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Film Review: The Irishman

The Irishman (2019; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese made some headlines and drew some social media and hot take attention a couple of months ago when he told Empire Magazine out of the UK that the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pop cultural juggernauts that they are, were not “cinema”. Scorsese later expounded on this remark in a New York Times opinion piece that was more thoughtful on the question and expanded his feelings on how Marvel movies and blockbuster franchises like them were soaking up all of the cultural and commercial oxygen, to say nothing of filling precious screen spots, that might have allowed more artistically mature and daring auteur-centric cinematic offerings to find an audience and flourish. Whatever one might think of the point Scorsese was making (and one must take serious pause and consideration before even contemplating arguing about film with a cinephile of his calibre), it isn’t hard to fathom what it is about big-budget superhero movies that he finds distasteful. Martin Scorsese, we might be able to infer, does not much like movies that are indulgent, epically-scoped masculine power fantasies featuring emotionally-blocked male protagonists and marginalized women whose storytelling relies heavily on digital effects. Presumably this is why he decided to make one.

The Irishman might not be a superhero movie, but it’s a story as aggrandizing and likely disconnected from reality as Avengers: Endgame or Thor: Ragnarok. Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman weaves the almost certainly tall tales of union leader and Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) about his decades ensconced among the shady secret power-brokers of fading old-guard America. A Teamster truck driver from Philadelphia, Sheeran begins skimming off sides of beef for smaller-time crime bosses like Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), before coming to the attention of more prominent city mob bosses like Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and especially Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), with whom he becomes close. A WWII vet hardened to killing and other forms of coercive violence, Sheeran becomes an ideal assassin for the Philly mob, and his union ties bring him into the orbit of Teamster union head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the most important and well-known labour leader in the country through the 1950s and 1960s before becoming the most notorious disappeared person in the world in 1975. Sheeran claimed to have been the man who pulled the trigger on his close friend Hoffa, a claim that could neither be confirmed nor disproven. The Irishman gives his account of how it got to that point, and how it all went down.

Directed by a septeganarian and starring three more of them, The Irishman is perhaps unsurprisingly a legacy-minded film of aging, patience, and contemplation (a colleague on Twitter aptly dubbed it No Country for Old Gangsters). This is a narrative framed as the lonely, perhaps half-delusional reminiscences of the aged Sheeran from a wheelchair in a retirement home common room, a location approached through the facility’s corridors via a oner tracking shot probably meant by Scorsese as a wry ironic inversion of his famous long take through the Copacabana in Goodfellas; it isn’t clear who he’s telling his story to, so it’s fair to assume that he’s telling it to us in the audience, confidantes to his epic of probable bullshit. It’s a story that can be read as the outpouring of an unreliable narrator with ample incentive to exaggerate and fabricate a position of importance and vitality for himself. Sheeran’s relationship with his family is detached, distant; he leaves his first wife (Aleksa Palladino) for a second (Stephanie Kurtzaba), and his eldest daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a child, Anna Paquin as an adult) keeps her distance, silently rebuffing his attempts at fathering as well as the beloved-uncle ambitions of the quiet, menacing Bufalino. She does adore the gregarious, talkative Hoffa, with his childlike love for ice cream, as a fond alternative to the silent, dangerous men who try to buy her respect and love (and bully those who don’t show it to her, thus unwittingly alienating her further). Her well-founded suspicions of her father’s involvement in Hoffa’s vanishing precipitate the final break in their already strained relationship. Peggy’s pointed questions to Sheeran in the wake of the news of Hoffa’s disappearance are the only lines Paquin speaks in the film (and Scorsese has come in for some criticism for this and other choices that sideline women in this narrative), but Peggy’s doubtful-then-disapproving gaze represents the silent judgement of a more moral segment of the world on Sheeran’s way of life.

The mob way of life has, of course, occupied Scorsese’s creative energies many times before, most directly and successfully in GoodfellasMean Streets, and Casino, but also in Gangs of New York, The Departed, and the Prohibition-era HBO series he exec-produced, Boardwalk Empire (numerous cast members from that show fill in the supporting roles here, from Cannavale and Palladino to Stephen Graham, Domenick Lombardozzi, Kevin O’Rourke, and Jack Huston). It would be tempting to call the director out for the irony – if not the outright hypocrisy – of publically criticizing Marvel movies for their aversion to risk as he put the finishing touches on yet another film about mobsters mostly starring actors that he has worked with numerous times before. But if The Irishman does not exactly tread brave new ground in Scorsese’s oeuvre, then it gazes wistfully but harshly back on that oeuvre, as on an era of the American underworld’s ascendance that defined the country that lives in its long shadow.

Scorsese has been credibly accused in the past of allowing himself to get swept up in the sensuous aesthetics of the realm of criminal immorality that he is able to summon with his mastery of filmcraft wizardry, and thus to romanticize and even to render mythic the antisocial destructive nature of his antiheroes and their reprehensible deeds. If that was ever the case, then The Irishman sees the scales fall from his eyes. Its 209 minutes manifest as a penance for any hint of past sin in this direction, a form of guilty devotion that the lapsed Catholic Scorsese would understand well. There is nothing romantic about what Frank Sheeran does, and the way this film follows him as he ages (we see him as a youngish man during the war in the 1940s up until his retirement-home dotage in the 1990s) emphasizes the elegiac disappointment that colours his life as it draws on. Scorsese employs ILM’s digital de-aging technology (pioneered, in another irony, in the MCU movies) in order to preserve DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino in their roles across decades without recasting or relying on only half-convincing makeup work, and it’s not only an artistically valid use of the effect but sometimes a revelatory one, seemless and quietly, forcefully effective.

The effect stays out of the way of the performances, which is remarkable and allows them to remain remarkable. DeNiro has often phoned it in throughout the latter stages of his august career, but he is focused and blunt here, crafting Frank Sheeran as a hard man who is disastrously incapable of evolution or change, a man defined by loyalties to men of a similar profile like Bufalino or Hoffa but not far-sighted or keen enough to anticipate or adequately prepare for how they might come into conflict with each other. He is reactive always, never proactive. Pacino is often loud and hammy, which fits for Hoffa, who was likewise in real life; he’s often fallen into this scenery-chewing mode in the latter part of his also august career, rarely venturing close to the calculating internalized viciousness of Michael Corleone in The Godfather films of Scorsese’s contemporary Francis Ford Coppola (you’d never have guessed it considering both men’s long history in the Mafia genre, but Scorsese and Pacino have never worked together before). Pacino’s Hoffa has subtler moments of simmering suspicion and anger, but they’re drowned out by his portrayal of Hoffa’s (probably fatal) megawatt hubris. It’s Pesci, however, who gives the finest turn in The Irishman. Another actor known for blabbermouth characters and showy big-personality gestures, Pesci has been essentially retired for years and had to be coaxed back to the set by Scorsese to play a soft-spoken, composed, terrifying man who can shift the axis of a scene (or a life, or a country, or the world) with a look, an inclination of his head, and a quiet, devastating word. DeNiro and Pacino add to their legacies with these characters, but Pesci’s Russell Bufalino constitutes a radical, fascinating realignment of his own. If there’s award season gold to be had in any of The Irishman‘s performances, it would be a safe bet to say it will belong to Joe Pesci.

The Irishman is not only about these men and the ways they fail themselves, but also the way that their underworld ways fail America. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian mostly credulously follows Sheeran’s dubious but tantalizing claims about his central involvement in labour union corruption, notorious mob murders, the Bay of Pigs raid, and even the Kennedy assassinations (Sheeran strongly implies that the virulently anti-Kennedy Hoffa and mob allies spooked by Robert F. Kennedy’s Department of Justice prosecutions of organized crimes offed JFK). What The Irishman finds in these mob myths is the weathered roadmap of a nation losing its way. The film touches on the degradation of labour in America via the corrupt graft of its leadership, with Hoffa predicting corporate bosses’ domination of working people even as he skims from those working people’s pensions to enrich himself and others. And the tentacular influence and grandiose high life of top Mafia figures is also consistently, witheringly proven to be tragicomically vainglorious: Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker (his collaborator for over a half century) freeze-frame various real-life mob characters as they appear and give their names along with their dates and (often violent) modes of death, a sharp ironic undercutting of their projected confidence and vitality (the funniest such onscreen title notes one mobster who was beloved by all and died peacefully in bed, as if an indictment of his worth).

In the end, however, Frank Sheeran carries no regrets about his long life of power, violence, and loyalty, or at least that’s what he says to spiritual and law enforcement confessors in the film’s closing scenes. DeNiro’s wrinkled face and weary eyes tell a different and sadder story. For as old-fashioned as The Irishman is in its casting, themes and ideas, setting and genre and subject matter, it’s also about something very contemporary: toxic masculinity and its costs, for the men who perpetuate it, the women subject to it, and for its many victims across society. Martin Scorsese’s first film made in the Trump Era unflinchingly examines the careworn visages of men shaped by an old order of ruthless power and deadly loyalty and finds in them the darkly settling ravens of a corrupt, lawless, and fraught future which is our present world. My wry introduction likened these men to superheroes, and Scorsese’s films have made that comparison in tonal, aesthetic, and thematic terms before. But The Irishman sees them as terrible but human, with flaws greater than their dark powers and darker deeds. Cinema is about forward motion, and The Irishman ultimately finds Martin Scorsese moving encouragingly forward, embracing his legacy while interrogating, complicated, and even deconstructing it.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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