Do not let the 209-minute running time discourage you from seeing this masterful crime epic that only Martin Scorsese could have made. It is an important film in his filmography. It is also a brutal, sprawling, elegiac and gorgeously rendered film that complicates the director's fascination with organized crime.
From the opening scene, a long tracking shot through a nursing home, the audience knows they are in for something different. The shot is as elaborate as the Coppa Cabana scene in Goodfellas yet the tone is something altogether different. It speaks to what makes The Irishman unique, it looks back on a life of crime with some regret and guilt. This is not something Scorsese has allowed his criminals before and the result is something deep and contemplative.
The central trio of performances, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, are all career highlights. Scene after perfect scene, these three actors remind us why they are legends. Pesci, in particular, shines because he is playing the voice of reason often in the film, a far cry from his unhinged performances in previous Scorsese films.
The film is based on Charles Brandt's "I Heard You Paint Houses." That is code for someone who is a hitman. We learn that "doing your own carpentry" means that you carry out the hit rather than someone else. The Irishman is full of such fascinating details. De Niro plays Frank Sheeran. Sheeran is a vet who stumbles into the hitman game. We watch his rise as he becomes Jimmy Hoffa's man for several jobs.
The film covers decades, primarily the 1950s to the 1970s. In order to pull off younger versions of the characters, digital effects are used to de-age the actors. The effect is a bit jarring at first but quickly fades and works great in the scope of the film. The history woven into the story paints a picture of America that still feels relevant today. The Irishman, however, is primarily a personal story about a man who never decides his next move and suddenly finds himself at the end of his life regretting his actions.
Death hangs over the film. Scorsese flashes the obituaries of characters on-screen as we first meet them. The film's final hour slows down to focus on one death that changes Frank's life. It is here that The Irishman becomes something more than just another crime saga from Scorsese.
The Irishman hits in every way. Thelma Schoonmaker's editing makes the film zip along, jumping time periods effortlessly. The acting is superb and should earn all three leads Oscar nominations. Scorsese fills the film with references to his work while doing something new at the same time. Gone is the "ever since I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a gangster" mentality and in its place is something more complex and conflicted.