Breeze Reviews: The Irishman

Martin Scorsese’s American crime epic, “The Irishman,” won’t be available to stream on Netflix until Nov. 27. Yet in order to qualify for Academy Awards consideration, the film must screen in theaters for a minimum of 14 days. As a result, Netflix has put the film in as many theaters as possible, although most theater chains are reluctant to participate because of an ongoing dispute between theaters and streaming services over modes of distribution.

Currently, “The Irishman” is being shown in Washington D.C., Charlottesville, Richmond and even Harrisonburg, at the Court Square Theater, for anyone who may be interested in viewing the film on the largest screens possible. And with a film as expansive, electrifying and emotionally resonant as “The Irishman,” it certainly warrants the experience of seeing it in a theater.

“The Irishman” reunites the cinematic dream team of Scorsese, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, while adding to the fold Al Pacino, Anna Pacquin, Stephen Graham, Ray Romano and Jesse Plemmons. The film follows World War II veteran Frank Sheeran (De Niro) over 50 years as he becomes embroiled in organized crime and interacts with some of the most famous events in American history. This includes the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Kennedy Assassination and the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

While “The Irishman” is a return to the gangster movie genre, Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci have created something completely apart from the cocaine-fueled energy of “Goodfellas” or the overblown decadence of “Casino.” Instead, “The Irishman” is a film filled with reflection, regret and a sense of wonder around the characters’ interaction with time. By using CGI to make a film that spans 50 years, Scorsese decided to tell the story of Sheeran’s entire adult life, and along the way, he communicatesthe joy, pain and inevitability of his decisions.

Sheeran is an interesting protagonist through which Scorsese explores this feeling of regret. While Sheeran’s story is certainly expansive, what makes him so strange is his inability to examine his own decisions or mortality. Sheeran’s consistently unable to express his emotions or thoughts, floating through his life in an unexamined state and becoming a kind of malignant, “Forrest Gump” type figure, following orders and remaining in the background of the most historically significant events of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

De Niro gives his greatest performance in decades as Sheeran, communicating this low, simmering pain and deflection perfectly. At 76, De Niro gives an astonishing physical performance as his body breaks down over time, going from a quick-footed enforcer to an elderly man almost imperceptibly over the 210-minute runtime.

In the supporting performances, Pesci as Sheeran’s mentor Russell Bufalino channels something so unexpected and masterful that he’s certainly established himself as an Oscar frontrunner. Unlike his high-pitched, loud performances in previous Scorsese films like “Goodfellas,” “Casino” and “Raging Bull,” Pesci emanates a quiet inevitably in all of his actions. While still and weathered in each of his scenes, his sense of power and nuance silently overpowers everyone else on screen.

On the other end of the spectrum is Pacino as the domineering Jimmy Hoffa. Pacino does something entirely different, harkening back to his performances in “Any Given Sunday,” “Heat” and “Scent of a Woman,” shouting down anyone who stands in his way and providing  needed energy in the films’ quieter moments. Given that Pacino’s playing a historic American figure known for being brash and unyielding, he leans into the character’s innate charm, playing Hoffa as an endearing con man with fiery charisma. In his scenes with De Niro in particular, the two communicate a bond that goes beyond performances and becomes something much more meta as two of the greatest film actors of all time funnel their own respect and friendship into remarkable on-screen chemistry.

Leading up to the release of “The Irishman,” two stories have dominated the discussion around the film. The first is the film’s use of CGI de-aging techniques, to allow De Niro, Pacino and Pesci to play these characters over a 50-year timeline. While certainly noticeable, the CGI never crosses over into distraction. In a recent interview with Spike Lee, Scorsese referred to his use of CGI as “the evolution of makeup,” and having seen the film, this certainly feels like an apt description.

The second, and more unfortunate, story is Scorsese’s critique of Marvel movies as “theme parks.” While sparking countless debates and internet conversations, “The Irishman” certainly feels like the evocation of Scorsese’s idea. “The Irishman” is a film about the inevitability of age as the years fly by, giving the film a strange momentum despite its bloated runtime. Ultimately, Sheeran reflects on his life, contemplating the impact of it and wondering if his actions had any meaning.

“The Irishman” doesn’t qualify as escapist cinema and doesn’t deliver the same thrills of a Marvel film, but what it does provide is something much darker and more emotionally resonant. Viewers feel Sheeran’s pain. They experience time hurtling past them at lightning speed. And eventually, at the film’s conclusion, they understand why Scorsese would make a film about Sheeran and what this director feels about the possibility of old age and death. While that may not deliver Marvel’s patented excitement, it does deliver something more valuable and worthy of exploring.


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