Scorsese returns to the genre that made him, with a gangster epic about the life, or claims, of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Framed as a conversation with Sheeran near the end of his life, the movie recounts his journey from petty larceny to murder, ultimately culminating in his involvement in the disappearance of labour leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
Lacking the frenetic energy of Scorsese’s earlier gangster thrillers, The Irishman is much slower and more considered. The final third of the film is committed to the subject that previously would occupy the final shot of Goodfellas and Casinos. What happens when gangsters get old. Sheeran is not driven by the youthful desire for stimulation, money and respect, but instead seems drawn to people he can relate to. Drawn in by charismatic figures, he’s a provocatively hollow character who seems completely without values. If it ever seemed glamorous to be Henry Hill, it’s deeply tragic to end up as Frank Sheeran.
Seeing Pacino and De Niro acting opposite each other again is, of course, thrilling. Pacino is putting his shouting to good use as the pompous and dangerous labour leader, whilst the almost always understated De Niro is as stoic and withdrawn as he ever was. However it’s the return of Joe Pesci after decades of retirement that really excites. Pesci plays mob boss Russell Bufalino, a quiet man who gives the impression of being very agreeable but is hiding a frightening ruthlessness. It’s a performance of subtle intensity.
There’s a huge number of fabulous character actors in the supporting cast including Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Jesse Plemons, and even Ray Romano. These actors avail themselves well, but are very often given little to do. Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s wife in particular is conspicuously absent considering the major role Scorsese’s mob wives usually play. The exception is Stephen Graham who manages to match Pacino for charisma and energy in their sequences, which are amongst the best in the film.
The film is set over multiple decades, and whereas in previous films a young De Niro or Pesci could be given grey hair and ever-increasingly large glasses to appear older, it’s much more difficult to make these men look like spry forty somethings now. The solution implemented is digital de-aging, the likes of which was perhaps first experienced in X-Men The Last Stand, and little has improved since. There’s still an uncanny effect to these men’s faces. The de-aged cast members stand out like a bizarre alien race who are inexplicably interacting normally with their human counterparts. It’s a distracting use of special effects.
The digital blood splatter also detracts somewhat from the violence Scorsese has always excelled at. Whilst CGI means you can have De Niro quickly shoot someone twice in the face in the same shot they were just talking in, nothing in this film has the same visceral quality to the murders in his earlier works.
The Irishmen is not without flaws, but is undoubtedly an evolution of the genre Scorsese helped to modernise three decades ago. The film finds a film maker still at the top of his game in terms of telling a story, capturing performances and building tension.