Film Review – The Irishman (2019)

What makes a Scorsese film? Gangsters? Freeze frames? Robert de Niro? Well, you’ll be happy to know the iconic director’s newest movie, The Irishman, features all three. Based on the true story of mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, the classic ensemble of De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci reunite in an updated Scorsese classic.

In the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, prosecutor Charles Brandt documents the alleged jobs Sheeran took for the Bufalino crime family. Luckily for us, Scorsese’s adaptation decided on a shorter title.

The Irishman is an ambitious epic, with a run time of three-and-a-half hours and incredible use of reverse-aging effects. The Irishman went stream to Netflix and now The Criterion Collection, following a theatre circuit as per the director’s requests. As a known cinephile, it may come as surprise that Scorsese chose an online streaming platform over traditional distribution methods. However, during the BFI press conference, the director explained how financial difficulties meant he “ran out of room” to negotiate other sources. After all, pre-production for The Irishman began way back in 2007, before Scorsese’s Silence (2016) and other projects delayed progress.

The Irishman shares many of the same qualities as Scorsese works such as Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). A thematic focus on family and loyalty alongside gun-blazing gangsters are all indicators of the directors autership. However, The Irishman is not just a simple remake or homage to earlier works. Instead, Scorsese targets more energy into character relationships than grandiose shoot-outs. For example, the Scorsese freeze-frames in The Irishman details the death of each character, rather than an introduction. Putting twists on old methods, Scorsese explained how the “vantage point of time” allowed the development of his style – not just a repeat of it.

The Irishman unravels at a relatively slow pace with tight attention on its protagonist, played by Robert De Niro. As gangster movies go, Sheeran and the Bufalino’s are fairly temperate about their crimes, balancing touching scenes with the brutal ones. The Irishman is funny, too. Granting light relief between moments of tension and betrayal.

Scorsese’s crime drama is a polished accomplishment, seemingly executed with ease now that he has mastered the gangster genre. Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham and Harvey Keitel appear alongside the usual trio, each delivering knock-out performances. The Irishman is a story of friendship and learning from past mistakes as much as it is about vengeful gang wars. We empathise with Sheeran despite his crimes, watching him morph from ordinary worker to trusted mobster ally. Robert De Niro noted the use of real audio footage from Sheeran himself, attempting to embody the man who began life simply painting houses.

Crime, Drama | USA, 2019 | Blu-Ray, DVD | 30th November 2020 (UK) | The Criterion Collection | Dir. Martin Scorsese | Robert Deniro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Jesse Plemons, Ana Paquin, Harvey Keitel

Originally posted as part of our 2019 BFI London Film Festival | original review


    • New 4K digital master, approved by director Martin Scorsese, with Dolby Atmos soundtrack
    • Newly edited roundtable conversation among Scorsese and actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, originally recorded in 2019
    • New documentary about the making of the film featuring Scorsese; the lead actors; producers Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Jane Rosenthal, and Irwin Winkler; director of photography Rodrigo Prieto; and others from the cast and crew
    • New video essay written and narrated by film critic Farran Smith Nehme about The Irishman’s synthesis of Scorsese’s singular formal style
    • The Evolution of Digital De-aging, a 2019 programme on the visual effects created for the film
    • Archival interview excerpts with Frank “the Irishman” Sheeran and International Brotherhood of Teamsters trade union leader Jimmy Hoffa
    • Trailer and teaser
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien