteenth act of ruthless violence. At my screening, the woman sitting next to me let out an audible gasp. “Oh, that’s terrible!” she exclaimed. The man sitting next to her shrugged. “Eh?” he replied.

Frank has just murdered a rival gangster – in front of his victim’s entire family. Often, The Irishman feels like an endurance test, a gargantuan undertaking for both filmmaker and audience. How much bloodshed can you stomach? How long can you stare at a digitally de-aged face before you admit that it doesn’t look quite right? And at what point do you tap out?

The digitally de-aged mug in question belongs to Frank, a World War II vet who falls in with Russell “Russ” Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and eventually, Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Steve Zaillian’s brilliant screenplay cuts no corners, threading together the most significant moments in Frank’s lengthy life, with the film ending where we begin, some approximation of the present.

Director Martin Scorsese hasn’t collaborated with De Niro since Casino (1995), and for some reason, he’s never worked with Al Pacino before. This is also Joe Pesci’s first time on-screen since Obama’s first term. The good news: Pacino and Pesci turn in pristine performances. Pacino’s Hoffa is hubris incarnate, an indignant, charismatic and altogether magnetic figure. He comes across as a man trying to do the right thing who can’t help tripping over himself the higher he climbs. Pesci, meanwhile, leaves his comfort zone entirely: no longer the psychotic henchman, he effortlessly morphs into the terrifying man in charge. It’s impressive stuff.

THE IRISHMAN (2019) Ray Ramano (Bill Bufalino ) Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa) and Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran)

But the cost of this cast is clear: Robert De Niro spends much of the movie playing a young man. There’s something off about his eyes – at times, they’re piercing bright blue, at other moments, they’re grey, inhuman orbs. Perhaps this was done intentionally, to distract from the rest of his face, a smooth, surreal surface. Never, over the course of The Irishman’s three-hours-and-thirty-minute runtime, does “young Frank” pass for reality.

The technology doesn’t break the movie entirely. Frank’s supposed to be slick, a man who can do a favor for pretty much anyone, and he certainly looks the part. We’re also seeing much of this from his perspective, meaning that his appearance as unreal against concrete surroundings serves as a reminder we aren’t seeing these events objectively. Besides, next to him Hoffa and Russ come across as completely normal.

Scorsese, for his part, doesn’t tailor his style around accommodating the CGI. The Irishman starts off like many of the filmmaker’s prior gangster flicks, with sweeping wide-shoots, virtuoso camera swoops and long-takes galore. It’s also frequently and fitfully hilarious. But that Scorsese-style humor fades towards the end, as the film slowly evolves into something much more mature, and angrier as a result. The lush, showy visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto) dry up into a set of discolored frames. De Niro looks like himself again, because he’s finally playing an old man, and his pathos packs a punch.

The gangster movie always ends with the authorities regaining order and apprehending our characters. But here, it’s not a righteous authority that catches up, but the existential endpoint we’re all approaching. It may take a while for The Irishman to get where it’s going, but it certainly arrives at a meaningful destination.

How long can you stare at a digitally de-aged face before you admit that it doesn’t look quite right?

Which begs the question: if you’ve crafted a movie that’s engaging for two-hundred-and-ten minutes, have you inherently made a must-see? I’m not so sure. For one thing, the women in The Irishman are pushed so far to the edge of the narrative that they barely register. Frank’s daughter Peggy (eventually Anna Paquin) is clearly envisioned as the moral center of the film, but her role is communicated almost entirely in stares and judgmental looks. Yes, Scorsese and Zaillian are committed to dismantling notions of masculinity from the inside out, but the excessive runtime and the vast scope of the story mean there was room for someone who isn’t a stubborn, aggravating male.

Earlier this year, Quentin Tarantino unveiled his desperate reckoning with his own obsolesce. The Irishman is another desperate reckoning, but the door Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci are knocking on is even more final. When it closes, it’ll shut for good. Is there a version of The Irishman that gets to the moments that feel transcendent sooner? If so, I’m not sure Scorsese knows how to make it. I couldn’t help thinking of Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky as at least an inspiration, if not a tighter expression of these ideas. 

Or maybe somewhere along the way, over the course of careers as long as Frank Sheeran’s and longer than I’ve been alive, these guys have earned their self-indulgence. Still, it’s a lot of movie; three-and-a-half hours of self-indulgence can wear on even the most charitable viewer. 

The Irishman hits select theaters and comes to Netflix November 27.

The Irishman Trailer:

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