Saturday 9 November 2019

Film Review: The Irishman

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Martin Scorsese reunites with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for The Irishman, a sprawling mobster epic that spans the 20th century.

The Irishman has been bubbling away in the background for a little while, with Scorsese seeing it as something of a passion project for years. With a runtime of three-and-a-half hours and a budget of $200 million, the film finally found a home on Netflix, who were more than happy to give the auteur filmmaker full creative control in exchange for awards season clout. 

Based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, the film sees De Niro play Frank Sheeran, a truck driver who falls in with Italian mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his formidable crime family. Frank's time in the infantry during the war makes him an asset to Russ, who recruits him to carry out hits – or 'paint houses' with their blood – and spread the family's influence in Pennsylvania. 

Along the way Frank crosses paths with union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and the two form a friendship that becomes familial, with Hoffa becoming particularly fond of Frank's daughter, Peggy. However, political forces threaten to divide them, and Frank must choose between his friend and his loyalty to the mob.

Spanning 60 years of Frank's life, The Irishman employs cutting-edge de-ageing technology to plaster over the cracks and wrinkles that define De Niro, Pesci and Pacino's faces. We've seen this done in the past – most recently, Samuel L. Jackson was de-aged to his Pulp Fiction era in Captain Marvel – but nothing on the same scale as The Irishman. De Niro, who is 76 at the time of writing, has for some scenes been de-aged as far back as his 20s. 

To say this isn't a little jarring at first would be a lie, but after a while you get used to it. The film deftly navigates the uncanny valley that so many other films have found themselves lost in (Rogue One, anyone?) to arrive at an effective endpoint that sees its cast smoothly transition from their youth to their deathbed over the space of just a few hours. There are only one or two moments where the film strays too close to what I'm going to call The Polar Express territory. One can't help but think it might have been easier and cheaper to just use different actors...

The most noticeable chink in The Irishman's armour is that its autumnal actors are still just older bodies with younger faces. You can blend the blemishes as much as you like, but De Niro is still going to shuffle around like he's in his seventies – especially when the scene demands some physicality, such as one altercation outside a grocery. 

However, the visual effects don't dull or disguise a trifecta of terrific performances either, with Pesci – who came out of retirement at Scorsese's request – coming off best. His character is very different to that of his Oscar-winning performance is Scorsese's Goodfellas, with subtle malice in place of unrestrained anger. The supporting cast includes the likes of Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel and Jesse Plemons, but it's Anna Paquin who steals the show with so few lines that you can probably count them on one hand. 

Thematically, The Irishman feels like the emotional culmination of Scorsese's career to date. It's a deep and meaningful reflection on the nature of violence, particularly towards the final hour of the film. What starts out with the same effervescent energy as Goodfellas or Casino soon pivots towards something more mature and poignant, as Frank finds himself alone with his thoughts and regrets. It's a clever subversion that starts out full of beans before ripping the rug out from underneath the audience and forcing them to take note of the cost.

That said, the film's exorbitant length is felt. You could say the second act sags a little, but the film doesn't have much of a structure to speak of. It rolls on and on, winding its way through the years – back and forth from the past to the present – until it arrives at the staggeringly emotional end. But the journey that gets you there is a long one – at least 30 minutes to an hour too long.

But that's part of The Irishman's MO. Scorsese and by extension the film wants you to feel its length. It wants to test you, to put you through the wringer. It wants you to feel like you've spent a lifetime with these characters, so that when you get to the end, the hefty emotional wallop hits you like a ton of bricks.

The Verdict: 8/10

The simple fact that this film – with its bloated runtime and ballooning budget – exists is a feat in itself. Mixing an old school cast with cutting-edge tech, The Irishman is far from perfect – but it shows age is no barrier to ambition for both its stars and its director. I might have to see it again to get a definitive opinion, but at this juncture, ambition definitely outweighs execution.

The Irishman arrives on Netflix on 27 November.

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