Welcome to non-spoiler reviews: reviews that discuss a film but give away as little plot as possible.
The late comedian Mike DeStefano started using heroin at 15 and got clean at 31. He’d talk frankly about addiction in his standup and would often get asked to speak to young people about the dangers of drug use. They’d ask him how it felt to take heroin and to their chagrin he’d tell the truth: “Heroin feels like a blowjob and puppies licking your face at the same time.”
He’d go into detail about how drugs ruined his life and how he lost many, many friends along the way, but he knew it’d be irresponsible not to acknowledge their appeal. Martin Scorsese takes the same approach with his crime films, and like with DeStefano, some people are very upset about this. It happened with Goodfellas and Casino and more recently with The Wolf of Wall Street, because how dare he imply that cocaine yacht parties are fun.
But a lot of viewers – particularly young men – did only see the fun parts. They remember the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas but forget about Tommy murdering a kid for cursing at him. They remember how hot Margot Robbie is but forget about Jordan Belfort punching her in the gut (you can tell a lot about someone from their reaction to The Wolf of Wall Street). I don’t think anyone will confuse the messaging in The Irishman.
Like many of his films, this one is violent, but the violence feels more tangible than before. We see the emotional toll on the people around it and the lack of emotional toll on the people doing the killing. At the center of these killings is often Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro in one of his best performances, and that’s saying something).
This is Sheeran’s story, with him narrating the last 40 years or so of his life in crime. Like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Sheeran is a foot soldier. He’s not particularly bright but he does what he’s told and doesn’t cut corners. This makes him very valuable. He becomes the right hand man of some powerful players, including mob bosses Russell “McGee” Bufalino (a compelling Joe Pesci) and Angelo Bruno (a slick, cool Harvey Keitel). They eventually lead him to labor organizer Jimmy Hoffa (a fantastic Al Pacino). Labor organizer might not sound like much, but Hoffa was one of the most powerful men in the country. Since a lot of the movie deals with him I highly recommend reading his Wikipedia page before going into this (it certainly helped me).
Pesci’s acted in just 2 other movies since since 1998, but there’s no rust on how much of a presence he brings to a scene. Unlike his most famous roles (Tommy in Goodfellas and the titular Cousin Vinny), Russell is not erratic. Pesci plays him with a cool head. He’s the smartest guy in the room who commands respect by all. Many of Pacino’s performances can be described as “loud” and this one is loud too. But Pacino has such fun and shows more depth than we’ve seen in decades. There’s a gigantic cast and not a bad performance among them. The reliably great Jesse Plemons is reliably great as Hoffa’s quiet, oblivious son. Welker White as Hoffa’s wife and Lucy Gallina as Sheeran’s apprehensive daughter carry a great deal of the emotional weight and are extremely effective in their roles.
The technology used to de-age the lead actors is about 90% there. Not to the point of uncanny valley but it is noticeable around the eyes. In ten years or so it may look dated but for now it’s passable.
The closest point of comparison for The Irishman is obviously Goodfellas, another mob movie where a foot soldier reflects on their life past. And the first two hours certainly feel like that film. It’s fast, fun, and seductive in the way the best crime films are. But the last 90 minutes feel closer to Silence, Scorsese’s slow, brutal film about two Portuguese priests in 17th century Japan. It’s in this section where he shows how he really feels about his subjects. Seductive yes; despicable absolutely. A Scorsese mob movie with DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel sounds like a nostalgic slog about longing for the good old days. It’s not. Scorsese is 76 years old. We don’t know how many films he’s got left. That he chose this one really speaks to how he sees the world; both a celebration and revision of his previous works, not unlike what John Ford did with The Searchers.
It’s been given a limited theatrical release, and if there’s a screening near you I highly recommend going instead of waiting for Netflix. It’s difficult to sit through a 209 minute movie at home, and the last hour won’t have the same impact if you watch it through multiple viewings. It does feel like 3-and-a-half hours but it’s entertaining the whole way through. It’s an experience you’re not likely to get at any other movie this year.