Some movies are events. Some movies are events in movie history. Martin Scorsese’s pairing with Netflix will prove all but historic here. We have seen the successes before, sure, but for the first time, one of history’s great filmmakers has been reignited with the energy of his prime, where Made for Streaming can be emphatically declared as a prestige label. The way we have collectively heralded Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as the end of the traditional Western, The Irishman also signals the closure of the American Crime genre. All the work has been done and with one epic, sweeping final document; the master of the genre itself has announced its permanent closure as a fixture of American filmmaking.
Scorsese’s septuagenarian feature shows no sign of his age. It is as spry and effusively passionate as any film he has made. It’s no great wonder that a man of his age can convincingly captivate an audience for three-and-a-half hours. The Irishman is a very long film. It also does not waste any of those minutes or anything that appears on-screen. It’s still shot with the grand regency and respect for the subject that scores Scorsese’s masterpieces. We cannot worry about the time the movie needs. Longtime exclusive editor Thelma Schoonmaker ensures the essence of every frame benefits the production. It’s as lively as Goodfellas (1990), just the major players have aged and have different concerns.
The Irishman is a momentous reunion for three greats of the gangster picture: Robert De Niro; Joe Pesci; and Al Pacino. Netflix has guaranteed serious awards attention. De Niro is spellbinding once again, poetically returned to his youth with de-aging technology, for small parts of the long runtime. Humorously, he once again plays an Irishman – like with Goodfellas – despite being outwardly Italian and having no significant Irish tells. And it works brilliantly. The legendary Joe Pesci returns from semi-retirement performing with the effortless aplomb of a man made for the roles he inhabits. Scorsese finds the best in them time and time again. There is a supreme comfort in the fact that this has not changed in 2019. Perhaps unbelievably, The Irishman also marks the first time Scorsese has worked with Pacino, and immediately finds the center of what sparks his greatest on-screen characters. Those around them do not get to do nearly as much, considering the time allotted we may genuinely hope for other breakthroughs, but our three stars shine as brightly as they ever have, whether they’re uncanny and computerized or giving dramatically humanistic performances.
The Irishman utilizes its aging stars gracefully. While celebrating the conclusion of these storied careers, it finds spaces and silences to examine the nature of aging before the audience. De Niro begins within a nursing home. Once a great hitman for the mob, he’s been reduced to the same end-of-days comfort we all must face. Here, he shares the story of the mafia, the teamsters, and Jimmy Hoffa. It’s an exuberant and winding story fit with cornerstone moments of Scorsese’s career. There are elaborate gliding shots, the smoothest and loveliest moments put to film this year. Sometimes it’s just De Niro driving down an alley in a signature black car. It’s the way the director is in love with the moving image. How his eye tracks it better than anyone, can predict the right lensing of wildly inventive set pieces and shoot outs. How he can escalate the tension so easily, from the turning of a car key – is the car wired to blow? – to the ease of getting tense conversations just so, unfurling ever-so-artfully. While his straight suspense films have not surmised the bulk of his work’s attention, all of his films operate on certain suspense motivated by Catholic guilt. And with The Irishman, it’s more lovely and grand than it has been in many years.
If The Irishman is a graceful swan song for a group of contemporaries, it is a perfect grace note. Encapsulating a shifting sense of time and place, it explores most fully the fantastical careers of its actors. When Scorsese says something is not cinema, we realize very carefully, exactly, how much time he has spent thinking about cinema. He has a tangible one-on-one relationship with its history, its restoration, and diversifying of the field. All of his historical context for the form shows up right on-screen in The Irishman. It is the culmination of his grandest cinematic achievements. Purely, The Irishman is cinema. It’s cinema in every sense the word entails. It does not prevent anything else from being cinema. Instead, it is an emphatic marker of perspective, of meticulously learned and studied habits all paying off cohesively. An artful meditation of aging with grace, The Irishman is one of our greatest living directors’ masterworks, made from the experiences of another generation, for the benefit of cinema history.