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edge staff writer


Morality and mortality – ‘The Irishman’

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Martin Scorsese is an icon, one of the best directors in the history of the medium. The creative force behind films like “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” – films that are indelible parts of the cinematic pantheon.

His latest offering is a worthy addition to that illustrious filmography.

“The Irishman” is an achievement in filmmaking, an American epic of the sort that many had simply given up ever seeing again. It is Scorsese embracing the sordid past of our culture’s underbelly, finding shadows in the sun. Over the course of its sprawling (and admittedly sometimes self-indulgent) 209 minutes, it shares a kind of secret history of the American dream.

Featuring a pair of all-time talents in frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert De Niro and Al Pacino supported by a Murderers’ Row of exceptional talent, “The Irishman” is an ambitious film – one that occasionally succumbs to the consequences of that ambition, but whose successes far outweigh the odd minor stumble. It is an intricate, immense memory play, driven by the vision of one of the greats.

“The Irishman” – subtitled “I Heard You Paint Houses” – is the story of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a man trying to get by in midcentury Philadelphia. He drives a truck delivering meat to provide for his family, but he soon begins to consider ways to supplement his income. Ways that may not be strictly by-the-book, in either an ethical or legal sense.

When his scheme catches up with him, he winds up in court, defended by his union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano, “Paddleton”). Bufalino sees Frank as a stand-up guy and introduces him to his cousin Russell (Joe Pesci, in only his third on-screen role thus far in the 21st century). Russell, a gangster with a piece of just about anything in a tri-state area, takes a liking to Frank, bringing him in to do … whatever needs doing.

That “whatever needs doing” ultimately places Frank alongside legendary union organizer Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”). Frank becomes Hoffa’s trusted lieutenant, a right-hand man that can be trusted implicitly. This places Frank in position to bear witness to the various machinations that went on the labor world in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Thanks to street smarts and a reputation for unwavering loyalty, Frank winds up occupying important real estate in two overlapping, but still different worlds – labor organizers and organized crime. But even as his status in these two worlds grows, he can’t fully escape the consequences of his actions. His family life suffers. He’s always looking over his shoulder. And of course, time waits for no man.

And here’s the thing – one can only serve two masters for so long. Eventually, a choice needs to be made.

This might seem like a too-short synopsis for a notoriously long (three-and-a-half hours) film, but the truth is that it would basically just be a walking through a selection of moments both historic and unmemorable filtered through the on-the-ground perspective of a single insider – one whose reliability as a narrator is questionable at best. It’s a leisurely walk through a warped version of American history.

And it’s incredible.

Scorsese has never been a storyteller who rushes, but “The Irishman” is him at his languid, languorous best. Scenes are given ample room to breathe, allowing us to occupy the moment alongside these characters. There’s narrative urgency, but there’s no hurry. Scorsese trusts himself to let the story define the space, rather than the other way around. Few filmmakers are equipped to handle that sort of freedom; even a master like Scorsese occasionally lets things get away from him a bit. But there’s no question that even the shaggy edges warrant our attention.

So much of that comes from the film’s visual language. There’s something viscerally striking about the work done by director of photography Rodrigo Prieto. So many beautiful and arresting shots and screen pictures, capturing the sumptuous meticulousness of the production design. Even the most mundane moments have flashes of magic in them, thanks to the work of Prieto and Scorsese.

As for the CGI de-aging work that was the focus of so much attention? Ultimately, it didn’t really matter. Did I ever buy De Niro as a “young” man? Not really, particularly when he had to get physical. But it had little impact on my engagement with the film; frankly, I was surprised at how easily I suspended my disbelief.

Now, let’s talk about the performances. De Niro is outstanding; his Frank Sheeran is stoic and thoughtful, almost a cipher in some ways, yet utterly unique and provocative in others. It’s an excellent turn in an incredible role … and his isn’t even the best performance in the film. Neither is Joe Pesci’s, although his taciturn take on Russell Bufalino is probably the most compelling and powerful work that he has ever done. That this is a return to the screen after a lengthy absence makes it all the more incredible. The scenes between the two of them, at various points across the years, are some of the best acting put to film this year.

But Pacino is the guy. Sure, Jimmy Hoffa doesn’t show up until almost an hour into the film, but when he does, he instantly becomes its gravitational center. All of these forces – even those working against him – orbit Hoffa, and Pacino endows him with the energy necessary to make that dynamic work. Too often, Pacino’s recent work has seemed content to lean into self-parody. But here, the trademark explosiveness is a perfect fit

And the rest of the cast? Good lord. Romano, Harvey Keitel, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Jesse Plemons … it’s a phenomenal collection of talent. Not to mention the scores of other folks in the film; the cast is massive. No surprise there, considering the epic scale of the story being told.

“The Irishman” is one of the best films of the year, directed by one of film history’s best directors and featuring two of its best actors. It is a meditation on morality and mortality, a look at what it means to live a complicated life and what it means to feel that life slipping away.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 08 December 2019 17:17


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