Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci
The futility of gangsterism is the subject of Martin Scorsese’s late career epic, arriving via streaming giant Netflix following a limited – cursory – flirtation with cinematic release. The majority of people will experience its 209 minutes on the small screen. It’s how I saw it, with time for it set aside in reverence. Mobile pushed out of reach, out of goddamn respect (I only glanced at it twice; and one of those times during a break for nature). Now, I write this and I beg of you. Please. If you’re going to watch it (and you should), give it your full attention. Watch it as its presented. Don’t chip away at it in instalments like its your own personal miniseries. Don’t you dare watch it on your phone.
Show a little respect. Because one of the finest films from one of America’s greatest talents has been handed to you.
Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, whom we meet in an assisted living facility. That he’s made it this far is, we learn, a minor miracle. Throughout this sprawling story, Scorsese punctuates the action to tell us how so many supporting characters died in prison, or were gunned down in the 80’s. A map of violence written across time, written across America. Frank sees them come and go through the decades, he walks between them like a lone soldier crossing a minefield. Death litters The Irishman. It clutters it. All in pursuit of fleeting power and the convenience of money.
In the 50’s – and already in his forties – Frank becomes the fair-haired ‘son’ to local organised crime mogul Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). He becomes a proficient ‘house painter’ (euphemism for hit man) and ultimately garners interest from notorious Teamster chairman Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The 50’s become the 60’s and Frank skirts the edges of political plays. He and his compatriots are ageing, years catching them in spite of their best efforts and energies. Soon its the 70’s and they’re joining an increasingly invisible generation, still flouting the law with impunity.
Time keeps moving inexorably. These white men in constant pursuit of the upper hand act as though time cannot score them, even as the lines are etched deeper across their faces. For all their moves, all the plays, all that violence, Scorsese paints their lives as grand but inescapable. The gangster life is extremely high risk, yet each one of these men seems to think he’ll be the one to live forever. And each one knows he won’t.
This fatalism permeates the film naturally. It’s there in the unrelenting sunlight washing through a diner doorway, in the time taken to set up friendships that turn into rivalries, in the anecdotal details. I blanched at the running time when I first heard it as well you might’ve, but it simply isn’t an issue. It feels natural, earned. And spending that time with it will make you appreciate it.
Early on the picture investigates – economically – what it takes to paint houses the way Frank paints houses. A flashback to his time during WWII feels crucial, and lightly infers a level of conditioning – of numbing – that would profoundly effect a generation. The capacity for trivial murder and to be these men.
De Niro is bedded into his character. One almost imagines that this is how his Louis from Jackie Brown might’ve turned out, had ‘better’ opportunities presented themselves. He has a similar gait, a familiar humility, though Frank is an eminently more talented man. Pesci – so iconic for his Goodfellas bluster – is quietly dignified and all the more impressive for it. It may be his best work. Pacino’s Hoffa finds the actor leaning into his famed theatrics. Those “hoorah” theatrics perfectly suit Hoffa, though. The Irishman makes much of the friendship between Frank and Hoffa, if only to further evidence the moral vacuity instilled by the lifestyle when the time for betrayal comes.
There’s something inexorably sad about The Irishmen as time collapses everything. One of the most maudlin images of the year sees a group of cold, elderly men playing bowls in a prison yard together; Scorsese systematically bleaching the film of colour. The Irishmen and its antiheroes disperse right before us.
Through all of this, though barely featured, Anna Paquin’s turn as Frank’s disapproving daughter Peggy stands as the most piercing, unrelenting glare of judgement in a film that otherwise lets these men hang themselves, cunningly indicting – without ever explicitly saying so – America’s current crop of ageing crooks obsessed with power. The unions have been exchanged for the White House. But before anything else, Scorsese’s picture is an emotional tidal wave. It accumulates and accumulates as its size expands, then inevitably crashes down, whiting out the world.
This director has nothing left to prove, yet still he’s knocking out some of his greatest work during his sixth decade of activity. Immaculately edited (an Oscar for Thelma Schoonmaker please), timelessly scored to blues and doo-wop and featuring a supporting cast packed to the rafters with eclectic and immensely talented choices, The Irishmen potentially caps a career-long investigation into a particular mindset of American violence, one that fascinates its creator even as it repels. Scorsese the humanist brought us this film.
“You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there,” Frank tells his nurse, who never heard of Jimmy Hoffa. The world turns and forgets. Cruel and impersonal as that cold fact is, Scorsese makes the thought heavy with heart. The Irishmen is some astonishing art.
Plus he stamps his preferred name for the film – I Heard You Paint Houses – on it TWICE, Netflix’s preferences be damned. What a baller.