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Non-Review Review: The Irishman

“Time goes by so fast,” Frank Sheeran reflects to a young nurse late in the movie. He adds, “You’ll understand when you get there.”

Of course, the nurse doesn’t quite understand the passage of time in the way that Frank does. “You’re young,” he explains. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.” In contrast, Frank Sheeran’s entire life seems to be left behind him. When The Irishman introduces the audience to its central character, he is already well past his prime. He is resting in a retirement community. He begins to narrate his story through internal monologue, but then decides to directly address the camera. After all, there is nobody left who might be exposed or shamed by his reminiscences. They are all long gone.

The end is DeNiro.

The audience really feels the passage of time in The Irishman. It is revealing that Frank’s most prized possession appears to be his watch. The watch itself changes as Frank’s situation does, becoming more ostentatious has his stock rises, but there is always a watch on the bedside table and it is always fixed first thing every morning. Even more than the ring that signifies his acceptance into the underground criminal fraternity, Frank holds tight to that watch. It measures the seconds that make up the minutes, the minutes that make up the hours, the hours that make up a life.

It is a critical cliché to praise a long film by saying that it doesn’t feel long, that the time spent watching a story unfold “flies by.” In some cases, that is true. Of this year’s hyper-extended offerings, both Avengers: Endgame and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood move breezily enough that they never feel their length. In contrast, The Irishman does feel every minute of its three-and-a-half hour runtime. That’s part of the movie’s power. By the time that the audience has reached that conversation between Frank and his nurse, they have some small understanding of what he is saying. They have lived that life with him.

Get Hoffa his case.

The obvious point of comparison for The Irishman will be Martin Scorsese’s other organised crime epics, Goodfellas and Casino, to the point that the film threatens to displace The Wolf of Wall Street as the third installment of that unofficial trilogy. This makes sense. The Irishman does re-team Goodfellas and Casino veterans Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci with Scorsese. More than that, Scorsese’s twenty-first century muse Leonardo DiCaprio is nowhere to be seen in the film.

However, The Irishman is a very different sort of beast to those earlier films. Even with their extended runtimes, Goodfellas and Casino tended to compress time, often through montage and dissolves. Gimme Shelter was a soundtrack touchstone for both, the frantic energy of the Rolling Stones classic setting a tempo for the chaos unfolding onscreen. In contrast, The Irishman returns time and again to the gentle soothing rhythms of the Five Satins’ In the Still of the Night. It is a much gentler song, but one that is just as haunting in its own way.

The Irishman feels like an epilogue. It is too early to say whether this will be the last collaboration between Scorsese and DeNiro, but it would be a fitting capstone on a collaboration that stretches back to the earliest days of their careers. Even without considering the subject matter, there is something funereal about The Irishman. Scorsese initially tried to get the project made through the studio system. Paramount, which had earned big on The Wolf of Wall Street, backed out after the departure of studio head Joel Grey. Netflix was left to pick up the film for $105m, although the finished film would cost significantly more.

Here, again, The Irishman brushes against another critical cliché. The Irishman is “the kind of film that they don’t make any more.” It is very clearly the kind of “cinema” that Scorsese had in mind when he compared the movies in Marvel Cinematic Universe to “theme park attractions.” The Irishman is the sort of adult-focused character-driven drama that is a rarity in modern cinema, the kind that big studios stay away from, because they are no longer surefire earners in the era of tentpoles and event movies.

“And I woulda gotten away with it foo, if it wasn’t for those Pesci kids…”

Of course, it’s easy to overstate the matter. Cinema is changing, just as cinema has always been changing. Some of that change is scary, but some of that change is welcome and long overdue. And obviously, movies like The Irishman self-evidently are getting made. Personal, adult-skewing, commercially risky projects like Roma are getting financed, produced and distributed – just through different channels. Of course, there are reasons to be cynical about Netflix’s model, but this is not the end of the world. Still, this surrounding context adds to the funereal tone of The Irishman.

There is a sense that this may really be the end of the road (or perhaps even just close to the end of the world) for this type of film, an elegiac celebration of this sort of auteur-driven sweeping epic. The Irishman is a film that seems to spend most of its runtime contemplating mortality and inevitability. One of the most surreally affecting sequences finds Frank visiting a showroom to purchase his own coffin. “Don’t you want to go home in something like that?” the salesman asks. Frank ruminates on his own death, rejecting the possibility of cremation. “It’s too final,” he muses. He hopes to be entombed above ground.

The passage of time is woven into the fabric of The Irishman. Much has been made of the use of the deaging technology employed on Captain Marvel or Gemini Man to bring younger versions of Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino to life. As in those other films, the effects are occasionally uncanny. The characters look okay in motion, but there is a rubbery effect in the close-ups that Scorsese occasionally holds. The skin appears a little too smooth, a little too unblemished. However, this feels intentional – or, at the very least, fitting. Scorsese is very selective in his use of the technology.

Outside of the leading trio, other members of the cast are allowed to age in more traditionally cinematic manners. Bobby Cannavale is introduced playing gangster Felix DiTullio at an age close to his own. As the film progresses, Cannavale is aged through the application of make-up. Lucy Gallina plays Frank’s daughter Peggy as a girl, replaced by Anna Paquin as an adult. Despite using special effects to manipulate the faces of his leading men, Scorsese casts actors to play various historical figures like Richard Nixon or Bobby Kennedy or Don Rickles, rather than compositing his performers into existing footage.

This collaboration is going gangbusters…

The result is to suggest a certain static quality to these characters. The Irishman uses this stasis to different ends. Jimmy Hoffa is an icon within the world of the film, and especially to Frank. “In the fifties, he was bigger than Elvis,” Frank explains. “In the sixties, he was bigger than the Beatles.” As such, it makes sense that Hoffa would remain somewhat frozen in time, at least within Frank’s memory. In contrast, characters like Frank Sheeran and his mob “rabbi” Russell Bufalino remain frozen in time because they fail to appreciate the changing the world around them. They do not move with the times. They are frozen.

There is a profound melancholy to Frank. The Irishman suggests that Frank is something of a rock. He is stoic. He is reliable. He has no real aspirations. He has no real ambition. The film leans heavily on the idea that Frank’s development froze during his service in the Second World War. The film’s only flashback to Frank’s time in Italy underscores the obvious connection between what he did at the orders of his superiors in the army and what he does in service of various mob bosses.

At one point, a low-level criminal hires Frank to help him deal with a rival business. “You were a soldier,” states the criminal. “You know what to do.” He follows orders. Throughout the film, Frank does exactly what he’s told to do. When Jimmy Hoffa talks about the importance of finding a second-in-command without any ambitions “so you can walk in front without getting stabbed”, he might as well be talking about Frank. Frank is a soldier looking for a general. Following his first conversation with Jimmy Hoffa, he confesses, “I thought I was talking to General Patton.”  Frank is an empty vessel for the ambitions of “greater” men.

Frank only runs for a high-profiled position in the Teamsters because Hoffa tells him to, wanting a man that he can trust in a position of authority. Frank obeys Russell Bufalino from the moment that they meet. The film’s framing-device-within-a-framing-device finds Frank driving Russell across the country. The closest thing to authority that Frank exercises is the careful mapping of the route with a magnifying glass and a red marker, and even that is overruled. Along the way, Frank remembers how they met, Russell warning him to replace a cap on his truck’s engine. Naturally, Frank followed Russell’s instructions. The engine runs.

Russelling the mob, seeing what falls out…

Of course, Frank commits a lot of sins over the course of The Irishman. However, Scorsese keeps the camera largely detached from the violence that Frank commits. His killings are presented as swift and brutal, the camera often gliding and sweeping over the carnage. The shock arises from the dissonance; the sense that this violence is just another day at the office for a man like Frank. The Irishman often spends as much time with Frank discussing the mechanics of the act – the weapon, the approach, the schedule – as it spends on the act itself. The violence never feels sensationalist. It never feels like the point.

In its own weird way, The Irishman suggests that Frank’s violence is not his cardinal sin. The film implies that this could be a result of any number of factors – the horrors that he witnessed in the Second World War, or perhaps it is just innate to him. After all, one early encounter involving Peggy illustrates that Frank’s violence is not purely in service of the mob. There is a sense that this violence is just a part of who Frank is. The brutality itself is not the sin. Late in the film, Frank very pointedly refuses to ask God’s forgiveness for any of the murders he committed – even the occasional “bad hit.”

In contrast, The Irishman seems to suggest that Frank’s biggest sin is one of passive complicity. Frank’s willingness to just go along with things is portrayed as his greatest weakness. His lapses seem to be largely passive. Coming in quick succession, two of the bleakest moments in The Irishman involved Frank and a phone. Receiving word of a particularly personal hit, Russell sternly warns Frank, “Don’t call him.” The next sequence focuses on a restless Frank lying in bed, staring at a phone. It would be the smallest act of autonomy or conscience, but Frank is unable to make it because he has been ordered not to.

After the hit has happened, Frank calls up the widow to offer his compassion and support. Not because he thinks it is the right thing to do and not because he made a choice. Instead, Frank makes the call because he has been directed. “Why?” Peggy asks, accusingly. When Frank asks what she is asking, she clarifies, “Why haven’t you called?” Of course, that’s not really what she’s asking. Nevertheless, it’s an accusation couched in Frank’s moral passivity. As Frank notes, this is the last exchange between father and daughter. Fittingly, as his end approaches, Frank’s one regret involves that phone call; the simplest of acts.

A soldier.

In that context, the use of special effects to deage Robert DeNiro makes sense. Frank hasn’t changed so much over the thirty or forty years that form the bulk of The Irishman. Those three or four decades seem like a single extended moment to Frank. Even more than Goodfellas or Casino, The Irishman is framed through the lens of memory. The past and present intermingle and intersect. As their roadtrip takes them past the place where they first met, Russell and Frank ruminate on the meaning of it all. “What are the odds?” Russell asks. Frank’s mind wanders from one memory to another, the past colliding and overlapping.

Of course, The Irishman unfolds over a tumultuous period in American history. The real-life Frank Sheeran has been described as “the Forrest Gump of organised crime”, and his account of events is highly contested. Nevertheless, The Irishman takes that description to heart. Over the course of the film, Frank finds himself at the heart of a dark pulp history of postwar America. Frank’s story intersects with everything from the Bay of Pigs to the Kennedy assassination to Watergate to the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

However, like a dark mirror to Forrest Gump, Frank is marked by his passivity. Even when Frank gets his hands dirty, the film is clear to deny him any agency. Over the course of The Irishman, Frank finds himself sitting in exclusive rooms with men who consider themselves the most powerful men in the world. “Only three people in the world have a ring like this,” Russell tells Frank on presenting him with a token of esteem. Later, in the same conversation, Russell ominously remarks, “If they can whack a president, they can whack the president of a union.” These are the men who have shaped American history.

This is one of the interesting paradoxes of The Irishman. In form, the film is recognisably an epic. The length is a giveaway, as is the grand historical sweep of the narrative. However, these same elements serve to provide a sense of scale to dwarf these characters. Much has been made of the short stature of the principle players, but it seems oddly appropriate. The Irishman repeatedly stresses how little any of this matters. These men are stuck in time as the world changes around them. No matter how far he rises, Russell can still be found in his neighbourhood store, worrying about the fabric.

Trial and error.

For all that the characters in The Irishman can claim to have shaped history, none of them can directly articulate who they are or what they have done. It occasionally feels like the film’s three-and-a-half runtime is down to the simple fact that none of these men ever actually say what they mean, instead couching their thoughts in vague euphemisms like “it is what it is.” Characters obfuscate and dissemble. More than once in a film, characters press each other for specifics that they cannot give. The word “that” gets a lot of mileage, with characters rarely stating what “that” actually is or means.

Of course, to acknowledge “that” would be to take responsibility, to make one’s self accountable. Early in the film, Frank stresses the importance of the perception of autonomy in a mob enforcer, the ability to act without needing to implicate anybody higher up the food chain. “I don’t need two roads coming back to me,” Russell explains to those soldiers who would kill in his name. Of course, this is just an illusion. Frank almost immediately confesses, “All roads led back to Russ.” Characters arrive late to meetings as a power play, but blame “traffic” for their delays.

The Irishman is based on the book I Hear You Paint Houses. The title is obviously a euphemism. Early on, Frank ruminates on his younger self’s naivety. “I though house-painters painted houses,” he muses. The line is uttered out loud over the phone by Jimmy Hoffa, who clearly understand what these men really do, even if he would never be so vulgar as to state it out loud. Indeed, the cut of The Irishman that screened at the London Film Festival included the title “I Hear You Paint Houses” split across three title cards, cut against footage of an unfolding road. “You” gets its own title card, framed almost as an accusation.

Even threats are often framed in abstract terms. At one point, Russell takes Jimmy Hoffa aside to have an important conversation – to voice his own frustrations with the veteran organiser’s obstruction of his financial interests. Even then, he is careful to avoid framing his own displeasure directly. “Some people – not me, but some people – think you might be demonstrating a failure to show appreciation.” The threat hangs in the air, but Russell cannot bring himself to directly articulate it. When Frank voices the mob’s displeasure to Hoffa, Hoffa has to spend two minutes trying to accredit that warning before Frank cites a source.

Snapshot of an era.

So much of The Irishman is spent trying to avoid accountability, which makes it all meaningless. Jimmy Hoffa finds himself sent to prison for jury tampering, alongside a young up and connected associate named Anthony Provenzano. Provenzano wonders about his pension, and is shocked to discover that his criminal record means that he no longer has access to it. However Provenzano is shocked to discover that Hoffa still has access to his own pension. Hoffa argues that his case is different. He is not really a criminal.

Hoffa relies on the mob for muscle, but sees himself as above them. In Hoffa’s mind, he exists distinct from the systems that have brought him to power. So much of the tragedy of Hoffa is rooted in a casual off-hand racial slur uttered at an inopportune moment, dismissing Provenzano and his associates as “you people.” There is obvious racism behind the remark, but it just underscores the artificial distinction that Hoffa has created between himself and the mob. Like the euphemisms employed by Russell and Frank, this logic keeps Hoffa separate from the reality empire that he his built.

This is the grand tragedy of The Irishman, and the full weight of the passage of time. The characters of The Irishman take great pride in what they have built, in their roles as the shapers of history – whether behind the scenes or in front of the camera. Even abandoned in a retirement home, Frank talks with a great deal of pride about his past associations. Hoffa finds himself in conflict with the mob when he refuses to relinquish control of the Teamsters Union. There is a sense of hubris in this, but also a sense of pointlessness. Everything that these men have built will be torn down, whether by each other or by time.

This is where the length of The Irishman comes into play. There are relatively few surprises in The Irishman, and this is by design. Characters are frequently introduced with snippets of text that reveal their ultimate fates before they have uttered a single syllable of dialogue. As the camera jibs down on Jimmy Hoffa glad-handing union workers during his introductory sequence, Frank explains that the only thing that most modern audiences know about Jimmy Hoffa is the fact that “he disappeared.” From that introduction, his fate is sealed. The Irishman is just about the long road that leads there.

The best mob enforcer, bar none.

Indeed, one of the film’s most effective sequences involves a simple car journey. Scorsese follows a car as it drives from the airport past a truck stop and to a quiet suburban house. Scorsese then follows the car back from the house to the truck stop. Finally, he follows the care from the truck stop back to the house. On each journey, Scorsese uses the same camera angles and positions. The trip develops a rhythm. The audience understands how long the journey takes, and how quickly the destination is approaching. Scorsese’s willingness to take his time makes that inevitability all the more unsettling.

It is this sense of erosion and decay that distinguishes The Irishman from the Scorsese films with which it has the closest kinship: Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street. Those films tended to end on a somewhat ambivalent note. The characters involved frequently lost everything, inevitably coming face-to-face with the folly of trusting people who are just as self-interested and self-motivated as they were. However, there was also a sense that things kept ticking. Henry Hill retreats to witness protection. Sam Rothstein continued making money for the mob. Jordan Belfort still hosts financial advice seminars.

The Irishman offers perhaps the bleakest conclusion of these films, but perhaps the most affirming. In its second half, The Irishman meditates upon the idea that none of these great institutions can last. Everything evaporates. In the second half of the film, time starts flowing again for characters like Russell or Frank. Scorsese moves away from digital effects, and instead portrays age in a more conventional cinematic manner. DeNiro and Pesci find themselves placed under heavy make-up, as time takes its toll upon them. They could not remain frozen in that moment forever.

The Irishman really affords its audience the sense of time’s passage. Time is like an ocean, and The Irishman allows it break against the shore. The film watches that ocean erode the empires of sandcastles that these men have built for themselves. On directing federal agents to direct their inquiries to his lawyer, Frank is shocked to learn that he has passed away. “Who got him?” Frank demands. “Cancer,” comes the response. Asking Frank to come clean about his sins, the agents simply state, “There’s no one left.”

There’s a lot on the line.

This is why The Irishman feels like such a fitting eulogy for films like Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. Throughout his career, Scorsese has been accused of glorifying and glamourising his subjects, of romanticising these brutal men. The argument has never been entirely convincing, but it still seems to have shaped a lot of Scorsese’s twenty-first century output. Notably, The Wolf of Wall Street contains two significant characters who exist largely to morally reprimand the protagonist. However, The Irishman offers its own response to that criticism, rising to it like a challenge.

The Irishman suggests the futility of this sort of masculine power fantasy, by demonstrating how meaningless it is in the grand scheme of things. “Kids these days, they don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa is,” Frank remarks in his introduction to the powerful union boss. This observation is borne out in a later scene when a nurse leafs through some of Frank’s old family photos. “Who’s that?” she asks when she finds a picture of a smiling gentleman next to Frank’s daughter. “You don’t know who that is?” Frank asks, trying not to be too offended. It is, naturally, Jimmy Hoffa.

The Irishman suggests that Frank dedicated himself so thoroughly to building something that could not last that he lost the opportunity to build something truly meaningful. If the audience believes his account of events, Frank’s life was “important” in the grand scheme of things. It was also empty and hollow. Frank ends up estranged from his family, alienated from his daughters, truly alone. Frank sacrificed the meaningful connections in life for a higher ideal, but that higher ideal was built on foundations of shifting sand. Frank is ultimately left with nothing but darkness and inevitability.

The Irishman is a tour de force from everybody involved. It feels like a very conscious and overt celebration of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. It has been argued that 2019 is “the series finale for geek pop culture”, and that would seem to apply here. It is highly unlikely that this will be Scorsese’s last film. Even if Scorsese announced his retirement, it seems likely that it would be the same sort of retirement that Steven Soderbergh enjoys. Still, The Irishman feels like it might work as a capstone for Scorsese’s career.

Get Hoffa the line.

The film is built on the intersection of the old and the new. It is the kind of old fashioned elegiac epic that rarely gets made, but it is also going straight to a streaming service. It reunites Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro, despite the fact that Pesci has officially retired. It reunites Scorsese with one of his earliest collaborators Harvey Keitel for the first time since The Last Temptation of Christ, but also marks the first partnership of Scorsese and Pacino despite several near-misses. The film employs computer-generated imagery to deage its lead actors, but it also uses practical make-up effects to age them.

The Irishman feels like a culmination of many of Scorsese’s core themes and ideas, arguably an intersection of the mob movies that he is most famous for with some of the spiritual themes evident in films like Silence. More than that, it provides a sweeping narrative that journeys through the complicated and chaotic second-half of the twentieth century, an era that Scorsese has often tried to process and understand. The coffin salesman likens Frank’s looming death to something of a homecoming, even as Frank himself is anxious about the suggested finality. The Irishman is itself a homecoming of sorts.

The Irishman also benefits from a set of impressive performances. It would be churlish to document the various late career disappointments of actors like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, even if it seems strange to think that the pair were once considered among the greatest actors of their generations. In its own strange way, this plays into the funereal tone of The Irishman. Watching DeNiro and Pacino navigate twenty-first century Hollywood can often feel disheartening and disappointing. Without putting too fine a point on it, time has taken its toll on the legacies that these two actors have build.

As such, there is something deeply affirming in the way that The Irishman offers Pacino and DeNiro another chance to demonstrate their prowess. Pacino is amazing as Jimmy Hoffa, in what is easily his best performance since Insomnia. As played by Pacino, Hoffa is a complicated and contradictory man; somebody who has a deep understanding of other people while remaining completely blind to his own ego. As a character, Hoffa lends himself to Pacino’s strengths. Ever the public speaker, Hoffa affords Pacino plenty of opportunities to go loud. However, Hoffa also allows Pacino to demonstrate his quieter side, his subtler range.

Won’t be pressed on the matter.

Pacino is so good, and his performance so welcome, that he threatens to overshadow DeNiro. The nature of Frank Sheeran means that DeNiro offers a quieter and more understated performance. A lot of The Irishman is spent watching Frank think, and watching his subtle reactions to the shifting circumstances around him. The most powerful moments in The Irishman are the quiet ones, the camera focused on Frank as he is confronted with a choice. As in all great tragedies, that choice is always made before Frank realises; his nature dictates how he will respond. However, DeNiro suggests hidden depths.

The Irishman is a triumph. It is a late career highlight for many of its participants, and the rare three-and-a-half hour movie that both feels its length and is the better for that.

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