In arguably the most iconic shot of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster masterpiece Goodfellas, Scorsese uses a tracking shot to follow Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) as they go from the front of the Copacabana to the inside using a side door and cutting through back hallways, staircases, and even through the kitchen to then pop up at the front of the club, where a busboy brings out a table for them right in front of the stage with a fresh bottle of champagne. All of this set to The Crystals “Then He Kissed Me”.
The opening of Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, is similar to that shot from Goodfellas. We get a slow moving tracking shot set to the doo-wop jam “In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins. Only this time, the tracking shot isn’t through a club and it isn’t with a young, attractive couple who’s relationship is blossoming. This time, Scorsese tracks through a nursing home. A brightly lit, white-walled nursing with old people and nurses slowing moving around the home. The tracking shot ends on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), an elderly man who looked like a skeleton with white hair sitting in a wheel chair. This immediately sets the stage for The Irishman. This is a movie that may have been made by Scorsese, but he’s a far different filmmaker than he was twenty-nine years ago. This is a film made by an older, wiser director who made a movie not so much about crime and gangsters, but about time, regret, and loyalty. The Irishman isn’t Goodfellas or Casino, but a new gangster classic from Scorsese and one of the best movies of 2019.
The Irishman, based on the novel I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, takes a look at the life of Sheeran and his life working for the mafia, from starting out working for the Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) to his relationship with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and his involvement in Hoffa’s slaying.
Netflix financed and is distributing The Irishman and I honestly couldn’t be happier with this decision because there is no way any studio would green light everything Scorsese did here. This is a three-and-a-half-hour long crime epic that spans over decades. We watch Sheeran, Bufalino, Hoffa, and a number of other characters age throughout time and rather than hire different actors to play each character in each part of their character’s lives, Scorsese decided to push the new and popular de-aging technology to the max by using it on De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino. It’s kind of startling at first when you first see it, but you can’t help but be in awe at how far this technology has come. Turning 70-plus-year-old actors back into their fifties is an incredible feat and shows how far this technology has come along.
What’s best about the de-aging technology is that it doesn’t take away from the performances in the film. De Niro gives his best performance in years as Sheeran. Sheeran is a man who is good at what he does. He knows he’s good at his job and he takes pride in it, always coming through when he’s needed even if it takes him away from his family. Sheeran wasn’t a loud guy, but De Niro makes sure we know how he’s feeling through his eyes and how he delivers his lines. It’s a sad, moving performance that looks at a man who has been living with the guilt of the relationships he’s squandered and regret for how things turned out in his life.
Joe Pesci came out of retirement for his performance as Russell Bufalino and what a decision it was. Pesci gives the best performance of 2019 and I will be amazed if I see a better one. Much like Pesci’s character in Goodfellas, Tommy DeVito, Bufalino is a man you don’t mess with. But unlike DeVito, who was a raging psychopath with his finger always on the trigger, Bufalino never raises his voice. He’s a man who moves in silence and one who will never get his hands dirty, but knows how to solve any issues he has. But even with his calm, quiet demeanor, Bufalino is a terrifying man and someone you don’t want to double cross. Pesci conveys this masterfully and gives a performance that reminds us just how great of an actor Pesci was.
Pacino has the loudest performance in the film, but he never goes overboard. Jimmy Hoffa is a legendary person in history. He was a man who changed how people viewed unions and who’s death and disappearance was one of the great mysteries of the twentieth century. Working with Scorsese for the first time, Pacino brings Hoffa back to life. Pacino shows us how Hoffa was a big name in the union game, but when it came to dealing with the mafia, he was a small man who’s honor and name meant more than making a deal with criminals. Pacino hasn’t been this good since 2002’s Insomnia and I hope he continues to take great roles like this and give excellent performances like this.
Sheeran’s relationship with Hoffa and his loyalty to Bufalino is the driving force of The Irishman. Bufalino got Sheeran into this world. He saw a man who he knew he could count on and Sheeran came through, allowing himself to get to the ranks of watching over Hoffa. But as Sheeran becomes closer to Hoffa and actually becomes his friend, the mob begins to have different ideas about how they feel about Hoffa and what to do with him. Sheeran had never been pulled like this before and he must struggle with his loyalty and his friendship. Having Sheeran tell us this story as an old man gives us his first hand perspective but also shows us how he feels about the decisions he made and about the people he lost along the way. He may have done the things he did at the time, but looking back on it, maybe they weren’t the best decisions. The Irishman is a movie that looks at loyalty and friendship while also looking at how time affects our perspective and how we must live with the decisions we’ve made. This is a movie made by a wise director who is continuing to get older and is constantly looking back at his life.
Like all Scorsese films, The Irishman is a technical wonder. The three-and-a-half-hours fly by so fast, I honestly could have sat through another hour or two. The editing my Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker is top-notch, the cinematography and set designs look great, and the rest of the ensemble, featuring the likes of Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemmons, Bobby Canavalle, and Anna Paquin, who is quietly amazing, all hold their own with the three legends. The Irishman is a different kind of Scorsese film, but it is still a masterful piece of filmmaking that will go down as one of the great movies of 2019.
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