Film Review: 'The Irishman'
5.0Stars

In 2018, Netflix bet on Oscar winning director Alfonso Cuaron for his personal epic Roma. That film delivered Oscar gold for the streamer, generating big wins in multiple categories including Best Foreign Film and Best Director. With awards success in the background, they seized the opportunity to team with Oscar Martin Scorsese for his  $150 million dollar decades-spanning crime drama, The Irishman. It serves as a once in a lifetime reunion for Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Scorsese, and then to add Al Pacino to the mix,  it all makes for one supremely entertaining and emotionally striking movie experience.

We follow the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a Philadelphia-based truck driver who rose to be a Teamster union rep and, reportedly, a prolific hired gun for the local mob, headed by Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Sheeran is tasked with helping Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) with his business, which helps the larger contingent of organized crime that used the Teamsters multi-million-dollar pension as their own slush fund to pay for projects and schemes. After he loses his leadership position, Hoffa begins to think of himself on the same level as the tough guys and just as protected. Sheeran tries to turn his friend back from the self-destructive path he seems destined for, and ultimately, the tragedy plays itself out beautiful in a ballroom dance scene with all the key players present.

There are moments that just sing in this movie, buoyed by a wonderful film alchemy of the actors, the storytelling, the skill of Scorsese and his longtime collaborators like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Bob Shaw, and visual effects artist Pablo Helman.

Shaw captures the rich world of day-to-day detail from the character interactions and the small town East coast setting.  However, it’s a revelatory performance by Pacino as Hoffa that elevates the film even beyond that of a solid genre film. This is as much Jimmy Hoffa’s movie as it is Frank Sheeran’s. Here is a live-wire character bursting with unpredictability, later to his great deficit, and who pushes the other characters around in a way that creates instant tension and realignment.

Considering the selling point of the movie is its perspective from the claimed killer of Hoffa, it only makes sense that these moments are allowed the most attention. Hoffa sees himself as a champion of the little guy, as an ideologue trying to make life better, never mind his own extravagance, ego, and inability to let go of grievances. Hoffa was the head of the Teamsters union for twenty years and was a well-known public figure, somebody people like Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin) could idolize unlike her father and his other cohorts she despised. He’s a larger-than-life figure and those theatrics find a perfect match with Pacino and his bombastic nature. It’s no wonder he steals the movie. Pacino is terrific and has the clearest arc of any character onscreen, a meaty role that gives Pacino new life. I predict he’s the front-runner for supporting Oscar gold. I was transfixed by the amount of details that Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zallian (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) imbue in every scene, propelled by Frank’s narration and a dark sense of humor. It’s very easy to get immersed in this criminal underworld and its many machinations, which provides a steady stream of information points to tantalize. If one scene isn’t working, just give the movie a few minutes and another avenue might open to prove newly fascinating.

Helman’s de-aging CGI is Oscar worthy and surely a game changer in the industry.  There’s a delightful feeling of getting the gang back together for Scorsese’s massive, ambitious, and thrilling return to the world of gangster cinema.  The finished film is compelling and entertaining. The personalities don’t have quite the pop as Pacino, a rollicking screen presence relishing the spotlight, but the rock star bravado has been replaced with a somber reality of self-cultivated isolation. Pesci is terrific in what might be his most nuanced, insular, and brilliant performance. It’s a film that grows even better on second viewing, and one that will stand the test of time.