NYFF Film Review: ‘The Irishman’ Soulfully Etches Age and Sin with Joe Pesci’s Most Provocative Career Turn

2019 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: The energy and vigor that pours from the screen in Martin Scorsese‘s intensely constructed picture “The Irishman” is too glorious to ignore. The iconic filmmaker has made his mark in the crime genre with classics such as “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” being among his most popular and beloved by casual movie-goers. Erecting the crime epic with the talents of Oscar-winners Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, the search for soul and humanity within the vile virtues of three men, is far too majestic to capture with words and too profound to grasp in one single viewing. “The Irishman” will blow the hair back with its wittiness, but it’s the thematic mountain it builds for 210 minutes that genuinely demonstrates its intellect.

The Irishman,” tells the story of Frank Sheeran (DeNiro), a mob hitman who recalls his life of crime alongside notorious gangsters such as Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and other famous Philadelphia mobsters. He also recounts his possible involvement with the slaying of Union Leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) in the 1970s.

Based on the book by Charles Brandt, Academy Award winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (1993’s “Schindler’s List“) takes charge of the film’s structure, infusing not only a methodical and illuminating look into the lives of men, but implants beats of humor that offers up a chance to breathe, as the viewer swims across this English channel of crime movies. Zaillian’s characters are built block by block, never going for the permissive way out, in terms of dispensing evil and menace into a scene.  The writing navigates this atmosphere, utilizing words only for their impact of the soul, and nothing less. They’re not used for a scene gimmick to show fear and tension. It’s one of the screenwriter’s most celebrated achievements yet.

When you partner Zaillain with the transcendent Martin Scorsese, it’s difficult to dispute the dynamism that explodes frame by frame. Scorsese’s singular vision of the world, as depicted in most of his pictures, is always familiar but unequivocally unparalleled in every cinematic outing. He allows actors in their late 70s to play men that are 40 years then themselves, allowing them an opportunity to show progress and growth. This isn’t merely just within the characters in which they portray, but for them as trained and expert performers, that all tap into a new realm of expression that we haven’t seen previously.

Robert De Niro, who has two Oscars to his credit (1975’s “The Godfather Part II” for supporting and 1981’s “Raging Bull” in lead), explores one of his darkest and sincerest achievements of his career. Frank’s sins are on ample display, slivering through his life with an underlying vanity that he seems not too aware nor interested in acknowledging. With all this, the 76-year-old actor gives him a deepened conscious, going well beyond the conventional frown or eye-raise you can often see in the genre. De Niro walks through Frank’s psyche of family and loyalty, chewing the cinematic manna, and digesting every ounce of its internal quandaries. It is his most exceptional acting effort since the highly underrated “Everybody’s Fine” from 2009.

Al Pacino is given the traditional “scene-stealing/scene-chewing” role of the acting trio. Jimmy Hoffa’s elusive and enigmatic disappearance will have plenty perking up to pay attention but what may not get enough credit is how Scorsese can channel the atypical tics and mannerisms that have plague Pacino in his later career, almost becoming a caricature of his former self. It’s a return-to-form for the actor, surpassing every part of his Oscar-winning role in 1992’s “Scent of a Woman.”

Jimmy Hoffa has been portrayed two separate times in the entertainment industry. First in 1983 television miniseries “Blood Feud” by Robert Blake and again in 1992 in the Danny DeVito directed film “Hoffa” with Jack Nicholson (a polarizing and divisive film of the time). We’ve never seen the American labor union leader, who became involved in organized crime, examined with such detail and endurance. Pacino’s infectious inhabitance magnetizes the audience’s senses, locking onto our cinematic eyes and never losing his grip. We haven’t seen Pacino this good since 1999’s “The Insider.” To go further, behind “The Godfather Part II,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and perhaps “Glengarry Glen Ross,” this is among the very best turns of his distinguished career.

Joe Pesci deserves an entire deconstruction, dedicated solely to him, on what he brings out of himself, and the film, with his portrayal of crime boss Russell Bufalino. History records Bufalino’s placement in a “small crime” family but who ends up having a significant impact on the more massive American Mafia. Pesci’s soulful and immeasurable contribution to “The Irishman” will likely go down as one of the most sweeping portrayals by any actor this decade. Without a doubt, the single most prominent work of his career, topping all his acting credits by leaps and bounds. To be clear, Pesci has had some amazing ones, and this statement is not written lightly.

Pesci could have played it safe, simply showing power and respect in a look or a one-line zinger. The Oscar-winning actor of “Goodfellas” creates an inner turmoil between the viewer and its own conscience. He lays a man at your feet, who you are well aware of his monstrous contribution to the world, along with unforgiving acts that plagued families and neighborhoods but he secures your attention to his words, but furthermore, you are gaining care and empathy for the mobster, all coming from moments that have the viewer repenting for Bufalino’s sins and his existence. A dilemma that audiences may not be prepared.

Quietly striking scenes like an oversized meteor, that rips into the earth like a nuclear bomb, the might of Joe Pesci is grand. When you emerge from the cinematic wreckage inserted by his tactical maneuvers, Russell Bufalino, a modestly standing gentleman will appear from the flames, detonating an avalanche of sensibilities upon its viewers, and has the power to reshape the 2019 roster of masterful performances.

Other actors in the ensemble such as Oscar-winner Anna Paquin (sharing just two lines but eye-piercingly present when not speaking), Harvey Keitel (brief yet presently effective), Bobby Cannavale (isn’t afforded much examination), Jesse Plemons (quietly relevant), Ray Romano (kicking off the film with a bang), Sebastian Maniscalco (seems to be echoing his stand-up routine within the mobster “Crazy Joe”) and Jack Huston (giving an interesting interpretation of Bobby Kennedy) are all ultimately just background noise to the symphony that is orchestrating on screen.

Scorsese’s connection to the cinematic Gods is vocalized thanks to the stunning camera work and inclinations from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who he’s worked with on his other features “Silence” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Prieto has made his trademark gestures instilled in his depiction of human emotion, sliding in and out of a scene. A car going through a carwash will have profound meaning in its stunning observance of an unfolding tale of authority and the wicked war it sets upon humankind. With capturing pure general laughter or indescribable anger, Prieto finds life’s unutterable harmony and malice in each frame. Except for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Silence,” this is one of his best and most spirited works of his career yet.

A viewer or reviewer can’t credit any of Scorsese’s most timeless creations without putting his longtime editing collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker in the same sentence. Cautiously enamored with the passage of time, the Academy Award winning craftswoman of “Raging Bull” and “The Aviator,” relishes in the flashes of life, where the atmosphere and expressions blend collectively, in exquisite fashion.

Bob Shaw‘s production design with Sandy Powell‘s costumes are terrifically crafted but end up taking a backseat to the visual endeavor taken on by VFX supervisor Pablo Helman and the rest of the VFX teams. While your eyes need time to adjust to the de-aging components, it progressively improves as we move through the periods. The medium and craft of de-aging still has more evolving to do as the film medium continues to develop it. As first truly explored in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and most recently illustrated handsomely earlier this year in “Captain Marvel” with Samuel L. Jackson, the course of cinema has a promising future as we see more icons, such as Scorsese, pushing the envelope continuously.

In the end, “The Irishman” lands loudly but peaceful. Chaotic but methodical. And finally elongated but strenuously fleeting. The average cinema person may not connect amply with the material, especially if they are expecting a popcorn-like, chill, gory, and or brutally surface-level endeavor mirroring the likes of “The Usual Suspects” or “Scarface.” Designed with an appetite for the mortality of the soul, “The Irishman” has loads to say, and we would be better off by taking the time and hearken its message.  The “Silence” of gangster movies, the film remarkably soars.

“The Irishman” is distributed by Netflix and opens in select theaters on Nov. 1.  It will be available for streaming platforms on Nov. 27.

GRADE: (★★½)

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