A three-and-a-half-hour epic in his signature genre, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman looks back on the life of a gangster, hitman, enforcer, and WWII veteran, who loses everything. There’s a familiar tone to much of the film, Scorsese getting the gang back together – Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel are wonderful to see, but perhaps the most enjoyable performance comes from Joe Pesci, his Russ a calm, knowing presence, a characterisation that feels like a deliberate defiance of the volatility we remember so vividly from Tommy in Goodfellas. The film weaves a tapestry of power structures throughout 20th century New York, incorporating the mob, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and politicians, all tied together by the wild, paranoid, braggadocious figure of Jimmy Hoffa, played by a brilliant Al Pacino in his first ever collaboration with Scorsese.
Scorsese’s use of digital technology to take years off his cast is a matter of debate between us. José thinks that the use of younger actors would have been beneficial, comparing it to De Niro’s portrayal of Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather Part II; Mike arguing that the technology convinces, facilitates a smooth telling of the story, where, had different actors been used, he might have felt like he was waiting for the ‘real story’ to begin, and doesn’t hamper the facial performances as it might have – though he agrees wholeheartedly that, in his mid-70s, Robert De Niro simply can’t convincingly kick a baker as a man thirty or forty years his junior should be able to.
José asks whether Frank feels enough guilt about having to kill Jimmy, by this point a man who’s been his friend for years. We agree that we think his emotional state is too opaque, though Mike suggests that he’s also tamping down his feelings for the sake of getting on with a task he can’t avoid. The feeling of loss and guilt that this event leads to, though, enormously affects the final half hour of the film, and for Mike it’s a beautifully moving coda to a film that, while hugely enjoyable, often felt free of a clear destination – something José disagrees with, never wondering where it was going.
We also consider Scorsese’s recent remarks on Marvel, suggesting that his perspective is a surprisingly ahistorical one, and that had he been making films in the 1950s he’d have had identical complaints about Westerns, for instance – the dominant genre of the time. But José takes time to agree with his aesthetic and artistic complaints, arguing that Marvel’s films lack ambition, and Mike suggests that his issue really comes down to a level of dominance that is marginalising films of lower budgets and greater ambition. We also discuss the fact that Scorsese has made The Irishman for Netflix, hardly the home of a lover of the cinema, as their model is Internet-based and doesn’t allow for wide theatrical releases, Mike suggesting this represents a conflict between Scorsese’s words and actions; though José argues that, as limited as it is, the film has been given a theatrical release, and one would be stupid to turn down money if it gets one’s film made, no matter the source.
But to bring it back to The Irishman, we had a terrific time and the film throughout is layered with great jokes, considered compositions, and brilliantly written, performed and directed set-piece scenes in which conversation is king, stakes are high, and power is in play. If you get a chance to see it during its brief theatrical window, do so.
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With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.