Directed by Martin Scorsese
It is what it is. A masterpiece.
Before you lies one of the great works of the 21st Century. An epic return to the great mafia tales of which there hasn’t been a good film made since Casino. Well, here is Scorsese’s third in his mafia trilogy. At three and a half hours long some will baulk at the prospect of watching this. Honestly, if it were a minute shorter it would do a disservice to its overall majesty. This is not a film to be casually thrown on’, despite it’s imminent arrival on the lazy boy approach to cinema called Netflix. It is a film to prepare your soul for and immerse yourself in completely, preferably in a dark, silent room. Because if there's one thing you need to understand before going in, it’s that Martin Scorsese is a genius and has created pure, uncompromising cinema. The master of his craft has not lost it. In fact he’s matured, he’s wiser, he’s hungry and from his place in life right now he is in the best position to tell this story. It’s overwhelming grip on me is refusing to let go. I haven’t coherently collected my thoughts on this gargantuan beast of a movie yet. It’s too bright, too powerful and too soon.
So what’s it all about? Broadly speaking it follows Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran (De Niro) as he goes from a lowly truck driver to one of the most notorious hit-men the mafia had ever known. Told from the perspective of Sheeran as he sits in a nursing home, the flashbacks to various moments of his past shows how he befriended labour union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) and the role he played in his disappearance in 1975. Knowledge of who Hoffa was isn’t necessary to enjoy the film, because much more than that it’s a film about friendship, family, honour, betrayal, loneliness, reflection and death. It’s so eloquently and expertly told that it resonates intensely, tapping into my own feelings of guilt and regret in a profound and undefinable way.
The Irishman plays out in three acts. Each reflecting a stage of Scorsese’s incredible career. But if Act I is Goodfellas and Act II is Casino then Act III is uncharted territory. It’s what the previous three hours have been building up to. It’s The Irishman. The players from Goodfellas and Casino are all there but they aren’t having a good time anymore. There is a sadness, mourning and a deep sense of repentance in almost every move they make. It’s this poignancy which makes this such a beautiful film. Surprisingly, there’s also a large amount of humour for a Scorsese film. Much of it emanating from the back and forth between De Niro and Pacino. Their iconic animosity, yet respect, in Heat is not reflected here. Instead, they are two friends, who not only share common interests, they share hotel rooms and a way of thinking.
The de-aging, or youthification, of the main cast is barely perceptible. As we cut back to a 30-year-old De Niro for the first time it would be a lie to say it isn’t noticeable but you very quickly adjust. It’s absolutely incredible what CGI can do when done right (or at least when done with a considerable amount of the films budget). No matter what stage of life these characters are shown at, you don’t for a second doubt the honesty and sincerity in every moment of their performance. There is an emotion behind De Niro’s eyes constantly. Tears being held back.
Unlike the Russo's, Scorsese will not have to nominate himself come awards season. He's unarguably the best director in contention this time around and that’s without seeing who else is to come! He deserves every single accolade he will inevitably scoop up. So does his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who allows the film to breathe much more than many Scorsese films have done before. Her choices to linger in scenes, in shots and in the moment are bold and help make this one of Scorsese’s most moving films. De Niro, Pesci and Pacino deserve every bit of recognition which has eluded them for the past two decades. It's impossible to say which is the more deserving as every single one of them plays to their strengths. De Niro's muted emotions are barely contained. A telephone call he makes late in the film is up there with some of his greatest moments on celluloid. Pacino is at his shout-iest yet most vulnerable best. Seeing him under the glare of Scorsese’s lens cap makes you wish they’d made that Modigliani biopic years ago. But most noteworthy is Pesci, who puts in a calm, controlled performance which we would not normally associate with the man. Yet he exudes more power, influence and menace than Tommy Devito or Nicky Santoro ever could in their feverish bulldog ways. Pesci, significantly, reflects Scorsese's growth as a director, moving away from the flash in your face explosion of Goodfellas, away from the gaudy showiness of Casino right into the real, beating heart of the mafia in America.
The supporting cast are equally great even with the limited screen time some of them get. Harvey Keitel, Bobby Canavale, Ray Romano, Stephen Graham and Jesse Plemons are solid. But special mention must go to Anna Paquin who is the moral centre of the entire film. Her role as Frank Sheeran’s concerned daughter grows as the film grows, with her judgement on him providing one of the most damning moments in the entire film. Together, all these players work like cogs in the most well-oiled machine. If Shakespeare wrote about Cosa Nostra, he’d have written this film.
So what makes this one of the greatest films of the 21st Century? The fact that despite its length you’ll instantly want to re-watch it again to confirm you really experienced all that! That such an incredibly talented cast could be assembled and not a single note went wrong in the entire performance. That Pesci came out of retirement for this. That Pacino and De Niro went face to face yet again. That Scorsese managed to take the genre he helped define, only to redefine it and send it back to us with love. That it has just as much to say about politics as it does about friendship. That it is cinema in its purest form. That the final scene and final shot is worth the three and a half hour build up. That it may just be Scorsese’s finest film since Goodfellas. I could go on and on. But ultimately, why this resonates so well, is because it is the true love letter to cinema that we needed this year. It’s a deeply personal, tender yet brutal exploration of masculinity. Not just of the men on screen, but the men behind the performances. Those names so identified with gangster cinema. Marty, Bobby, Joe and Al. This is a great and epic whale song that spans the entirety of their careers.
It is what it is. A masterpiece.