‘The Irishman’: Martin Scorsese’s labor of love

Illustration of scene from The Irishman
Olivia Staser/Staff

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

It seems as if Martin Scorsese’s latest film, “The Irishman,” has inspired the highest of expectations from fans, critics and box office pundits from the onset. With its massive budget, veteran cast and its attachment to one of Hollywood’s most reputed filmmakers, “The Irishman” seemed destined for widespread adoration and acclaim — or at the very least, awards season glory. 

Still, the film has had more than its fair share of hiccups when it comes to its production and development. After years of suffering from development limbo and harboring a $160 million budget, the film was eventually picked up and distributed by Netflix. After arguments between Netflix and major theater chains over providing the film with a wide release, “The Irishman” eventually received a limited release in select U.S. theaters with a more expansive rollout of the film overseas. 

But despite these difficulties, audiences that seek out “The Irishman,” either in its theater run or when it releases on Netflix on Nov. 27, will be rewarded with what is ultimately a triumph of filmmaking. With compelling performances and riveting, detailed pacing, “The Irishman” is a necessary entry into Scorsese’s repertoire of gangster films, as well as a poignant drama that packs an existential, thought-provoking punch.

Based on the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt, the film serves as a sort of speculative history. It tells the story of former labor union official and reported hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he reflects on his earlier experiences with organized crime and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from his old age. Sheeran, a former World War II veteran, becomes a meatpacking delivery truck driver in Pennsylvania after leaving the military, a position that connects him to the head of a powerful crime family in the state, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), for whom he begins to work as a hitman.

Bufalino then introduces Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who has financial ties to the Bufalino family. Sheeran and Hoffa become increasingly close, with Sheeran serving as Hoffa’s bodyguard on the campaign trail, and Hoffa connecting Sheeran to a leadership position at his local union. As Hoffa gradually severs his ties to the organized crime world because of increasing public scrutiny, Bufalino becomes upset and Sheeran is ultimately caught in the middle of this strained relationship.

Much has been said and written about the digital de-aging technology that the cast undergoes to convey the change in timelines throughout the film. It is not invisible by any means — rather, the first time we see De Niro’s character as a middle-aged man is visually jarring. It helps that De Niro and Pesci, in particular, are able to convey the physical and verbal transformation of their characters through time, and gradually the audience is also able to become accustomed to the drastically changing visual nature of the actors on-screen. 

Pacino runs away with the best lines and performance in the film. He conveys the charisma of a public figure like Hoffa with incredible ease, and it is impossible to take your eyes off of him whenever he is on-screen. While De Niro solemnly and quietly captures the helplessness of Sheeran and Pesci balances the perfect amount of charm and quiet ruthlessness of the mobster Bufalino, Pacino, with his loud and gregarious demeanor, ultimately comes away with the film’s most memorable — and occasionally comedic — moments.

But ultimately, whether or not audiences will find the film favorable comes down to how they can handle its length. At nearly three and a half hours, the film is no easy viewing experience. The pacing of the film is hardly an issue; it never drags and every detail does feel integral to the general character development and storyline. But because the film seems to be split up to cover different shorter plotlines and segments of Sheeran’s life, viewing “The Irishman” in one sitting feels as if one is watching episodes of an impeccably well-made miniseries back-to-back. And despite the experience and gravity that comes with viewing it in a theater, it is understandable that viewers would choose to watch “The Irishman” in multiple sittings when it releases on Netflix.

But the length should absolutely not steer audiences away from this film entirely. “The Irishman” is a captivating viewing experience from a director who is still at the top of his game. Scorsese’s ability to find significance in the smallest of moments is especially evident in this film, in which touching moments of tragedy and poetic justice outweigh the violence. And whether it be in a single sitting or multiple, anyone can find those three and a half hours to be enlightening.

Anagha Komaragiri is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.