Director Martin Scorsese has implored audiences not to watch his latest crime epic, The Irishman, on a smartphone. And while many viewers of the director’s latest film are likely to ignore this advice, Scorsese’s request is well-founded. At three-and-a-half hours long, The Irishman can be difficult to watch in one sitting — but the cinematic experience on offer is best enjoyed on a big screen, whether it’s projected on a movie screen or displayed on a large TV. Scorsese has drawn criticism lately for his comments about Marvel movies, which he’s characterized as “not cinema,” comparing them to amusement park rides, entertaining and full of spectacle but lacking in substance. And while his comments have angered fans of the immensely profitable superhero genre, they also speak to Scorecese’s understanding of the potential of cinema as an art form and its ability to speak to audiences on a deep, human level. Scorsese’s commitment to artistry is evident not only by his extensive catalogue of critically-acclaimed crime dramas, but by his career-defining work on his latest epic.
Spoilers for The Irishman follow.
The Irishman is based on the true story of Frank Sheeran, a hitman for the mafia who claimed to be responsible for killing the famous Jimmy Hoffa, a labor union activist who disappeared in 1975. While the nature of Hoffa’s disappearance in real life remains a mystery, Sheeran’s account is perhaps the most compelling explanation, as details of his story are corroborated by evidence, though most if not all of the other witnesses to the killing were dead by the time Sheeran confessed to author Charles Brandt shortly before his death. Brandt’s book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” forms the basis of Scorsese’s film, and the director took great lengths to ensure that the movie closely follows Sheeran’s recollection of events. Whether or not you believe that the film accurately portrays historical events, including details surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, depends on whether you trust Sheeran’s retelling of the events of his life and Brandt’s memorialization thereof.
Regardless of its questionable historical accuracy, though, The Irishman shines as a meditation on the reality of aging, death, and how the decisions a person makes come to define the stories of their lives, for better or for worse. Sheeran is not a particularly sympathetic character — he expresses no remorse for his many killings, some directed by the military and others by the mob — but the film succeeds in emotionally engaging the viewer with the protagonist nonetheless. This is in no small part thanks to Robert De Niro’s excellent portrayal of Frank Sheeran’s life over a period of decades, as the legendary actor imbues his character with an emotional depth and complexity rivaled by few other performances in recent memory.
Scorsese pioneered the widespread use of expensive de-aging technology to allow the 76-year-old De Niro to portray a character several decades younger, and the implementation has received a mixed reception. While the effect is not entirely convincing and can at times even be a little distracting, it works for the most part, though it is at times clear that the aging principal cast struggle to mimic the vibrancy of men half their age throughout the film. It’s easy to look past this minor deficiency, however, and as the film’s narrative largely explores the concepts of aging and death, the at times geriatric performances of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci fit the film’s narrative framing of an elderly man sitting alone in a nursing home reminiscing about his past.
Irrespective of how you feel about the visual effects, the actors’ performances are phenomenal, and add to the remarkable depth of the film’s writing and direction. Ultimately, while most of the events of the film revolve around Sheeran’s participation in the mob and his relationships with his mentor Russell Bufalino and the egotistical, hot-headed Jimmy Hoffa, I would argue the real point of the film is its examination of the importance of family life. Sheeran had four children, and while these characters don’t prominently factor into the events of the narrative, the emotional weight carried by Sheeran’s neglect of his children is immense. Sheeran’s daughters must grapple with the violent reality of his lifestyle and profession throughout the picture, mostly in the background, resulting in an ongoing rejection of their father that culminates in their disowning of him as he becomes an elderly man. After nearly all of the people close to Sheeran die, only his family remain, but his efforts to reconnect with his daughters fail as they have effectively disowned him. By the end of the film, Sheeran is left in a nursing home, talking about his daughters with a nurse who barely pays attention to his stories. Ultimately, the film plays a trick on the audience; while it seems at first to be about the mob, the Teamsters union, and the larger-than-life Jimmy Hoffa, it reveals itself by its conclusion to in actuality be about the inevitability of death and the importance of family ties.
This level of depth and thematic complexity is what has led The Irishman to receive near-universal critical acclaim. Though it premiered as a limited theatrical release, the movie is now available exclusively on Netflix, which incidentally turned out to be the only company willing to fund Scorsese’s experimental epic. Critics are speculating that The Irishman could sweep the Oscars, and many have speculated the film is a strong contender for Best Picture. If you’re willing to set aside the three-and-a-half hours necessary to engage in Scorsese’s latest film, you’ll be rewarded with a work of nearly-unparalleled emotional weight and tragedy.