Irishman, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/03/19 21:52:51
When Martin Scorsese first arrived on the filmmaking scene in the late Sixties, it was during a time of tumultuous change in the industry with the final collapse of the long-held studio system and the arrival of new freedoms, talents and technologies that would forever change what could be said and done within the context of a Hollywood film. He would take advantage of all of those element and while his films would rarely hit the box-office peaks of contemporaries like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, his body of work would soon earn him the title of America’s Greatest Filmmaker, which he has worn with pride for decades, even as audiences and critics have sometimes and inexplicably overlooked a number of films (including “Casino,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Shutter Island,” “Hugo” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”) that would be regarded as peak moments in the careers of most filmmakers. Now, at a point in time when the film industry is in a period of flux as great as when he entered it, Scorsese has clearly elected to respond to those seismic shifts in the same way that he did a half-century ago—by creating brave, bold and original films that are so ambitiously conceived and brilliantly executed that it would be impossible to ignore or overlook them.Earlier this year saw the release of “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story By Martin Scorsese,” a sprawling and playful recounting of Dylan’s legendary 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue that combined fact, fiction and goofiness to both elevate and prick holes in a period of Dylan’s career that became enshrined as a legend from the moment it occurred. That film was undeniably brilliant but even it comes across as mere prelude to his latest effort, the long-gestating crime drama “The Irishman.” Those thinking that the film is little more than Scorsese returning to a genre that has served him well in the past as a way of reestablishing his commercial footing in the wake of the disappointing reaction to his somber religious exploration “Silence” are going to be shocked and stunned to discover that this is not a case of a filmmaker on the ropes looking for cover. Epic in scope and intimate in scale, this is a crime drama, a detailed examination of a nearly forgotten but undeniably important aspect of American history in the latter half of the 20th century and a somber recollection of a man looking over his life and ruing much of his accomplishments because of what they ultimately cost him in the end. This is also not just one of the very best movies of 2019 but a film that is destined to go down as one of the major works in the entire Scorsese canon.
The film is based on “I Heard You Paint Houses,” a 2004 book by Charles Brandt in which he recounted the life story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a onetime labour union official and mobster who claimed to have been the triggerman for such infamous hits as the killing of Joey Gallo and the still-unsolved murder of labor union leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. (Needless to say, the title does not have anything to do with his home rehabbing abilities—it references the blood that would splatter on the walls after a killing.) It opens with two different framing device. In the first, set roughly at the end of the 20th century, a now-elderly and wheelchair-bound Sheeran (Robert De Niro) begins to narrate the story of a life that saw him go from being a soldier fighting at Anzio in WW II and an ordinary truck driver back home to a mob killer and right-hand man to Hoffa (Al Pacino) himself. In the second, set in 1975, Sheeran is setting off on a long and insanely complicated road trip with his other boss and mentor, mob higher-up Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives to Detroit for a wedding. As the trip, which serves as the spine of the film, evolves, there are numerous stops made in order to collect money and do business but as the story unfolds, it soon becomes clear that there is another and more sinister reason for this particular journey that even Sheeran himself is not fully aware of until late in the game.
As the car progresses towards its final destination, we flash back over the previous thirty years to tell the story of how Frank landed in that car in the first place. After returning home from the war, he began working as a meat truck driver when he happened to make the chance acquaintance of Russell over a balky truck engine. Before long, he is dropping off sides of beef with an associate of Russell’s, Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), and when he gets busted at work, Russell’s brother, union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), gets him off despite his obvious guilt. From there, Frank begins doing little jobs for Russell, who has taken to him like another brother, and all seems well until the time that a fellow mobster by the name of Whispers (“The other Whispers”) asks him to blow up a laundromat that is cutting into the business of one he owns. It turns out that Russell and the Italians own a piece of the threatened laundromat and while it is quickly understood that Frank had no knowledge of this, it is made clear to him by mob kingpin Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) that the only way for him to truly make things right is to take out Whispers himself. Having killed a number of people during the war, this is not necessarily a problem for Frank and in fact, he demonstrates a certain gift for it that ends up serving him well.
Because of his friendship with Russell and his ability to execute orders (no pun intended), Frank begins to rise in importance in the world of organized crime. To his wife and daughters and most everyone else, he appears to be a decent family man and successful union official. In reality, he finds himself being entrusted with a wide number of job for his real bosses, ranging from contract killings to helping to arrange a weapons shipment to a group that will utilize them for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Things really change for him when he meets Hoffa, then at the height of his considerable powers, and ends up working alongside him as a sort of conduit between the forces of organized crime and organized labor. Hoffa genuinely wants to help his fellow Teamsters but the allure of power and money—specifically the Teamsters pension fund—proves to be too much and he is eventually sent to prison, a stretch that only serves to further enhance the mutual hatred between him and fellow inmate/New Jersey crime boss Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham). When Hoffa is released from jail, he attempts to regain control of the union from his former number two, Frank “Fitz” Fitszimmons (Gary Basaraba), who is even more indebted to the mob than Hoffa ever was. To practically anyone observing, Hoffa’s quixotic attempts to regain his power and stature are doomed from the start and seem likely to cause the end of his life if he continues to pursue them and ruffle everyone’s feathers in the bargain. Needless to say, he persists and this is where Frank realizes what the ultimate purpose of the long and winding road trip actually is—he has been given the order to take out his friend and mentor, a job that will go on to pierce Frank’s wall of driven precision and affect him in unexpected and lasting ways.
Ever since word of “The Irishman” first came out, it has been the center of controversy for a couple of reasons and so it is probably a good idea to get them out of the way. The first is how Scorsese has utilized the latest in CGI technology to “de-age” his leading actors so that they can play both the younger and older iterations of their characters without having to resort to the usual solutions like additional actors or tons of makeup. When the first trailer arrived, it contained a shot of Frank at his youngest—during World War II—and the de-aging effect looked dodgy enough in those few seconds to suggest that the process, which evidently ate up a good chunk of a budget rumored to be at least $160 million, did not work and that it would doom the entire film. Having seen the finished film, I can attest that while the process is not entirely perfect—the younger the iteration, the less convincing the result—it has been handled with enough care so that it doesn’t distract too much from the proceedings.
However, what really keeps people from being pulled out of the story by the CGI tweaks is the power of the performances behind the trickery. It is no secret that De Niro and Pacino, for example, have done some damage to their professional reputations with any number of hacky, one-note performances in projects far beneath their skill sets but their work here stands alongside the best things that they have ever done. De Niro gives a wonderfully quiet and understated performance as a man whose great tragedy is not so much the things that he has done throughout his life as it is his inability to be honest with himself about those acts in a way that might offer him some kind of closure and redemption instead of the hell of isolation that makes up his final days. Pacino has the flashier role—the notion of an understated portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa is too bewildering to even contemplate—and has a lot of fun chewing the scenery in his broader moments but he is just as effective in the quieter and more reflective moments he has from time to time. And yet, as great as the two of them are, both separately and together, the most truly memorable performance in the film comes from Joe Pesci in his first major performance in nearly a decade. Pesci, of course, won an Oscar working with Scorsese and De Niro as live wire gangster Tommy DeVito in “Goodfellas” but anyone expecting more of his hotheaded antics will be shocked here with his polar opposite turn here as Bufalino. This is a character who never raises his voice or gets overtly angry or violent at anyone, so when the time comes when he matter-of-factly informs Frank of what is to be done with Hoffa, it has a brutal finality to it that is absolutely chilling to behold.
Another much talked-about aspect of the film has been its 209 minute running time, a notion that has sent some Internet commentators into a tizzy about Scorsese needing a better editor (because Thelma Schoonmaker is just such a hack, evidently) and worries about not being able to go 3 1/2 hours without needing to go to the bathroom. On the surface, this argument is patently idiotic—the last Avengers movie (which was only the second half of its story, mind you) clocked in at just over 3 hours but I don’t seem to recall any toilet-related distress or drives to bring in new editors to curb the artistic indulgences of the freaking Russo brothers. More importantly, the time issue proves to be a non-starter because from the very first frames, Scorsese captures the attention of the audience with his consummate filmmaking skill and holds it until the very end without ever losing it for an instance. Although the filmmaking is more stately and less overtly flashy than something like “Goodfellas,” it is never less compelling for it. Blending together dark humor, brutal violence, documentary-like realism, a dazzling formal approach and a keen ear for the music of both the dialogue and the soundtrack put together by Robbie Robertson, this is Scorsese firing on all cylinders with the skills of a veteran at the top of his game with the energy and enthusiasm of someone just starting out and eager to prove what they can do. The results are never less than compelling throughout and quite often better than that, with the last hour or so revealing itself to be one of the greatest extended stretches of virtuoso filmmaking in the entire Scorsese canon.
Although the notion of a massive crime epic combing the talents of the likes of Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and screenwriter Steve Zaillian (whose contributions are as strong and sound as everyone else) would seem to sound like cinematic nirvana to most right-thinking film buffs, some may find themselves wondering what Scorsese could possibly say or do with a genre that he has already explored at length in such true-life crime films as “Goodfellas” and “Casino.” In those films, “Goodfellas” especially, Scorsese drew viewers immediately into the criminal lives of his protagonists and made sure to luxuriate in all the great things that could be achieved by their chosen career path—sex, drugs, money, killer seats for Henny Youngman at the Copa—before showing the ultimate price that those characters ultimately pay in the end, be it a violent death or, even worse, exile to the suburbs. Here, by starting things off at the very end of the story and then going back, Scorsese keeps us at a bit of a distance from the characters and instead of embracing their lifestyle from a distance, we instead bear witness to a group of people who kill and steal for a living but who do not seem to derive any real pleasure from anything that they do or from the ill-gotten gains that they receive as a result. Frank may kill people with ruthless efficiency but almost from the start, he is all but dead to us and that steely-eyed determination proves to be as disastrous for his personal life as it is a plus for his profession. While he professes to be a family man at heart, Frank’s wife and daughters only rarely rate any consideration from him and vice versa—either they have somehow managed to ignore the facts of what he really does for a living or they are fully aware of it and have somehow made peace with it. The one exception is daughter Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina and as an adult by Anna Paquin), who is shy and keeps to herself for the most part (she barely speaks throughout the film) but who recognizes exactly the kind of man that her father really is (though she absolutely adores Hoffa) and whose unwillingness to forgive him for his trespasses gives the latter half of the film an unusual and unexpected poignancy that is ultimately more brutal to experience than most of the bloodshed on display.Whether one takes it as a crackerjack crime drama, a grand summation of a classic cinematic genre by one of its most legendary practitioners or as an elegy for a style of adult-oriented filmmaking that seems doomed to end in the face of endless sequels, retreads and superhero jams, “The Irishman” is a grand cinematic epic that is not to be missed. Therefore, it is doubly tragic that most filmmakers will not be able to experience this most cinematic of events in the kind of theatrical setting where it can be best appreciated—as Netflix, who produced the film, plans on releasing it on their system at the end of the month instead of observing the 90-day window from theatrical to video employed by the major studios, the big theater chains are refusing to screening it and it will only be appearing on a fraction of the screens that such a film might have ordinarily been released on. On the one hand, I can see where Netflix is coming from and it was they who coughed up the large budget when the major studios decided that a Scorsese crime epic was just too risky of a venture for their delicate constitutions. On the other hand, I have seen it on the big screen and having been able to bask in its glory in the way that it was ultimately meant to be seen, I know in my heart that when I do check it out again once it does it Netflix, it is going to come across as somehow reduced by comparison and not just in terms of screen size. Mind you, “The Irishman” is a film that anyone with even the slightest interest in the art of cinema absolutely must see, regardless of the circumstances of how they actually see it. That said, if you have any opportunity at all to see it on the big screen for yourself, do yourself a major favor and take it. You will be eternally glad that you did.
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