The Irishman: Scorsese's Grand Reflection on Life
In my last review for Ford v. Ferrari I said this has been a good year for male friendships on the silver screen. One could still ring that bell for The Irishman, but knowing Martin Scorsese, only he could ring that bell and then make it collapse, putting a dark, mafioso spin on the idea of friendship. He’s done it before, of course, with the youthful optimism of Mean Streets (1973) and the alluring pull of mob life in Goodfellas (1990) to the lesser Casino (1995) that is just as exuberant in its study of the impending tragedy that comes from working for the Mafia. He’s never done it like this though, dialed down and reflective with a nod to old age and the passing of time.
The Irishman, or I Heard You Paint Houses (Scorsese’s preferred title from the book it’s based on I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa) is Scorcese’s profoundly sad but glorious gangster swan song. One of America’s greatest auteurs and cinema’s greatest ally gives us one more mob drama that is more restrained, bold and a contemplative elegy on a “life well-lived,” the repentant old age after that life and the eventual death by decay and loneliness. Though Netflix could only get a short theatrical window for Scorsese, we can always be grateful they let him make such a wonderful and tremendous film. This may be Scorsese’s last foray into the world of gangsters and he knows it. This also may be the last time Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino are in the same movie together and they know it too. Al Pacino only got this one shot with Scorsese and it worked out beautifully that it was The Irishman.
“What kind of a human being makes a phone call like that?” Frank Sheeran asks the priest he’s been confiding in and semi-confessing to. The phone call he’s referring to is just a few scenes earlier, when Frank calls Jimmy Hoffa’s (Pacino) wife Jo about Hoffa’s death; a death Frank was reluctantly responsible for. It’s the most poignant scene in the movie, sold by De Niro’s masterful acting that adds to a career full of highlights. Scorsese’s tracking shots are still here, gliding through the retirement home to spot Sheeran right before he speaks his legend and in one telling scene that leads us to a violent crime right before pulling off to the side and lingering on a bouquet of flowers. We grow and bloom and live, then we decay and wither and die, whether other people's blood was painted on our petals or not.
Whether Frank Sheeran was actually responsible for Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975 doesn’t matter (no one still knows and in fact many have debunked Sheeran’s account), Scorsese had other ideas with this story. He just did what he does best: make an entertaining and engaging story about pretty awful people that we still sympathize with. In the case of The Irishman, he almost makes them just plain adorable. The details in this movie are incredible; not just the story details, which the story calls for in accruing every bit in order to get where we and these characters are going, but in humanizing these crazy, egotistical maniacs. Hoffa loves ice cream and his poor son, he also doesn’t drink nor like the door closed all the way while he sleeps. Sheeran wants to make things right for his daughters and genuinely cherishes his friendships with both Hoffa and Russ Bufalino (Pesci). Russ still manages his business thoroughly and roughly, but there’s a quiet sensitivity underneath, especially for his friend Frank Sheeran. All of these actors are unbelievable, Pesci is the most subdued he’s ever been, De Niro is remarkable especially in the last half, and Pacino dispels any doubts about his skills (I certainly never had any). Even Ray Romano as the sly Teamster attorney, Bill Bufalino, is a marvel. Then there’s Anna Paquin playing Frank’s daughter Peggy; she doesn’t have to say much, all the horror and fear she feels from her father is right there in the looks.
The movie is long but not a second is wasted. My parents and I made a night of it on Thanksgiving and we took one five minute break. Scorsese manages to hook the viewers no matter who they are and no matter how long the movie. It’s truly a gift and he is truly a master of the medium. Is it his signature voiceover asking us to sit down awhile because there’s a hell of a story to be told? Is it the genius music choices, always fitting the period of the story (Robbie Robertson’s composed bass/drum/harmonica/cello theme that plays sparingly throughout the film is great as well, sounding like something that would come from one of the many westerns Scorsese loves and seems to come on every time these guys are especially up to no good, like a gang of outlaws planning a bank robbery). Is it the swift and sanguine montages Scorsese’s go-to editor Thelma Schoonmaker is so good at? These are all factors, but it’s also Scorsese’s faith. His faith in cinema as the greatest art form in the world and his faith in us, the audience. Martin Scorsese knows what he’s doing in every regard to the moving picture. He understands that a well-made film can keep us sat in our seats no matter how long. Many of us are still hungry for good movies with emotional impact and heavy themes. We still want to watch the complexities and contradictions of a messy human life on screen untainted by the effects of CGI (yes there’s the de-aging VFX in this film but it serves a very useful purpose) and masks and costumes. He knows how to draw a thoughtful human portrait on a massive canvas permeating with ardor and sentiment where most big-budget movies these days just splash some colors all over it without any challenge or feeling.
I’d rather be heartbroken by Russ Bufalino’s unspoken order to Frank to kill Jimmy, be taken aback like Hoffa when Frank relays to him this brilliant aphorism: “It’s what it is.” I would rather feel Frank’s hesitation and silent incredulity after being ordered to do something he really doesn’t want to do and I would rather be absolutely devastated by that reassuring nod from Frank to Jimmy that it’s alright to get in the car and then that heart-shattering hug and a gentle father to son lecture about storing fish in your car right before the final blow where Frank barely gets himself to pull the trigger. I mean, goodness. I’d take that sequence over “Avengers Assemble” any day. Scorsese’s filmmaking isn’t safe and that’s the brilliance of it. If only Hollywood could learn to have more bold faith in audiences like Scorsese. It’s probably better off Netflix could only get a short theatrical run, The Irishman probably would’ve been relegated to three screens with four showtimes max, inundated by all the showings of Disney’s Frozen 2. Not hating on Frozen 2, just have to point out how Hollywood’s sure, safe bets always have dominion over the bold, more artistic choices in theaters these days. At least those hungry audiences Scorsese venerates were able to watch his movie on a big screen at home (or a phone, but come on).
The Irishman, among many other things, is a film about remembering. Remembering our lives and the people in it. Those who had lasting effects on our lives and those who had a more ephemeral touch. It’s always the people. We can be proud or not proud of what we accomplished (in Frank’s case I don’t think he’s very proud), but it’s the relationships we had, ruined, or lost that we reflect on. At some point one of us is the unlucky bastard still left standing (or sitting in a wheelchair) telling our story, maybe embellishing and mythologizing it a little, and still protecting those that aren’t around anymore, the ones we loved.
“You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there,” Frank says. We’re all going to get there some day and say the same thing; we’ll leave the door cracked or do some other fitting tribute out of remembrance of someone, and we’ll be more proud of having known and cared about someone, rather than for what we did. Especially if you’re Frank Sheeran.