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Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ Reflects on Morality and Human Nature

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In many ways, filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s latest effort, somber mob epic “The Irishman,” is a fitting culmination of the auteur’s authoritative career. 

The film follows mob hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he reflects on his path through organized crime. A World War II veteran, Sheeran’s turn to organized crime begins as a way to feed his family, but it’s Sheeran’s familiarity with violence that makes it viable.

Adapted from Charles Brandt’s narrative biography “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the film is Scorsese’s eighth book adaptation out of his last nine features, and reunites him with “Goodfellas” and “Casino” alums De Niro and Joe Pesci. De Niro (“The King of Comedy,” “Taxi Driver”) and Scorsese, in particular, have collaborated frequently, pairing nine times since 1973’s “Mean Streets.” 

Scorsese’s film hits Netflix Nov. 27 after releasing in theaters nationwide on a limited basis, with screenings in Chicago starting Nov. 8 and ending Nov. 14.

Starting as a meat-delivery driver, Sheeran’s criminal career starts with the illegal sale of discount steak to mobsters. After defense attorney Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) helps Sheeran avoid a close legal call with his truck company, he introduces Sheeran to his cousin, Russ Bufalino (Pesci). 

Sheeran impresses Bufalino and the criminal family and is soon introduced to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union. Sheeran becomes Hoffa’s personal bodyguard and close friend. The duo display a gruff, masculine kind of affection for each other, but their power dynamic shifts as Sheeran moves up the mafia ranks.

As Scorsese’s film meanders through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, Sheeran’s story intersects with significant events in American history. Instead of asking the audience to suspend their disbelief for the entire film, the film quietly intersperses Sheeran’s less believable claims throughout. The result is a paranoid, but convincing portrait of a mafia with almost limitless political influence.

Scorsese’s film runs three hours and 29 minutes, but there’s scarcely a wasted second. The film’s overarching story is just as reliant on mundane conversations and daily rituals as it is on mob hits and criminal activity. The film’s protagonists are mobsters, but they still eat cereal while watching the news and bicker about the weather.

De Niro, Pacino and Pesci’s characters are each drawn in extraordinary detail — aging, maturing and changing across the film’s runtime. The film depicts these characters until the end of their lives, or at least close to it. The men’s hair grays, and their skin hardens and cracks, but they also grow more patient and reflective.

The trio’s fantastic performances deserve credit for carrying long stretches of the movie with their banter and irrational anger. Pacino’s Hoffa is loud and aggressive, but extremely defensive and well-intentioned, while Pesci’s Russ commands respect through direct instruction and strict expectations. De Niro’s Sheeran spends much of the movie passing messages between the two, a pair of power-hungry, surly narcissists with different styles. 

By studying these characters, the film addresses toxic masculinity, flawed morality and the damaging effect social and cultural bubbles can have. None of these are new themes for a Scorsese film, but this is his most reflective approach yet, spanning a mobster’s entire life, from the innocent beginning to the tragic end.

Given the consistent thematic focus of Scorsese’s career, it’s not surprising when each of the director’s new releases gets endlessly scrutinized, then ranked against his earlier work. That said, “The Irishman” earns those comparisons, bearing marked similarities to several of his earlier films.

Similarities start with Steven Zallien’s (“Schindler’s List, “Red Sparrow”) screenplay, which musters the quick wit and coded mobster parlance of Scorsese classics “Goodfellas” and ”Casino” without becoming a carbon copy. 

Beyond sounding like a Scorsese movie, Zallien’s audacious screenplay pushes the visual envelope, calling for numerous explosions, murders and the daunting task of making 79-year-old Al Pacino look young. 

An abundance of detailed, period-specific costumes and computer-generated de-aging technology enable the film to cover more ground than the director’s previous mob films, but several of Scorsese’s signature visuals are present here. Beautifully composed slow motion and tracking shots populate the film’s ambitious depiction of America from the ‘50s-’70s.

Only Scorsese could take a long, slow-paced character study of reprehensible old men and make it a reflective, tragic tale of human nature, but that’s exactly what “The Irishman” is. As a wonderfully entertaining and intricately crafted personal reflection by one of cinema’s defining filmmakers, Scorsese’s latest deserves to be recognized for what it is: an instant classic.

“The Irishman,” rated R, completes its truncated Chicago release Nov. 14, and hits Netflix Nov. 27.

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