Welcome to Arkansas Fight’s Film Room, our weekly movie discussion column that help us branch out from covering Arkansas Athletics all the time. You can read last week’s column on The Lighthouse here. This week, we’re discussing Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.
Movies are changing.
Now, that’s not the hottest take in the world. It’s probably lukewarm at best. But what I mean is this: the way we consume movies is changing. I’m 28 years old. Going to a theater to see a movie was a big part of growing up for me and it’s still one of my favorite things to do currently. I also very much enjoy the streaming services that I subscribe too, mainly Netflix, HBO Go, and the newly launched Disney+. I like that I can watch new movies directly in my bedroom while I inhale burritos that I’ve had delivered to me by a stranger. I don’t think that watching movies in this way somehow lessens the experience, but it’s certainly a different one that going to a theater.
I am a dreaded millennial, the generation that’s aiming to kill off every industry you’ve ever cared about and the cinema is no different. The younger generations are even more inclined to use streaming services to get their fill of movies and are going to theaters less and less. As such, movies have had to adjust to how they sell themselves. The director of the film the we will discuss today, Martin Scorsese, recently came under fire because he compared the Marvel movies to a “theme park.” I understand why that’s upsetting to a lot of people. The MCU has defined the film industry and the direction it’s taking for over a decade. In a way however, Scorsese is right. Movies aren’t just movies anymore, they’re EVENTS. They have to resemble theme parks because that’s what it takes to get people out of their house and over to a theater. That’s why I find The Irishman so fascinating. Not only is it a masterpiece of a film but it’s also a very good compass of where movies are headed.
I promise I will get into this spoiler-free discussion of the actual movie very shortly, but I think some context and info about this movie’s release is important here. This is a movie directed by Martin Scorsese. It stars Al Pacino, Joe Pesci in his first role since The Good Shepard, and Robert Freakin’ De Niro. This is a movie that should be released across every screen in America that would carry it — it’s the definition of a film as an event that I mentioned up top. Instead, The Irishman, after it’s run through the festival circuit, found itself released across 8 theaters in LA and New York. Why? Well, it’s a little complicated, but the long and short of it is this: The Irishman is a Netflix film. Grabbing a prestige film like this will certainly drive signups for the streaming company’s service, and the only reason the film actually made it’s way to theaters was so it can be eligible for an Academy Award for Best Picture, a prize Netflix has long sought (See last year’s Roma for the blueprint). A ton of people are going to see this movie, but it’s going to be in the comfort of their own home.
Now that we’ve gotten a roadmap for navigating capital C cinema in 2019, let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of this whole thing. The Irishman is easily one of the best movies of the year and will no doubt reign atop many “Top 10 Movies of 2019” lists, mine included. It’s a magnum opus of a gangster film through the lens of what it means to grow old.
The film centers around Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) as he tells the story of his days as a mafia hitmen AKA a “house painter.” The film spans decades, from the beginning of the 1950’s through the 1970’s. Sheeran weaves his story through these decades, touching on all the important people he seemingly encountered during his time in the Mob. At 3 and a half hours, a lesser movie would drag. Not The Irishman. I was never once bored and in fact, was surprised at how quickly the movie clipped along.
The story begins with Sheeran meeting Philly capo Russell Bufalino (Pesci) who later introduces him to his mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and to the powerful president of the Teamster’s Union, Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). During this section of the movie, both De Niro and Pesci are de-aged using special visual effects, which was much ballyhooed when first revealed. I won’t lie, the first shot of De Niro with a 30 year old’s digitally de-aged face is a little jarring. It doesn’t quite do what it’s trying to do, but EVERY other instance of this effect works well. It doesn’t detract from the story and you quickly get used to it.
I mentioned Pacino’s Hoffa above and his introduction into the film is where the movie really takes off. His performance is nothing short of astounding, and the scenes where he and De Niro share the screen are electric. In particular, a scene where the two verbally spar after a perceived slight during a meeting made me laugh harder than any comedy I’ve seen this year.
In a movie like this where there are stars in almost every role, it would be easy for the cast to seemingly lose the plot or for the dynamic of who the true “lead” in the film is to shift from scene to scene. This has happened with other Scorsese films, like The Departed, where everybody thinks they’re the star (looking at you, Mark Wahlberg) when in reality, they’re just not. That doesn’t happen here, as De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino are all at the top of their game. They each command your attention without begging for it. You can’t help but watch, even when it’s just old guys talking about things as simple as how the wine in a restaurant should be served. Like I said, this is a spoiler-free discussion of the movie, so I won’t give away many details on the plot, but the way these men’s lives interact and combine in this film is a sight to behold.
The supporting cast is sprawling and wonderful to watch. Performances that stood out to me were Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino, the lawyer who represented Hoffa and Sheeran in their early days, Jesse Plemons as Chuckie O’ Brien, and Anna Paquin as Peggy, Sheeran’s daughter who’s resentment for her father only increases as she ages, learning more and more about his actions.
What’s so fascinating about The Irishman is the prism that this story is told through and that prism is old age. It’s hardly a surprise. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino are all well past their mid-70s. It’s sure no small thing to consider when you’re making a film like this. What happens when you’re old and nobody remembers you: your deeds, misdeeds, your life slowly fading as less and less people want to hear you tell your story. The final 90 minutes of this movie tackle these questions head on and the last moments might be some of my favorite of Scorsese’s ever.
There’s been somewhat of a through line of several major films this year and that through line is men who once knew their place in society that have been pushed to the outskirts to be merely observers of the positions of power they once held. Society is changing around them, and they’re being left behind. I think particularly of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood... and their struggle to adapt to the changes of the 60’s.
Scorsese aims the same quagmires at the men who “painted houses” and the power they once enjoyed, but who now are being eaten by time. It doesn’t feel necessarily like a farewell or a swan song, but it is a director and actors who know where they are in life and are trying to figure out what that means for both their characters and themselves. It’s a thing of beauty to watch them play it out.
The Irishman begins streaming November 27th on Netflix
Thanks for reading Arkansas Fight’s Film Room! We’re looking forward to talking movies with Razorback nation. If there’s an older movie you want us to revisit hit us up in the comments. Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast. You can chat movies and bad sports takes with Saul anytime by following him on Twitter at @SaulMalone. For mini movie reviews, you can follow Saul on Letterboxd.