Here’s a blast of pure hyperbole: Martin Scorsese’s latest film The Irishman is a triumphant return to the territory he made famous, and one of the best films he has ever made.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses (a euphemism for blood splattering on walls), this is the fact based tale of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a Teamster driver who was befriended mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) in the 1950s. Gradually Sheeran is drawn into organised crime, eventually becoming a contract killer. He is then seconded to look after union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and the two become close friends. However, when Hoffa ceases playing ball with the mob, Sheeran finds his loyalties challenged.
This is an epic film in every sense of the word, both in scope (it covers a time period of six decades) and running time (three and a half hours, but worth every minute). Scorsese has employed bleeding edge ILM technology to digitally de-age his cast, a trick which works wonders, and indeed caused me to do a double take when it is first employed. But mercifully it isn’t Uncanny Valley distracting. Instead, we are drawn into the rich narrative which mines familiar Scorsese turf. However, this is also unlike anything Scorsese has made in this genre before. It lacks the youthful verve of Mean Streets or the rollercoaster energy of Goodfellas, but instead, this is also a mature, melancholy, elegiac work, and all the better for it.
Performances are all excellent – especially from Pacino, who has never worked with Scorsese before. The supporting cast is great too, with the likes of Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons, Stephen Graham, and Anna Paquin turning up in key roles. Steve Zaillian’s screenplay is superb, and provides some hugely memorable dialogue, with one scene (involving an argument about timekeeping and turning up to a meeting incorrectly attired) in the same league as the “Funny how?” moment in Goodfellas.
However, as already stated, this is a very different film to the afore-mentioned gangster classics. On a spiritual level, this is quite a deep and profound work, ultimately concerning the wages of sin, and the appalling toll taken by a life of crime – on Sheeran’s alienated family (particularly his daughter, who fears and shuns him), and on his own conscience. In one sense it reminded me of the Shakespearean conclusion of The Godfather Part II, where Michael Corleone is ultimately isolated by his horrific acts. At any rate, if I’m comparing The Irishman with that stone cold classic, then there’s a good chance this will be regarded in the same way in years to come. My only disappointment is that few people will get to see this in the cinema due to the miniscule release granted by Netflix, when by rights it absolutely deserves a wide, mainstream release (it has a very limited cinema run at the beginning of November). Nonetheless, expect Oscar nominations.