New York Film Fest: Opener 'The Irishman' Rockets Into Top Tier of Awards Contenders

World Premiere of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman - Still 1 - Publicity-H 2019

One of the mysteries of this awards season is unsolved no more: The Irishman, Martin Scorsese's reunion with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and first collaboration with Al Pacino, is the real deal. The world premiere of the epic crime drama opened the 57th New York Film Festival on Friday night at Alice Tully Hall, several hours after screening for journalists on both coasts, and was greeted with raves across the board. Indeed, it currently stands at a 100 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Furthermore, the film seems a strong bet to resonate with members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, many of whom were in attendance at its unveiling, from boldfaced names like Spike Lee, David O. Russell and John Turturro to plenty of lesser-knowns. Sentiment expressed to me at the Tavern on the Green afterparty was uniform: The pic, while perhaps a little too long at three-and-a-half hours, is a masterpiece.

My colleague Rebecca Keegan nailed it when she tweeted that The Irishman is 76-year-old Scorsese's version of Clint Eastwood's 1992 classic Unforgiven: essentially, an aging filmmaker long associated with a genre — in this case, crime — using that genre to show how a person — both the filmmaker and his principal character — can come to see things differently as he ages and looks back at his life with perspective, and maybe a little regret. In the case of The Irishman, this is reinforced by everything from the tone of the narration to subtitles that reveal the ultimate fate of even minor characters. (Unforgiven was awarded the best picture, director, supporting actor and film editing Oscars.)

Adapted from Charles Brandt's book by Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), the movie has been a passion project for Scorsese and De Niro — who first worked together 46 years ago on Mean Streets, which also played at the New York Film Fest, and last worked together 24 years ago on Casino, which also starred Pesci — since 2007. It's a time-hopping examination of more than a half-century in the life of Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a crime-world figure who was closely associated with Russell Bufalino (Pesci), "The Quiet Don" on Pennsylvania, and with the mob-entangled Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). And it was only possible thanks to new reverse-aging technology created by ILM specifically for the film.

Scorsese's entire first-class acting ensemble brought its A-game to The Irishman — and three, in particular, seem likely to garner Oscar nominations. De Niro, the pic's lead and also one of its producers, hasn't been this good in years, avoiding mugging or cliches and digging deep, never more so than in a telephone scene late in the film that reminds me of the one Tom Hanks performed at the end of 2012's Captain Phillips that should have secured him an Oscar nom. Meanwhile, in supporting roles, Pacino, who is always highly enjoyable when he is playing emotional and unpredictable characters, shines as the irrepressible Hoffa; and Pesci, who came out of retirement for this movie, is surprisingly moving by playing against type as a soft-spoken and compassionate mafioso.

As with all Scorsese films, crafts and tech work are also outstanding and likely to receive Academy recognition, from costume designs by Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson to production design by Bob Shaw to cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto to film editing by Thelma Schoonmaker to music by Robbie Robertson.

As the awards season progresses, The Irishman will face a number of challenges. For one thing, its running time could deter some from even checking it out. For another, it was financed (reportedly for $159 million) and will be distributed by Netflix, which remains a divisive company — although the streamer is giving this film a fairly substantial theatrical release (starting Nov. 1) before dropping it on the service in time for Thanksgiving. For yet another, the Academy has never really embraced crime movies — with the notable exception, 13 years ago, of Scorsese's The Departed, which some suspected at the time was his crime-genre swan song. And finally, anti-aging technology frightens many in the industry — especially actors, who comprise the largest branch of the Academy, and many of whom are concerned that they could be put out of work by technological advances.

All that being said, it will be hard for the male-dominated Academy to resist a film that is made this well by so many beloved legends, who, with the exception of Pesci, appear willing to beat the pavement in support of what could be their last rodeo together.