The Irishman (2019) movie review
Starring Robert De Niro, The Irishman follows the life of Frank Sheeran, a labor union official (and career mob hitman) who was supposedly involved in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. The film was directed by Goodfellas (1990) director Martin Scorsese, as well as written by Steven Zaillian, who used the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt as the basis for the story. The film, which has been in development since shortly after the book was published in 2004, was released in Netflix just this past weekend, to the contempt of Scorsese, who fought for a theatrical release for the film following the Netflix purchase. However despite any ill will Scorsese may have towards streaming, The Irishman was greeted with rave reviews following its festival run, currently standing with 96% critic rating and 86% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 94% on Metascore, and an 8.3/10 user rating on IMDb, which lands it at the 110th highest rated film of all time on IMDb.
While a three-and-a-half hour mob movie from the king of mob movies himself may sound like the hands-down best movie of 2019, let me remind you that if I lost you at the runtime of the mention of self-proclaimed Marvel enthusiast Martin Scorsese, actually sitting down and watching The Irishman might not convince you of that. Honestly though, potential Oscar buzz notwithstanding, I thought it was, fine? For me, The Irishman is an exercise in patient storytelling through a carefully crafted narrative that never pays off both aspects of that potential. I am absolutely positive I am going to some hate for not calling this one of my favorite movies of the year, but honestly, I just didn’t love it. So while I intend to write a very fair review here, take in mind that the quality is probably a 9/10, and if you are remotely interested, you should probably watch it anyway.
I want to start with the runtime, which I thought was fair in the end. Sure you could shave a few scenes here and there and maybe bring it down by ten or fifteen minutes without damaging the integrity of the film as a whole, but when you get over three hours, why bother trimming? Honestly, the pacing was pretty solid, always either engaging or at least interesting. So between the subject material, overall quality (which I will get back to), and mostly sharp editing, it is a thoroughly entertaining feature. That said, there are a few editing choices I didn’t love as far as perspective goes. On top of that, as I mentioned before, the film often has trouble picking what it wants to focus on: the story or the character. Yes, in every case those two things should work hand in hand, even if one leads the other a little. However the writing is very story-centric, prioritizing the information often over visible change or development in Frank. This works in favor of Frank’s often stoic characteristics. However I think this begins to feel uneven by the third act, which focuses much more heavily on Frank as a character, rather than just the events that shaped him. I am going to avoid comparisons from this point out, but this is totally why Goodfellas is better.
In The Irishman’s defense, that one thing and the few issues that stem from it were account for almost all of my issues with this movie, as it is exceptionally made once you get past what I would consider an undecisive screenplay. Before I get to performances, I wanted to talk about the CGI. Yeah, the de-aging looks pretty good! It is a bit uncanny at first, but it didn’t take me long to get used to it. I appreciated the design of the visuals too, crafting younger versions of the characters instead of just the actors. It is certainly why you have to adjust, because we know what younger De Niro looks like. However you have three hours and change to get used to it. I also really liked a lot of the color grading, which is significantly classier than the poster would imply. I am not a huge fan of the crispy blue and grey look of many films released on Netflix, so I was glad to see those Scorsese yellows! And of course the cinematography, which was almost never showy, but always perfect. Actually one or two scenes that Rodrigo Prieto shot felt like Robert Richardson’s from this year’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which is not a bad thing!
Naturally, when you are talking Scorsese films, you are talking incredible performances. Robert De Niro is just fantastic, giving Frank, arguable a decent person comfortable doing very bad things, just enough emotion and depth to be a likable character, without ever feeling empathetic. I don’t want to feel empathetic with a mobster. Speaking of Oscar nods though, Joe Pesci is back and also just great, Ray Romano was hilarious, Harvey Keitel and Jesse Plemons and Bobby Cannavale and Stephen Graham were all really great. The show-stealer for me was hands down Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa though. Pacino really embodies Hoffa, with everything from little mannerisms to the overarching self-reliant arrogance and paranoia that makes you feel like everyone else around him in the film. Of all the Oscar nods that should be given, this should be the first. Granted I should add that I don’t know all that much about this story in the first place, so I am judging the characters and stories based off what was presented in the film, not accuracy.
I could probably talk more about this picture if I wanted to, but unlike the screenplay, I know how to wrap up in a timely manner. (That was mostly a joke, I think the wrap up works fine.) Honestly, I was hoping that writing it out would help me realize how much I liked it, and I think it was more getting it off my chest. I just didn’t love The Irishman, and I think that it is only due to a lack of focus on the story. The way the film deals with conveying of important information is often inconsistent, the perspective misses the point of the character focus, and when the film does tighten up on showing Frank as a person, many of the aforementioned story beats don’t matter. In the end though, I think it is what you want from this film. If you want a slice of history often taken for granted, complete with a perfect visual style and Oscar worthy performances, The Irishman is absolutely film of the year! I think I just wanted a bit more from Zaillian. It is totally unfair to compare his writing to Nicholas Pileggi’s Goodfellas, but razor-sharp dialogue aside, I think it just doesn’t connect as strongly with me. Still, it’s a solid watch, if not just to see it before it’s Best Picture nomination. 7/10.
So The Irishman? What did you think? And what is your all-time favorite mob movie? Too easy? Well how about the best Netflix Original Movie? There’s a tough one. Anyway, be sure to leave a like or a comment below and let us know, and if you liked this review, stay tuned for a few more recent streaming movies coming soon!
-review by Ryan Prince