Film Review | The Irishman: A history of violence

Martin Scorcese’s Netflix epic may take its sweet time, but the patient will be rewarded by a leisurely unspooling character study that lets the greats be themselves, the seasoned director included

Renouncing big-screen exclusivity in favour of the Netflix experience, Martin Scorcese throws himself into the world of streaming and takes advantage of one of its oft-neglected qualities: longevity. The Irishman’s running time has now become a meme, but viewers tend to forget the dozens of hours they’ve gleefully renounced on Game of Thrones binge-watching sessions, and I can tell you with an arrogant pomposity which I will not apologise for, that the three-and-a-half hour epic offered up by Scorcese contains more substance than the average season of the average hit TV series. (To say nothing of the average superhero franchise that ‘Marty’ apparently loves to hate, but let’s not revive that tired controversy here too.)

In telling the story of World War II veteran turned Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), Scorcese takes a deliberately slow-moving, gradually unpeeling approach that certainly runs counter to contemporary orthodoxies of rapid-fire entertainment. But what’s particularly intriguing is how its tone and pace also runs counter to Scorcese’s own previous output. Even recent fare like The Wolf of Wall Street came sleek and fast with the same adrenaline-soaked energy that belied Scorcese’s age. Here, however, we get to experience the latter-day output of a director in a reflective mood. Thankfully, he gets an equally seasoned cast of old friends on board to help him complete what is really a beautiful piece of art that we might not even deserve, as it trickles its way through the Netflix rolodex.

Based on ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’, a narrative non-fiction book by former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defence attorney Charles Brandt, The Irishman finds an elderly, largely oblivious and unrepentant Frank recounting his story in flashbacks as he languishes in an elderly home. His expansive relationship with the American criminal underworld begins soon after the war, in 1950s Philadelphia. His life of petty crime begins while he’s working as a truck driver, but after he comes under the purview of Russel Bufalino (Joe Pesci) their budding friendship leads to more ‘serious’ work.

Frank is soon introduced to famed union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), which results in something of a strange mafia ‘love triangle’ between the three, with the Jimmy and Russel vying for Frank’s grisly talents and loyalty at every turn.

Most of the hype in the run-up to the film was coloured by the simple fact that The Irishman will be a Netflix production by a decorated director like Martin Scorcese, and the de-aging technology applied to both De Niro and Joe Pesci which made the leap into streaming necessary. While there’s certainly a worthwhile discussion underlying all that – for one, the tragedy of a film landscape in which not even a giant like Scorcese can raise enough money for his film – it overshadows the more important and essential meat of the story.

The de-aging tech is definitely necessary, for one, and its ‘invisibility’ is a crucial part of why it works so well. Getting younger actors to play younger versions of these characters would have shorn the film of most of its impact, and it’s not only because we’re dealing with un-replicable talent here. The sinuous flow of time, weaving in and out of memory like a treacherous fugue, is captured beautifully, and made all the more poignant by showing how the same characters age, traversing a time period in American history that is rendered with clear-eyed specificity.

Specificity, and subjectivity too. A distracted reading of the story may find fault with its near-glorification of the mafia lifestyle – it’s simply presented as a viable lifestyle choice for a ‘working stiff’ in post-war America – but Scorcese is careful to drop in moments of lucidity that we should spot, even if Frank picks up on them far too late, if at all. Though the female characters are also sorely underwritten because of this very point, the spare but strategic inclusion of his daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult, insert the right amount of condemnation, and remind us that were we not seeing all of this from Frank’s point of view, the story would have taken a far less flattering tint.

Some undeniable Scorcese-isms do creep in – sudden bursts of violence and freeze-frames do feature – but on the whole this is a mature work that does not insult the viewers’ intelligence. Frank tells his story, and we can take it as we will.

The verdict

For all the hype about it being a Netflix release as opposed to a cinematic one, and the reams written about the de-aging technology that does play a large part of its overall make-up, The Irishman is really just a good old-fashioned, slow-burning drama told with refreshing earnestness by a veteran director, helped along by some old and highly competent actor friends.

The Irishman is currently streaming on Netflix