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Review: "The Irishman" is Martin Scorsese's Moral Reckoning

Martin Scorsese, with Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, follows the intertwining of mobsters and Jimmy Hoffa across decades.
Forrest Cardamenis
The Irishman
After the death of Ingmar Bergman, Kent Jones wrote that few directors had their greatness so misunderstood and simplified by supporters and admirers. Although it may be especially true of Bergman, this phenomenon is at least partially true for almost any beloved director. Steven Spielberg’s war films and thrillers have been overshadowed by his fantasies and sci-fi films; Francis Ford Coppola has been unfairly painted as a director with a mere eight years of quality output; and Martin Scorsese’s reputation as a director of mob and crime films belies his Catholic spiritualism (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence), his comedic side (After Hours, The King of Comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street) and his historical interests (The Aviator, Gangs of New York, Hugo).  It’s the spiritualism that is easiest to overlook, however; unlike Abel Ferrara, his fellow New York-based chronicler of the underworld, Scorsese has tended to keep his Catholic guilt and his fascination with man’s proclivity toward violence separate, meaning that critical appreciation of the latter has subjugated the former to a footnote.
That is, he has kept them separate until now. Goodfellas and Casino relate the lives of men eventually done in by their own greed, while with The Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese reconsidered his own crime films by expanding the purview of the amoral, the entitled, and the criminal to reveal those who get off scot-free for their wrongdoing. The Irishman turns the coin around, highlighting the moral consciousness (or lack thereof) of his subjects. It is a film not about what mobsters do, but the relationships they forge and destroy, and it is pervaded by a sense of mortality and questions of legacy. If it falls short of his best work, it nevertheless forces us to reconsider a body of work that is far more expansive than it is often given credit for by changing the template of his previous mob films and foregrounding questions of aging both in its text and its production. 
The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, a biography of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran focusing on his connections to Jimmy Hoffa and the Bufalino crime family. Its accuracy has been disputed, but Scorsese is less interested in Sheeran’s life for its own sake than in his remorselessness for his crimes in the face of death, and he sees Sheeran as a man subject to history rather than a creator of it. What Scorsese’s most acclaimed films tend to share is a plunge into their protagonists’ state of mind, often via voiceover. The Irishman retains the voiceover, but is nevertheless marked by ironic distance. It is told almost entirely through Sheeran’s flashbacks, and characters are introduced with captions informing the audience of the gruesome ways in which they are killed. Political history is never far from the film, but the events (the election and assassination of JFK, as well as the Bay of Pigs) are always known in advance to viewers. We see Sheeran not as he sees himself, but as he is seen by those closest to him. That means not just Hoffa and Bufalino, but also his family. One of the film’s key sequences sees Sheeran take his daughter Peggy with him as he attacks a grocer in retribution for disciplining his girl in his shop. As Sheeran stomps on the hands of the fallen grocer, Scorsese cuts repeatedly to Peggy’s horrified face. It’s the first of many pivotal wordless scenes, each more tense than the one prior, until it culminates at the emotional climax of the film.
There is much to say of Martin Scorsese’s directorial choices. In his first collaboration with Al Pacino—something both marveled at during a post-premiere Q&A, given that they have been friends and admired one another’s work since the early ‘70s—he does not try to recapture the glory of the rich and subtle performances of Pacino’s heyday. Instead, he takes advantage of the particular histrionics that mark the actor’s recent work by casting him as the larger-than-life Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa, as the film notes (with a shocking degree of self-awareness), is now famous mostly for disappearing, but his role as the president of the Teamsters, then America’s largest and most powerful union, made him only marginally less famous than Elvis or The Beatles in his day. Pacino’s performance is great not despite the scenery chewing tendencies he has adopted with age, but because of them; Scorsese channels those theatrics to create an appropriately larger-than-life figure of the charismatic Hoffa and plays many of his scenes for humor.
Humor, as it happens, is present throughout The Irishman, which helps disguise the fact that it consists largely of people sitting in rooms talking. One could never be certain of what might happen to characters in Scorsese’s earlier mob stories—even those based on real people were fictionalized to some extent and populated with so many supporting characters that a few deaths were bound to surprise. This time, we know from the beginning that Hoffa will disappear and Sheeran will wind up in an assisted living home. With so few major characters killed on screen (most are introduced with a caption informing the audience how that person was killed, but it inevitably occurs off-screen and only in the smallest margins of the narrative) and therefore no need to prolong the depiction of hits or ramp up suspense, humor becomes the primary means of keeping the film moving.
And move it does—back and forth, through both time and space. The Irishman begins with a typically impressive tracking shot, this one going down the hall of an assisted living home before finding one particular old man: Frank Sheeran, sitting in a wheelchair and played by Robert De Niro. Throughout the film, Sheeran speaks directly to the camera, recounting his time as a member of the Bufalino crime family and as a union activist and eventual right-hand man of Hoffa. De Niro’s wrinkled face calls forth his fabled career playing precisely these kinds of characters, from the big-timers of Goodfellas and Casino to the small-timers of Mean Streets and the lone psychopaths like Travis Bickle, whose misanthropy is only a small step from a mobster’s entitlement. His narration, meanwhile, gives way to flashbacks to his road-trip with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, out of an unofficial semi-retirement)—which acts as a secondary framing device and whose purpose becomes evident only late in the film—as well as to a chronological tale of Sheeran’s introduction to and rise within the family. Immediately, then, the tug and omnipresence of the past is felt in the present (an idea explored in the lighter but equally profound Hugo).
As the film hops through time, so too do our actors. Much was made in advance of Scorsese’s decision to digitally de-age his stars for numerous scenes in the film, and so necessary did Scorsese consider the effect that he put off the film until it could be performed to his satisfaction. The viewer may be a bit harder to satisfy: we may be convinced by the faces of the De Niros of years and even decades past, but the challenge posed to actors in their mid- and late-70s—to act like a man 10, 20, 30 years younger—is too much. The mannerisms of the older, present-day De Niro look out of place on the younger version, and it isn’t until one forces themselves to start seeing characters rather than actors, or until the characters themselves get at least a bit closer in age to their actors, that this uncanniness vanishes.
Yet despite how severely it can detract from the drama, The Irishman needs this uncanniness. To cast different actors to play characters at different stages in their lives—even if Sheeran were portrayed only by one young actor in flashbacks (made up to look older as the film went along) and by De Niro in his old age—the film would be ruined. The Irishman is about aging and mortality, and the strangeness of watching the body of an old De Niro, complete with young face, stomp on the hands of a common grocer is also an unmistakable reminder that bodies and faces change, but an action, once taken, persists forever. For this reason too, the double-frame is a necessary gambit. It may lack the elegance of Scorsese’s best films (although it is far from clumsy), but it forces us to regularly adjust to and consider De Niro’s new digital face, which itself justifies and alleviates the sudden change of tone in the film’s final, contrite act, consisting entirely of Sheeran in the nursing home.
That final act arrives after around three hours spent jumping through time with De Niro. The Irishman, as almost anyone who has read anything about it knows, is 210 minutes long. It is long for a movie, but could a film so heavily concerned with what it means for time to pass and wrinkles to accrue on a face justify a shorter length? The question of duration and biography is as old as narrative art itself, and a topic of interest for everyone from Homer to Proust to Knausgaard. To watch a biography of such unconventional length on screen is to be forced to ponder the relationship not just between screen time and narrative time but between cinematic time and real time.
Indeed, similar questions about time haunt Sheeran in the nursing home. He realizes what Scorsese has carefully suggested by including historical events throughout the film. History takes place on one timeline, grand and unending; humans live on a more modest one. Consequently, Sheeran’s agency was minimal, and even the bosses he served were often at the mercy of historical forces beyond their control. Our choices are much smaller—to be there or not for those who need us or to follow or not follow orders when they challenge our conscience rather than to alter history—and all any of us are left with are the impressions we leave on others. Perhaps that means, as it does for Sheeran, that you will grow old, wrecked by guilt for betraying friends and never being a good husband or father, grieved by none. Or perhaps it means, as it does for Scorsese and De Niro, that your work will outlive you, and you can be remembered as the mobsters they have so artfully depicted over the decades always dreamt they would be.


Martin ScorseseRobert De NiroNYFFNYFF 2019Festival Coverage

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