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Scorsese's The Irishman is a Thrilling Mob Tale of Sinister Debauchery

the irishman, martin scorsese, joe pesci, robert de niro, al pacino

Martin Scorsese returns with his best picture since GoodFellas and one of his best films ever. The Irishman is a splendidly represented, thrillingly shot mob tale about violence, betrayal, dishonesty and emotional bankruptcy starring Robert De Niro (Sheeran), Joe Pesci and Al Pacino (Hoffa), set in a time with "formal mobsters". It’s the genius of Martin Scorsese’s film, based on Charles Brandt’s book about Mob foot soldier Frank Sheeran "I Heard You Paint Houses" (a euphemism for splattering the walls with blood), that never really comes into effect. The film has been talked about for the hi-tech “youthification” technology which allows De Niro to appear as a younger man.

This film portrays a monumental, elegiac tale of violence, betrayal, memory and loss. If you want to see how The Irishman defers from Goodfellas, it delivers in the very first scene. The Irishman opens with a slow deliberate move through a senior living home, past orderlies and wheel-chaired patients, to land on an ageing Frank Sheeran (De Niro) recounting his story to an off-screen interviewer. After the serious, spiritually minded quiet, the first hour is Scorsese having fun in the old neighborhood. A World War II Vet stationed in Italy (this is how he learns to speak Italian and kill people comfortably), Frank meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the elegant, sinister boss of the Pennsylvania-based Bufalino crime family. The pair hit it off and what follows is classic Martin Scorsese. There are scams with steaks, characters talking to the camera like a mobster Fleabag, colorful gangster nicknames (Whispers, Sally Bugs, Tony 3 Fingers, Pete The Greek), almost documentary like details into gangster debauchery (Sheeran points a spot in a river where hit men drop their weapons leaving “enough guns to arm a small country”) and loads of dry, wise-guy wittiness. We also get sights of Sheeran’s home life. When daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina) tells him the local grocer shoved her, Sheeran marches around to the grocery store and gives him an almighty beating. It’s a character trait — a desire to protect his family but with no real idea how — that comes to reverberate in the third act.

Scorsese, helped by great performances across the board, replaces curiosity about technical deception with fascination with a man’s life. While it delivers all the Scorsese-ness you want (you’ll lose count of how many times someone gets shot in the face), this is Martin Scorsese in mature mode, a compelling meditation on time, ageing, connections and guilt that reaches the parts other gangster films only dream of. If you want to know anything about The Irishman, there are two things: ageing technology has made Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci look like young men, and it’s very long (three-and-a-half hours). Only Scorsese and this magnificent cast could have made this movie live as ornately and captivating as it does and convince us that its tropes and imagery are still energetic. It gives us enough opportunity to tire of the mob, the politicians, Florida, Cuba and so on. But Scorsese brings it back into a perspective, especially with a new emphasis on Frank’s spiritual devastation and guilt: a man who had long ago amputated his ability to feel remorse and now is unable to come to terms with his feelings. It is another huge accomplishment for Scorsese.

The Irishman is in theaters now and debuts on Netflix November 29.

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