The Irishman Review: The Ultimate Mob Epic

There may come a time, at life’s terminus, when reflecting on our legacies, the friends & family we’ve made along the way and how we’ve impacted the world will just feel right. For Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, recalling his legacy is a heavy trip down memory lane. But in between the kills and betrayals lies a story of grudge, introspection, and life regrets; and it’s nothing short of exceptional.

In the opening sequence of Director Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a long, unbroken shot takes us inside the halls of a nursing home. Here, audiences might recognize the callback to Goodfellas (1990), but it’s even better this time around. In the nursing home, we meet the elderly Frank Sheeran sitting on a wheelchair in a black suit and white shirt. Frank is sharing his life’s story and alleged involvement in the disappearance of his great friend and union activist Jimmy Hoffa. From his early years of being a war hero to continuing down a violent path for the Bufalino crime family as a hitman, Sheeran doesn’t hold back with revealing the multitude of shocking events in his life.

As the film progresses, the continuous narration by Frank (played by Robert De Niro) streamlines the storytelling and alternates with a forward timeline, making this intricate script so captivating. Paired with the unforgettable dialogue, the film soars to a mob epic packed with substance, humor and emotion as it weaves through the corruption, politics and crime, ultimately becoming more than just another mob thriller. Rather, The Irishman very early on defines itself as a character study with raw emotional appeal and a grand reflection of the crime life that isn’t glorified and one that takes an emotional toll.

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Ray Romano in The Irishman (2019)
courtesy of IMDb

On several occasions, heavy attention is given to the relationships surrounding the film’s 3 main characters: the sharp Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the assured and powerful Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and the rambunctious and obstinate Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). There’s a subtle poise with which De Niro portrays the intimidating Sheeran as he navigates the crime life in front of and behind the scenes. There’s a powerful and suave on-screen dominance by Pesci that simply demands your attention. Then, there’s Pacino. In The Irishman, he’s untamed and audacious as the charming, witty, exuberant, and egotistical Jimmy Hoffa. And together, the unstoppable trio gives off an energy so magnetic and rich that even the 210-minute run time isn’t long enough to diminish their electric chemistry. It’s as if Scorsese aimed to highlight their chemistry through their characters’ connections- how over the years they went from coworkers to friends to family. If this is an odd trick he aimed to play on viewers- getting us attached to a charming group of criminals- I fell for it hard. It’s exactly what makes this film a masterful addition to Scorsese’s catalog. In between witnessing the Irishman “paint houses,” viewers may end up beguiled by the criminals who have turned into his family in a world in which violence always solves problems and loneliness is all too imminent.

Fans of Scorsese’s work won’t be shocked by the brilliance throughout The Irishman considering his long list of achievement in film. But there’s something about his latest that is hard to ignore. In a world consumed by violence and betrayal, Frank Sheeran finds himself immersed in the center of encumbrance. When he first got involved with the Bufalino family, he even described it “like the army. You followed orders, you did the right thing. You got rewarded.” Despite these “rewards,” his surrounding friendships have suffered, but it is the declining relationship with his daughter Peggy that takes the worst beating. Unfortunately, Peggy has witnessed too much, too quickly and far too young. But as Frank suggests, carrying out these crimes put food on the table and shelter over the heads of his loved ones. So, how could he stop? This concept certainly isn’t new – doing bad things for good reasons, but it’s the very thing he struggled with on his deathbed. And at the heart of the film, Frank is burdened by the possibility of losing his family and friends and dying alone – all great contributors to the root cause of his troubled mind.

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in The Irishman (2019)
courtesy of IMDb

It’s hard to believe a film about mob mentality and scandal can be a strong candidate for themes of doubt and remorse, but Martin Scorsese has done it with grace and perfection. Reminiscent of his 2016 historical/period drama Silence, there’s a lingering feeling of brokenness brought on by disappointment and burden. It’s the component that easily brought out a strong emotional attachment to certain characters despite the crimes committed. And it is this ability to humanize them that is most compelling and elevates a standard mob story to something far greater. Even better, at no point in the film is this lifestyle glorified. The main characters don’t actually enjoy carrying out these crimes, and Scorsese makes it his mission to demonstrate that to audiences. Even Frank, a war veteran who has become desensitized to killing, doesn’t actually find pleasure in his work. Through his character, Scorsese takes a more indirect and cause-and-effect type approach, which results in a satisfying character study of longing to let go.

The Irishman is peak Martin Scorsese in direction and storytelling. Even before its official theater release date on Nov. 1 and Netflix premiere on Nov. 27th, it’s been deemed one of his best reviewed films of all time among critics. And it’s no wonder. Whether it’s one of the many shocking kill scenes, the humorous dialogue or the unexpected yet warranted heartwarming moments, there’s something that everyone will find to be enthralling. And with Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography, viewers can expect excellence on all aspects of the film.

As best said by the hitman (De Niro), sooner or later, everybody put here has a date when he’s going to go. But the true question is this: when you go, will you have lived without regrets? For Frank Sheeran, the answer isn’t simple, but that’s the very prominent conflict that has haunted him throughout his years as the hitman, long after his retirement, and after everyone has seemingly left his life. And the true burden for him is not only being unable to come to terms with his choices, but knowing that his choices got him to where he is by the film’s end. Because at the end of his life, loneliness became his reality, grudge is his enemy and regret is his only friend.

Rating: ★★★★★

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