When white titles roll at the commencement of this towering Martin Scorsese gangster epic, they read “The Irishman” followed by “I Heard You Paint Houses” (the title of the Charles Brandt novel upon which Steve Zallian penned the script). There’s a slow track into the altogether bland and depressing innards of an old folks home and into the matter of fact narration from Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheerin. This is Scorsese’s direct contrast to the descent into the overflowing abundance of the Copacabana in “Goodfellas.” Beginnings are full of hope and boundless possibility. Ends are candid. Frank begins with a recollection, that recollection triggers another layer of tertiary memories.
Frank Sheerin (Robert De Niro) under the wing of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) becomes a Union powerbroker by day and underworld hitman by night. At Russell’s request, he’s assigned to guard Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), which begins an enduring relationship from the peak of Hoffa’s political influence, until his mysterious disappearance (read demise).
Let’s get the gimmick out of the way. Watching de-ageing technology is kind of like jumping into an icy cold immersion pool. In those first few moments you’re clutching and clawing for the breath, it’s impossible. As your body adjusts and acclimatises, it starts to wash over you, and you’re able to accept it.
The de-ageing technology, stretched to the very limits of the age gaps between the performers and their younger selves, is grating. The more I’ve talked about it with fellow folk lucky enough to have seen it, the more I can’t decide where the problem lies. It could be the weight of the older actors, the movement of their bodies or that the leading actors themselves are so damned iconic that it’s impossible for the hardwiring of my synapses not immediately to spot the flaws. These actors have been “Boyhood-ed” by their body of work in my mind. Particularly their peak handsome of 1995 in their last direct collaboration with Michael Mann’s “Heat” (I ignore that “Righteous Kill” exists).
Scorsese uses “The Irishman” to interrogate and implicate the mythical figures entangled in the enduring ‘Camelot’ view of America. Bostonian film critic Sean Burns is the first I’ve seen that compared “The Irishman” to “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” in his review that espoused that Scorsese’s “The Irishman is the movie to end all gangster movies.” The inference is that it doesn’t merely “print the legend.” While I agree, I don’t think that Burns went far enough. With ‘Valance,’ John Ford is standing in the allegorical, inferring that American history is bloodier and murkier than the legends would have us believe.
In “The Irishman, the entire mythos of American ideals and the moral exemplars of democracy is tainted as players are implicated by wheeling and dealing with unsavoury characters to secure or maintain power. It also doesn’t stop there – the breadth of this 209-minute behemoth (which absolutely flies by) takes a moment to contextualise the messy activities and entanglement in U.S and Cuba. The push back against U.S imperialism isn’t merely ideological, but financial.
Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto contrast the monochromatic certainty of the death of JFK on a TV set with the palette of plaque stained teeth and rotting hearts. While crowds stand in shock in awe, other characters sample sweets. Prieto and Scorsese make you feel the unforgiving rigidity of concrete. The peak of post-war brownstone and cold tarmac are tainted with blood. The warmth of restaurants creates a cone of silence because every table is filled with some unsavoury “somebody.”
For many years, the critical discourse has been steadily writing off one Robert De Niro (myself included) for the choices of projects that he lends his immense talent to, and time after time goes under-utilised. That is not the case in “The Irishman”. Frank’s the compliant soldier whose honesty and service is what serves his allegiance and simultaneous isolation. The tension between those instincts, with increased stakes and increased comforts, begin to register. He’d like the disquiet in his mind to never trigger uncertainty about his loyalty. When he’s at his most dutiful and busy, you watch the montage of discarded guns from ‘hits’ arc from bridges into bodies of water. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker construct the repetitious metal plunge like an Olympic diving highlight reel. You’ll find yourself trying to join the dots with figures you’ve seen with choice fatalistic title cards spell out prison and death sentences for the tapestry of underworld figures.
We’re introduced to the effortless power of Pesci’s Russell Bufalino in a beautiful moment breaking bread over ready wine. Frank speaks Italian to Russell – which he learnt during the war – and he captures his curiosity. Pesci is like a terminator like his very bones are made of some apathetic skeletal, humanoid appropriation. Russell makes no bones about what the world is and how he navigates it.
Pacino as Hoffa as Pacino is gleefully large. Pacino swells into Hoffa’s sense of importance and power, early on being the master of whipping his teamsters into a frenzy with their necessity in the fabric of American life. At the peak of his powers, he’s reverent for the benefits associated with his murky connections, in his desperation he’s a ball of stubborn aggression.
Scorsese and Schoonmaker crunch the gears on the high paced repercussions of Hoffa’s non-compliance to elevate the heartbeat of the audience. There’s a moment where Jimmy Hoffa’s wife is marched from her cushy union job by the new completing regime. A final barb to infer that his campaigning and threats were all for nought. She throws a box in the back of her car and pauses suddenly before turning the ignition. Her hastily entered keys jangle, rattling in the car moving along with the beats of her anxiety. We the audience know and know that she knows what these men, her husband’s enduring associates and beneficiaries, are capable of.
The inner circle of men in “The Irishman” is apt. However, we may feel the reflex to revise. Women here are just wives and daughters – homemakers, secretaries, confidants, lovers and innocents. Frank’s relationship with his daughter Peggy is a unique one. The young Peggy gets to see the consequences of crossing Frank first hand at a formidable age, which makes her tread like a ghost through much of her relationship with her father. At the same time, she reels away from Russell (Pesci) and rushes towards Jimmy (Pacino).
As an adult, she’s played by Anna Paquin and gets an incredible scene spinning and twirling on the dance floor with Jimmy. Something stills her joyous moment. Kissed gently with red light, she focuses in on her father and Russell. They’ve retreated to a separate balcony to discuss the problem of Jimmy and his lack of negotiation. Scorsese is the master here, reflecting Jimmy’s fate in her realisation of their body language alone.
The concluding phase of the film vibrates at such a profound frequency. There’s an exchange where Frank must relay a definitive “it’s what it is” from Russel/the underworld to Hoffa. Pacino’s eyes are a sandstorm, swirling rippling unpredictability. Frank, blunt and hierarchical. The electricity in the reactions is such a splendid rare thing. In both conversations and car rides, there are many inferences of complicit peoples.
Scorsese examines men – flawed, compelling, uncompromising everyman. Everyone can have their brain splatter adorned like a fresco painting on the sidewalk, their foyer or outside of their favourite restaurant. Another John Ford film echoed in my mind for much of “The Irishman”, and that’s “The Searchers.” Ford and star John Wayne, revisited the Western after the glut, on the cusp many films considered genre-defining. “The Searchers” exits in silhouette, casting a shadow over the genre. The devastating (for this critic) certainty that after decades of trying to get this film made, and the ages of not only this cinema altering duo and their incredible collaborators that this is the end. The strange calm, the joy, the vision, the film has the quality of attending a wake.
I feel like Scorsese’s saying, “I am never going back.” There’s one appropriate response, a devastating, absolute, “yeah”.