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Review: ‘The Irishman’ is a worthy capstone to Martin Scorsese’s great gangster films

Netflix/TriBeCa Productions

Netflix/TriBeCa Productions

The Irishman has been tangled up in a distribution war, part of the ongoing turf battle between cinema chains and the streaming services steadily eroding their audience.

The Twin Cities’ primary theater chain, AMC, refused to play Martin Scorsese’s Netflix-produced film, which begins streaming the day before Thanksgiving, less than a month after its nationwide theatrical debut. As a consequence, the closest public showings of The Irishman for the first few weeks of November were in Madison, Wisconsin. It’ll finally play in Edina and Mounds View starting Friday, November 22.

It’s apropos that The Irishman is temporarily at the center of this conflict. The film itself is a sprawling examination of the underworld’s effect on American history from the post-WWII era to the dawn of the new millennium. It’s a portrait of a fundamentally corrupt, co-opted system that operates by a secret set of rules that utterly contradict the Horatio Algerian patriot-Pangloss fever dreams of American self-mythologizing.

The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s debatably accurate biography of real-life gangster and union man Frank Sheeran. Here Sheeran is played by Robert DeNiro, a three out of 10 on the Plausibly Irish Scale; he’s about as Irish as a pizza topped with olives and photos of Mussolini.

The film traces nearly the entire sweep of Sheeran’s adult life, from his WWII soldiering days to the infirmity of his final years spent in assisted living. During that time he rose from petty-thief truck driver to hitman to union boss and right-hand man of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

Sheeran lived in the shadowy parallel world where profits and presidents are made in secret by the quiet men pulling the strings. It’s the fundamental theme of Coppolla’s Godfather movies explicated in grittier, more historically specific detail. One of the most dangerous of those quiet men was Sheeran’s well-connected benefactor, Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci).

Scorsese frames the story as a series of interwoven digressions, starting with the elderly Sheeran recounting a long, fateful car trip to Detroit with Bufalino and their respective wives, and internally zig-zagging back and forth in a stutter-step chronology. To achieve this effect with his trio of septuagenarian stars, Scorsese employs a digital de-aging technique that renders astonishingly convincing iterations of DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci throughout various decades of their lives. The eerily successful digital trickery isn’t quite perfect, but it’s so close that even those deeply familiar with the actors’ earlier work will forget about the gimmick within a scene or two. This new technology may have dire consequences for cinema down the road—to say nothing of politics and propaganda—but here it’s essential to allow Scorsese to tell this story with these actors along his expansive timeline.

At nearly three and a half hours long, The Irishman is epic, occasionally a bit shapeless, and perhaps a tiny bit indulgent. It’s also fantastic, and if anyone has earned a bit of indulgence, it’s Scorsese.

Forget about The Departed: This is the final link in Scorsese’s trilogy about gangsters and the secret reality of American life, following Goodfellas and Casino. Pacino gets to unleash his full hot-headedness in tremendous scenes with the simmering DeNiro, both of whom are subtly subjugated to the uncharacteristically quiet power of Pesci. The triumvirate is supported by a cast so stacked it would take half the length of this review to name them all.

See it in a theater if you can. See it on Netflix if you must. The elegiac Irishman is a swan song not just for a period of history, or a director, but for a kind of richly textured, large-scale, big screen cinema that may also be breathing its last.

The Irishman
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Anna Paquin
Rated: R
Theater: Limited release on Nov. 22; in theaters and streaming on Netflix on Nov. 27