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Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” Is A Modern Classic From The Master

We bow down before the artist that is Martin Scorsese. No one makes a crime film like him, and no one has tried to make one quite like this. Yes, as much as The Irishman is an event due to Scorsese reuniting with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (among others), it’s also very much his first true effort to tackle aging. That the director has done it on a massive skill, with hundreds of millions of dollars in Netflix money, within the framework of a gangster flick is all the more impressive. The Irishman, opening in limited theaters this week before streaming in a month, is a masterpiece and one of the legend’s most ambitious work to date. It’s also one of his best, having stayed in my mind for over a month since it premiered at the New York Film Festival. Believe the hype, as this is not just a surefire Academy Award contender or one of 2019’s top titles, but another Scorsese gem.

The film is a crime epic, spanning decades. At the center of it all is Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a low level mobster and union man who will be torn between two loyalties. At the start, he catches the eye of Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and his superior Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). Small jobs make him some money, but more importantly build trust. Then, Russell connects him with a friend in Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank and Jimmy become fast pals, growing close, including their families. What starts as a beneficial partnership for all becomes, over the years, strained, due to politics like the election/assassination John F. Kennedy, as well as Hoffa’s lack of flexibility. Eventually, Russell tasks Frank with an assignment he’ll have to live out his days holding on to. Nothing here is a big surprise, but it’s how it all is tackled that truly blows you away. Scorsese directs a script by Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Charles Brandt. In addition to the big three of De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci, the massive cast includes Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham, Jack Huston, Harvey Keitel, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Maniscalco, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, Ray Romano, and many more. Thelma Schoonmaker once again edits, while Robbie Robertson handles the music, and the cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto.

There are a trio of tremendous performances on hand here. In particular, Joe Pesci walks away with this movie. Seeing Robert De Niro and Al Pacino back at the tops of their games, is a true gift, though Pesci does the most impressive work. He takes everything you know about his gangster work, especially in Goodfellas, and flips it on his ear. Pesci makes Russell Bufalino authoritative, quiet, and even kind. It’s staggering acting by the previously retired Pesci. Pacino likewise delivers an excellent supporting turn, allowing his histrionics to be fine tuned by Scorsese to suit the story. It’s easily his best work in at least two decades. Then, there’s our lead in De Niro. He gets better as the picture progresses, ultimately being a powerhouse in the third act. It takes a lot to make an over 200 minute project get even better in its final minutes, but De Niro fills the last moments with emotional regret, hammering home Scorsese’s point beautifully.

Pulling the strings, Scorsese makes this flick a technological triumph as well. The CGI used to help de-age the central three actors is pretty seamless, helping to fully immerse you. There are momentary scenes where the effects are noticeable, but never once pulls you out of the story. In fact, utilizing this expensive and unique approach probably helped to get such great work out of the veteran actors, freeing them from the restraints of other motion capture technology.

The Irishman is a long film, running a minute shy of three and a half hours. However, the time absolutely flies. It’s a modern American crime epic and one of Scorsese’s most sprawling works, but completely justified. You need to spend all these time with the characters to be fully invested, especially towards the end of the third act, when aging and time become paramount. What begins as a classic gangster tale, in the mold of Goodfellas or Mean Streets, evolves to become something historical and political, a la The Aviator, before coming in for a landing as a portrait of an old man regretting his actions, mostly because they hurt his daughter. It’s a tightrope to walk, but everyone involve walks it magnificently.

Bank on this one as a major Oscar player. The Irishman is going to absolutely clean up, at least when it comes to nominations. Look for Netflix to go all out to try and lead the field, with major efforts in Best Picture, Best Director (for Scorsese), Best Actor (for De Niro), Best Supporting Actor (for Pacino and Pesci), Best Adapted Screenplay (for Zaillian), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score, and Best Visual Effects. That’s an astonishing fifteen nominations potentially on the table, which would set the Academy record. It’s not the likely outcome, but double digit nominations are certainly well within reach. Look for it as one of the contenders most likely to lead the Academy Award nominations when they’re announced.

Starting this weekend, any true cinephile is in for a treat when The Irishman opens in limited release. One of the very best films of the year, it’s evidence of a master still at the top of his craft. It’s absolutely terrific, with a ton of gallows humor and surprising emotional heft at the end. Basically, it’s a Scorsese movie through and through, though tuned to a key you’ve never quite seen from him before. The brilliance on display demands to be seen, on the big screen too, if possible. See this one as soon as humanly possible. You can thank me later…

Be sure to check out The Irishman, in select theaters starting on November 1st, before streaming on Netflix three weeks later on November 27th!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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