By Adam Gage
The Irishman is director Martin Scorsese’s 25th film at the age of 77, well known for his Italian mob related movies such as Goodfellas and Casino, although this is only his 4th film on the subject. The film differs from his previous works in the genre however, being toned down significantly in style, with a much more sombre and melancholy mood. There are other significant differences in terms of the film’s production: the film was made for Netflix and the use of anti-aging CGI on the elderly principle actors, which apparently sent the budget well past $100 million. It is also Scorsese’s longest film, with a hefty runtime of three and a half hours, so many may be glad that the primary way to watch it is on Netflix with the comfort of home.
The story centres on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), with various time shifts through three main periods of his life. The first period is when Sheeran is near death in a retirement home, and this facilitates the rest of what is shown, with Sheeran ‘confessing’ the periods of his life and of course his criminal activities for the mob. This begins with his initiation into such activities – being recruited from his job as a truck driver into the role of a hitman – through to working for Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and further to after the mysterious disappearance of Hoffa and up to Sheeran’s old age.
By far the most intimidating aspect of the film is its gargantuan runtime, exceeding the likes of even The Godfather and Lord of the Rings. However, it becomes clear by the time the film has reached its end why this was vital to the experience. This is due to one of the film’s primary subjects being that of aging and the passage of time. One might think that the run time would require an especially zippy pace, to keep the audience engaged. This is not the case, as the pacing is more leisurely than anything, but this helps give a feeling of living life as it is. After the film has ended, you truly feel like you have accelerated your aging and come out an old man. The ending itself may cause some existential crises, as surely no one wants to reach the point the main character does by his regret ridden end.
With the film being so heavily focussed on aging itself, it was deemed necessary to use the same actors for all time periods to truly see the effect that time has had on particular men in particular time periods. This was made possible not by make-up but by computer generated effects which ‘de-aged’ the actors. The three principle actors, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, are all in their 70s, while the film spans around 40 years with those same actors. Though the effects may at times veer into the uncanny valley, with the actors faces looking slightly plastic, it works overall to its intended effect. The more distracting aspect is not the CGI faces but the bodies of the characters, as in certain scenes it is obvious that the movements are those of a significantly older man than intended, with Al Pacino being hunched over and De Niro quite stiff.
De Niro’s performance however (and those of his co-stars) certainly compliments the material, rather than the active aggressor that he was in his renowned films, here he is more passive, natural to the almost middle-man role he plays. While on the other hand, Pacino and Pesci are the instigators who drive the plot, but on opposite ends of the spectrum in their demeanour, Pacino as typically rowdy and Pesci uncharacteristically restrained. The men they play factor into the broad American history portrayed, usually in the background, representing different facets in American corruption. From political figures, the mob, the working man, the family unit and even back to the Second World War.
The corruption within the family, that of Frank Sheeran’s, is made known through the omniscient performance of Anna Paquin as one of Sheeran’s daughters. Although mostly silent throughout the entire film, her presence is forefront whenever she’s in a scene, due to the idea she acts a moral judge on Sheeran and his obvious criminal deeds. There has been some criticism over the fact that the primary female character has relatively little screen time as well as having minimal dialogue, but it would completely take away from the power of her scenes if it were otherwise, and it is completely necessary to put the audience in Sheeran’s shoes, to feel the disconnect from his own daughter and to reflect on his misdoings.
Regarding its nature as a Netflix original film, it is certainly the best from their output, with last year’s premium release Roma trailing close behind. Both films are from renowned auteur directors, and feature similar visions, intimate to both directors’ pasts. Purists may be wary that such grand visual pieces would feature predominately on small screens on Netflix. However, after seeing it both in a cinema and at home, there isn’t much lost for the Irishman on the small screen. Visually it’s stylistically muted (needed for its mournful mood) compared to previous Scorsese films and Roma, and it certainly aids sitting through its monster length.