At three and a half hours in length (with no intermission), I expected that the sold out cinema audience to be agitated, sitting through Martin Scorsese‘s The Irishman (which curiously is titled I Hear You Paint Houses, the same as the book by Charles Brandt it’s based on, in the actual movie). There were occasional solitary excursions to the bathroom and the usual annoying smattering of lit cellphone screens but by and large, the audience was a captive one and applauded at the end. My friend who went with me to the movie did not feel the same way as the audience, but I did: this was a fitting, though somewhat ‘middle aged’ companion piece to fan favourites Goodfellas and Casino. You could call these films a ‘trilogy’ but only because Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are in all of them.
These Scorsese mob movies truly begin with Mean Streets and continue at least through Raging Bull which also features De Niro/Pesci. Of course, this project was produced for Netflix so its theatrical release is a limited one, but that won’t stop aging cinephiles like me wanting to see the mobbed-up maestro’s offerings on the big screen. At age 76, Scorsese still has the sharp eye and nervy sensibility to serve up scenes that speak to his singular, signature style.
The film takes Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran’s (De Niro) journey from truck driver to mob affiliate to hitman to Teamster as its throughline, but it is ultimately about Jimmy Hoffa’s (Al Pacino) feud with the mob over who controls the Teamsters (and its all-important pension fund) and what ultimately happened to Hoffa. It’s not unlike Bugsy (starring Warren Beatty), but its dramatic beats are more ironic and informed, drawing on Scorsese’s unique senses of humour and drama to set up the plot. It also confounds your expectations by taking Scorsese favorites De Niro and Pesci out of their regular roles. These are older actors and no amount of CGI really ever makes us forget that – De Niro moves much more stiffly here than he ever has and putting him in a short sleeved shirt only draws attention to his muscle tone. He also plays his character as a calm, reasonable, and stand-up guy; often serving as loyal stalwart or unnoticed driver and aide to the higher ups. He earns our trust, though the film occasionally challenges this narrative.
I forget how many times Scorsese had to ask Pesci to come out of retirement to be in this film (I think it was over a hundred?) but the actor’s mob boss character, Russell Buffalino, never raises his voice once during the entire movie. All of the cursing and roaring and fury you’d expect from such a Scorsese venture belongs to Pacino, who naturally chews up the scenery with his gravelly cursing, hilarious insults, outraged expressions, and larger-than-life ego.
My friend felt that the film was like an aging musician pulling the band together so that they could hit the road to perform their best loved hits – the implication being they’re not doing anything new, the artistic equivalent of shooting fish (or I suppose in this case, wiseguys) in a barrel. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that when it’s done this well. It’s what audience members like myself have been hankering for and Scorsese delivers. The film begins with De Niro’s voiceover telling you what it was like as he grew up, the small grifts that he made with an ironic eye towards the storytelling (“When I’m not stealing from them, I work very hard”) but the voiceovers slowly give way to dramatic scenes that build towards the film’s eventual climax. Like From Hell (which picked a convenient Ripper theory as its throughline), I don’t know that Scorsese particularly believes this version of events – it’s more about the flavour and sense of the story, the characters involved, and his particular take on them. I don’t think De Niro’s the concentrated, researched, method actor he used to be but in this film, he’s not bad. He’s still able to evince a fair amount of pathos as a reasonable, sympathetic observer/soldier, even while his family and especially his daughter Peggy (played fleetingly in the latter stages by Anna Paquin) fear him. As an older actor, he seems to have given up the precise focus that made him the best actor of his generation, sort of hamming his way through movies nowadays (Analyze This can never be forgiven for bridging De Niro’s mob and comedy phases), but I feel he actually tried to get into role for his old collaborator Marty – after all, they made their bones together coming up, in the parlance of the mob movie cliche.
Pacino, on the other hand, is working with Scorsese for the first time and there’s always something gleeful about watching actors go through their first collaborations with the venerable iconoclast. There’s something invigorating about their performances. There’s something almost akin to Pacino’s saltiness in The Godfather Part III (which is a great movie, damn your eyes!) and the glee of his irascibility in Scent of a Woman running through this film, all infused with Scorsese’s signature dramatic dialogue and confrontation. Pacino’s Hoffa has some spectacularly cracking confrontations with rising Teamster/mob boss Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham). I mean, the title The Irishman could just as easily apply to Hoffa (whom I believe was half-Irish) as to Sheeran in this movie. Other notable actors who play smaller parts include Ray Romano, Bobby Canavale, Harvey Keitel, and Katharine Narducci, who is unforgettable as Buffalino’s wife. She makes the most of a small role by using her face and delivery to convey the same steely, withering scorn she affected as Charmaine Bucco in The Sopranos – which makes me wonder whether Scorsese finally watch The Sopranos after all?
The film’s construction is similar to Casino and Goodfellas, but it’s also fairly different. I think The Wolf of Wall Street was Scorsese’s true nod back to those stalwart classics of the nineties. This film is much slower in terms of pace (too slow, according to my friend), but I appreciated how the structure of the film is fused together by the elder Sheeran picking up the aged Buffalino (and their wives who insist on stopping multiple times for smoke breaks) to drive across the country for a wedding. Ultimately, we learn that the real purpose of the trip is that final meeting with Hoffa and as they make slow old-timer progress across the country, we get flashbacks that form the narrative. True Scorsese fans are getting older, as is the famously ADD driven director himself (the story was that, in the old days at least, he had to watch another movie while simultaneously editing his films with famed collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker) and this is a Goodfellas for the middle aged set – those of us who wear New Balance sneakers and have to watch our sugar intake will appreciate the way this film slowly builds towards the infamous day when Hoffa disappears. This is the elder statesman finally meditating on old age (as so many great filmmakers have done) by bridging past and present through an elder protagonist’s memories. There are occasional nods to older movies such as the shot of the aged De Niro standing over a bed with various firearms laid out on it; a reference to Taxi Driver.
Other ways that Scorsese tones things down include the lighting, music, and camera movements. The poor guy held off using digital as long as he could, and though this is not his first digital offering, it is undoubtedly the product of Scorsese trying to make the best of what digital looks like. It’s not bad, maintains very tasteful colour compositions, but is definitely not as colourful as some of his earlier films in terms of saturation, impact, or contrast. Some of the lighting and indoor scenes in bars reminded me, once again, of The Godfather movies. When Scorsese does use slow motion, it’s a very digital, high def, extreme slo-mo; odd and interesting, though not as poetic as his older, trademark slo-mo pans.
The music, though nostalgic and period-placed (one has to remember that Scorsese effectively pioneered the use of rock n’roll in mainstream movies as emotional codas), is more subdued, more in the background and less pronounced. There is one great scene, though, where Hoffa’s wife Jo (played by Welker White whom you’ll all remember as snotty babysitter Lois Byrd from Goodfellas) leaves work for the final time to get into her car. As she sits in the driver’s seat, wondering whether to turn the key (and how can we at this point not think of the car bomb at the beginning of Casino?), the music cuts out and then starts up again after she finally turns the ignition – and nothing happens – allowing her to drive off. Classic Scorsese.
All in all, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, people who like this sort of thing will love this movie. It might be Scorsese coming full circle and engaging in his own The Last Waltz (to call upon another one of his early films) with his own band mates playing a farewell concert but the music’s great and you’ll love the show. I can see why they didn’t have an intermission – the scenes are well filmed and edited and connect nicely, one flowing into the other. I’ll definitely try to catch it again before it leaves theatres but I’ll probably have to bring a catheter and a cup.