November 14, 2019

CINEMA | Martin Scorsese Paints 'The Irishman' on Netflix

"You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there."
Robert De Niro Al Pacino Ray Romano Jesse Plemmons Martin Scorsese | The Irishman Netflix

Master filmmaker Martin Scorsese—has never been shot and won the Oscar for The Departed, 2007—and his storied collaborator Robert De Niro dramatize the violent life of alleged Philadelphia mafia hitman Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran. Based on former prosecutor Charles Brandt's book I Heard You Paint Houses (as the film is actually titled onscreen) and Sheeran's own deathbed confessions, The Irishman is pure Scorsese cinema told through the lens of organized crime and the legacies of corrupt men.

What the three-and-a-half-hour epic does with its substantial running time and decades-spanning story is ruminate on the futile lives of powerful men and their sad morality. Through violence and melancholy, the famed director revisits his penchant for ground-level crime stories to relay the legacies of his cast through portraying real-life characters with their own histories of modern America.

Much has been made of the de-aging technology and De Niro portraying a man through his entire adult life. Aside from some jarringly uncanny valley facial features near the beginning, it's not much of a distraction. In all honesty, he mostly looks somewhere between age forty-to-sixty-ish throughout the film. An early scene where De Niro beats up a man clearly shows his real-life age. It's not so much the effects but the actor feeling elderly through his movements and energy. He acts like an old man no matter how young he looks on screen.

Rounding out the main cast are Al Pacino and Joe Pesci as notorious Teamster union president Jimmy Hoffa and organized crime boss Russell Bufalino. Their relationships build the crux of the film's narrative following their illegal activities manipulating American business. Pesci is the clear MVP with his demured, soulful performance as the cool-headed Bufalino mafioso while Pacino is so suitably over-the-top and boisterous as the stubbornly corrupt labour leader. The trio make for a contrasting but familiar grouping.

Robert De Niro Martin Scorsese | The Irishman Netflix

The deep cast of side players the likes of Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemons, Harvey Keitel, and Anna Paquin (who notably has one line playing the adult version of Sheeran's daughter Peggy) weave through the lives of the three central men with grace and reverence.

Steven Zaillian's zippy script crisscrosses timeframes and stories with Scorsese's usual gangster verve and wit while regular cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto frames the period piece with an abundance of style and precision. Scorsese uses all his tools and tricks to make The Irishman a story of guilt and sin through some kind of personal redemption. Sheeran and much of his co-conspirators are unreliable narrators of their own crimes yet they try to look honestly on their own legacies.

The Irishman is a fitting culmination of Scorsese and De Niro's cumulative careers as filmmakers and cinematic storytellers. It's a story of aging men told by aging men. Only they could make such a pure experience exploring the modern American history of violence. As the film moves closer to the present and the end of Sheeran's life, self-examination and the perspectives of others affected by his violent history become clearer and more obvious. Scorsese's rumination on life and mortality make the immorality of his subjects' lives perfectly apt.

The Irishman screens as part of the Vancouver International Film Centre's year-round programming at Vancity Theatre, also at the Rio Theatre, and will be available for streaming on Netflix starting November 27th.


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