If there is an aspect to The Irishman pundits and critics alike are talking about more than anything it’s the films three-and-a-half hour length. Yes, it is an indulgence, a mighty one, one many a master filmmaker falls prey to late in their career, especially if the finance is there to pander to their conceit – creating a magnum opus.
Three-and-a-half hours. And the last nine minutes are devoted to the end credits. Then there are the commercials and trailers – four hours sitting in one place. A marathon. The first long film I saw was as a youth, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Lean was smart. No commercials, no trailers. He had the film’s theme tune played over the speakers as an overture, opera fashion, curtains closed, lights up. Wiser still, there was a 20 minute intermission in the middle. Lights up again, the babble of an enjoyable first half mingled with the trek to the toilets or the bar, or the lady at the front row selling ice cream from a tray. It was an event.
The Irishman is watchable if you enjoy the American gangster genre, or are a Scorsese-De Niro-Pacino-Pesci fan. All of its length carries weight, tension, and superb story telling but at a glacial pace, every bat of an eyelid, every stare, every rumination of the mind given space and time to communicate a thought, a look, a hurt, confusion.
What it lacks is the universal application of the master’s early work, Taxi Driver the most notable. In fact, Taxi Driver predates by 42 years what we are experiencing now in society, ordinary men taking the law into their own hands by means of violence meted out to others, seeing people as black and white, having lost faith in equality and justice. The Joker is a commercial facsimile of that film, but steeped in comic book mythology.
Taxi Driver is full of surprises, scenes you can’t second-guess, and it takes risks showing child prostitution and psychotic behaviour that wins praise from the press and media – exactly as we see today. The Irishman has a predictability about its narrative flow – we’ve seen it all before – yet it keeps you gripped, chiefly because of the superlative performances from the main actors.
There are insightful links into the Mafia’s involvement in the assassination of president Kennedy – a known fact for some time – their determination to take revenge for Kennedy’s promise to rid Cuba of ‘that pig, Castro’. They want their Havana casinos and whore houses back. This is semi-fictionalised history we are watching, not pure fiction raised to the height of metaphor and parable.
Unlike Lawrence of Arabia, The Irishman is not an original screenplay. The book is based on the biography I Heard You Paint Houses written by Charles Brandt from the tales told to him by Mafia underboss Frank (the Irishman) Sheeran, professional hitman, and later-day self-promoter. The dramatisation belongs to skilled screenwriter Steven Zaillian.
Sheeran claims to have been a syndicate hired hit man, he knows it was the Mafia who removed Hoffa, (1975) he was the assassin – Hoffa never seen again, his body never found. As I write this, a friend has emailed asking who under 50 years of age knows about Jimmy Hoffa, boss of the American trucker union, the Teamsters? He has a point. This is why I think the film has little to teach us other than gangsters are often hand-in-glove with politicians, and some corporate companies resort to gangsters to clear up ‘situations’. There is little similarity between Irishman and say, Goodfellas, apart from Scorsese’s Catholic obsession with the Judas Iscariot moment, betrayal a lifelong Scorsese fixation.
Coppola’s magnificent Godfather 1 and 2 did it to far better affect, and the women in the Godfather series get a real bite at three dimensional acting roles. Scorsese all but forgets women exist, a common complaint of his film plots.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, some cinemas chains have refused to show The Irishman because of it being a Netflix production. It will get a week’s release, enough to qualify for Academy Award eligibility for nominations, the rest is repeat transmissions on the Netflix channel.
Of Netflix, Scorsese said:
“There’s no doubt that seeing a film with an audience is really important. There is a problem though: we have to make the film. We’ve run out of room, in a sense; there was no room for us to make this picture, for many reasons. [But] having the backing of a company that says that you will have no interference, you can make the picture as you want – the trade-off being: it streams, with theatrical distribution prior to that. I figure, that’s a chance we take, on this particular project.”
This is an old man’s movie, and not only because it’s narrated by the elderly title character, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), from a wheelchair in a Catholic convalescent home. The film begins with a single take, a long camera journey through the Catholic home until it reaches De Niro, near death’s door, old, wizened, grey haired.
Those first moments pretty well inform us the story will be told one sentence a minute. That’s not to say there isn’t the sudden change of pace for street and restaurant shootings we expect, but the story is told by an old man in a wheelchair trying to recall his past.
De Niro is barely off the screen, a product of the book, not his role as co-producer. Sheeran fought in some of the grisliest, most protracted battles in World War II’s theater (122 days in Anzio), and the detachment with which he handles murder seeps into all the film’s killings. It’s ugly, brusque, arrhythmic, merciless – pop-pop-pop and the victim is dead on the sidewalk, blood oozing from multiple head wounds. Sheeran does what he’s told to do with no evident emotion. It’s a job, like house-painting, and the way the villains speak death like dividing a pizza is chilling.
For the most part, Zaillian’s screenplay is subtle, clever and appears true to the characters and the milieu in which they find themselves. Even the most creepy figures like Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi) speak in euphemism and metaphor, not because they’re sensitive types, far from it, but because they consciously disconnect themselves from the horror they perpetrate. Like all Mafia types, they’re banal.
Al Pacino’s plays Hoffa as the rough and ready and charismatic Teamsters’ boss, proud of being blunt and unmannerly. Pacino does what Pacino does best, chews the scenery, he lives life larger than life itself. Where he loses control of his union and is imprisoned, he returns a man out for vengeance, his past acceptable good humoured anger now a rage of death threats and retribution.
De Niro as Sheeran is almost out-flanked by Joe Pesci’s low-key boss of bosses, Russell Bufalino, a man who can have you liquidated by a simple glance at his hitman. The actor brought out of retirement to play the role makes the most of it by not making the most of it. For Pesci, it’s his best work to date, an almost certain Academy winner.
Bringing up the midfield support are Scorsese’s reliables, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale). Most of these men are as colourless as they are intimidating – apart, of course, from Hoffa, for whom Frank goes to work at Bufalino’s request as an aide and bodyguard. If that relationship felt contrived it might be because for the boss of bosses to rent out his best, most trustworthy man, takes some believing. But this is where the story really starts.
As the story unfolds the main character face the inevitable, a senate hearing. The attorney general’s grilling of Hoffa is rich in period detail, and that goes for so many of the settings.
To be honest, I think it great to see De Niro back with Scorsese. After years of doing terrible comedies almost wrecking his reputation – De Niro has next-to-no sense of comic timing – his Sheeran is a man who feels nothing specific yet is in evident pain throughout – which sometimes manifests itself in moon-faced grimace.
To forestall the conventional use of prosthetic face changes and the time taken to apply them each morning to enhance the aging process, main characters are seen from youth to dotage altered by the digital pen of the skilled animator.
Scorsese has turned to computer trickery to take us on that fifty-odd years journey. I accepted it for the most part, but for the first twenty minutes De Niro’s eyes looked all wrong, aged and dead.
And De Niro? Scorsese guides him away from his familiar tics and rhythms, evidently refusing to let him do the kind of freestyle acting that infuriates his co-thespians by demanding retake after retake, nodding furiously when people speak to him directly, or saying anything quotable, such as ‘You lookin’ at me?” His presence is brooding.
On the female side, only Sheeran’s hyper-attentive daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a girl, Anna Paquin grown up), isn’t woven seamlessly into the narrative and sticks out like a drunk at a christening. She’s given moments to look bemused, quizzical and daggers at her dad but without the moments to express a meaningful word.
The slick editing helps understand the dark, wordless scenes, the epic enormously aided by Scorsese’s long-time editing chief and partner Thelma Schoonmaker. Costumes are the talent of another of Scorsese collaborators, Sandy Powell.
How much of what we see is truth? In real life, Frank Sheeran was a thug and a blowhard – in inarticulateness and declarations he reminded me of the GMB union’s underboss Gary Smith. It’s likely Sheeran’s confessions, as related to Brandt, were a pile of doodoo. In 2005 when police examined the house where Sheeran boasted of having shot Jimmy Hoffa, they did indeed find bloodstains. But the blood was not Hoffa’s.
Is The Irishman Scorsese’s greatest work? No. For Scorsese, the slowing-down is radical, and it pays off in the long series of final scenes in which the characters are too old to move as they once did, but the subject matter doesn’t grab the zeitgeist. It’s a little dated. Is there any humour? Next to none. Sadness permeates the entire film. The mood is satisfying in the same way King Lear is satisfying to a father who has alienated his daughters and feels hellish lonely in his old age. Does it justify its length? Almost. Will it be a classic of its kind? Probably, certainly a study for film students for some time to come. Do I recommend it? As I said, only if you enjoy Mafia gangster movies. The film is all interiors of the soul.
- Star Rating: Five stars
- Cast: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
- Director: Martin Scorsese
- Writer: Steven Zaillian
- Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
- Composer: Robbie Robertson
- Duration: 3 hours 29 minutes
- Adult rating: 15
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?