The Irishman may very well be Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. That’s not to say this is the best film of his career, a distinction that belongs with either Goodfellas or Raging Bull. However, this does feel like the columniation of everything Scorsese has been working towards over the past fifty years. The film reunites the director with two of his usual suspects, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, marking their first true collaboration since 1995’s Casino. It also stands out as Scorsese’s first collaboration ever with Al Pacino. It’s surreal to think that Scorsese and Pacino have never worked together before, as the combination feels like such a natural fit. Speaking of matches made in heaven, who better than Scorsese to bring Charles Brandt’s novel, I Heard You Paint Houses, to the screen? With the right director, the right cast, and the right source material, it’s hard to find many – if any – faults.
While reviews are inclined to compare The Irishman to the rest of Scorsese’s filmography, the movie it arguably has the most in common with is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Not only do both films star De Niro, but both make the viewer feel like they’ve walked a million miles in another man’s shoes. De Niro plays Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a truck driver who goes from delivering meat to carrying out hits for the mob. Sheeran is introduced to the organized crime world through Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a mob boss who takes care of his own and takes out anyone who looks at him funny. He also develops a friendship and partnership with Jimmy Hoffa, a labor union leader who’s been making shady deals behind closed doors. Sheeran’s family are essentially wallpaper compared to these two men, who evolve into the most important figures in his life.
The film features strong supporting work from Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s distant daughter, Bobby Cannavale as a fellow gangster, and Ray Romano of all people as attorney Bill Bufalino. Yet, the screen belongs to the main trio. For well over a decade now, De Niro and Pacino’s careers have been enduring a downhill spiral while Pesci has essentially been MIA. The Irishman finds all three actors back at the top of their game, rounding out a trinity of powerhouse performances. We may be used to seeing Pesci as an unstable wise guy, but his turn as Bufalino is refreshingly restrained and intimidating without being in your face. If he doesn’t have the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the bag, the alternative may very well be Pacino, who charismatically blurs the lines between politician and criminal – showing that there’s really not much of a difference.
The glue who holds it all together is De Niro, getting so much across even when he’s not saying anything. De Niro’s best moment comes shortly after Bufalino delivers some shocking news, bringing a single tear to Sheeran’s eye. What makes De Niro’s emotive performance all the more extraordinary is that he spends much of the film being digitally de-aged. When we first see a younger Sheeran in a flashback, De Niro admittedly looks a little like a bobblehead. It doesn’t take long for the audience to grow accustomed to the effect, though, eventually getting to a point where we don’t even see an effect. We simply see De Niro gradually growing older over the course of nearly five decades.
Clocking in at almost three and a half hours, Scorsese has made a film that somehow feels too short. Of course, the massive run time is sure to avert some viewers, which is why the Netflix streaming service is an ideal platform to distribute such a film. At least that way you can pause for all the bathroom breaks needed. For true cinephiles, however, a larger than life motion picture like this deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. The same can be said about other American epics like Schindler’s List, which was also written by Steven Zaillian. You’ll especially want to be in a theater for the final half hour or so, which is as suspenseful, devastating, and mesmerizing as movies get.