Scorsese’s opulent opus is at once a swansong of gangster rites and the morally chagrined passages they take and a fresh breath for cinema to breathe easy again.
The gang of Marty, Bob, Al, and Joe sound like a quartet based out of a Brooklyn mechanic garage but these handymen, in spite of sublime careers of masterful work, are still proving their worth even when their last names alone haul enough gravitas for them to rest on their laurels.
If I had to imagine a gangster epic that featured much of the storytelling taking place from the retiree-aged main character’s perspective looking back through decades, had the technology to defy time’s insistence and wanted to make a statement that twilight can be just as viscerally beautiful as dawn, I’d be a cafone not to beg Martin Scorsese to direct, summon Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Harvey Keitel from career purgatory and then nab Joe Pesci from retirement. With that herculean task done, that gangster epic would be born as The Irishman. And after witnessing its life and the many obligatory deaths as part of the Cosa Nostra lifestyle, I’d know I’d seen something singular and yet all the more powerful for utilizing its own filmic mythology.
Frank ‘Irishman’ Sheeran (DeNiro) is the mostly straight-laced army veteran now driving meat trucks across the states. After a chance encounter with the senior mafioso Russel Bufalino (Pesci), who helps Frank fix his broken-down truck, the seal is broken on Sheeran’s prospective mob career. Starting small by skimming some steaks off the top of his delivery, the stoicism and reliability of Frank see him rise through the ranks, fittingly, as a man who takes orders and sees them through to their bloody ends without ever lifting an eyebrow in questioning. Bufalino introduces his new find to Teamsters Union director Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) and there blossoms Frank’s friendship with the charismatic, passionate and loveable pomp of Hoffa – a zeitgeisty figure in the US from the late 50’s to the early ’70s and most notable now for his inexplicable disappearance. A cross-country car journey with a grey Frank and a greyer, shrunken Russel is where one of the many narrative devices that overlap like spaghetti in your Ma’s favorite dish takes place. Decades after the prophetic beginnings of gangster dealings and food, and yet with another decade or so to come The Irishman unfurls poetically.
Scorsese all but invented the sub-genre of masculine gangsters, crooks and wise guys all embodied by sweary Italian-Americans. Where Coppola built the grand Mecca, Scorsese often showed the pilgrimage leading to it. And after a varied and yet vivacious career of cultural movie markers like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, and that’s without recalling flourishes in other genres and styles like Shutter Island and Silence, Scorsese has somehow collectivized his own tropes into an opus. Candid narration, leaping non-linear timeline, sardonic gallows (or freshly-dug grave) humor, Italian-American rites and the self-referential nature of self-aware characters who don’t live in cultural vacuums for the sake of bland storytelling. All of these are part of the Scorsese mythos and he polishes each into glittering tableware that he’ll have you eating off as he takes you through the latter half of the politically-explosive 20th century through Frank’s frozen eyes. And though this is a three and a half hour journey of film, Scorsese’s command of direction: pacing, framing, wringing the precise emotion from his actors, tonal balance (supplied in Steve Zaillan’s script that’s sure to become scripture for its dexterity and density), is what keeps you there, in that moment of a sadistic WWII flashback, a calculated diner hit, an ice-cream sundae shared between Hoffa and Frank’s daughter or Hoffa and Stephen Graham’s fiery Anthony Provenzano.
With much being said about The Irishman having its official release through Netflix and its use of de-aging technology, I’d like to chime in. I’m so grateful that Netflix funded and produced The Irishman, allowing Scorsese carte blanche (of course) as had this been another major Hollywood studio release, you can be certain that the theatrical cut we’d have seen would be a hacked version of this magnificent marathon. That being said, see it in a cinema! I saw it the same night as its London premiere (13/10/19) in an independent and, as you can expect from such an auteur infatuated with cinema, its possibilities and its magic, this is a grand cinematic experience. Even at 209 minutes, I struggled to bow out for a vortex-strength pee as there isn’t a wasted line of dialogue or filler shot. Yes, you can pause it on Netflix on its 27 November release for a toilet break or a snack, but you can’t not witness one of Scorsese and co.’s finest in the arena it was made for. And on the de-aging debate, it’s something I have mixed feelings about, those feelings currently flared after seeing the abysmal IT: Part Two and asking myself is this where cinema is at currently: Are we now de-aging children? Before I flare up, I’m also grateful that this digital de-aging process exists as The Irishman is all the more emotionally impactful for maintaining the same actors throughout despite the fluctuations in time. For the first five minutes, you may think one of DeNiro’s young selves looks a little rubbery but even for this critic whose level of visual scrutiny is Terminator-like, I settled right into the mine-deep performances that the de-aging was made to facilitate.
It feels damn good to have Pesci, Pacino, and DeNiro back on the screen again. Especially as their characters become so caught up in one another’s lives. There are many brilliant scenes of nuance and sorrow for these old boys reminiscing about the good ol’ days of running from knives and chasing skirt (like most gangster pictures, this is a man’s world and Scorsese doesn’t attempt to appease the contemporary sentiments toward inclusivity but revels in the political and social anxieties of the time(s) the movie takes place in) all of which ache with brittle relevance. All of the key players should be retirees in the real world, but like the mob or the union, the film industry is one you don’t walk away from but are instead buried in its colors. As much as Frank’s leather-jacket-hiding-a-.45- heydays are visited, it’s the scenes he’s wearing pyjamas with Hoffa in a hotel apartment, desperately trying to douse the flames of his good friend’s feisty self-righteousness for the commitment he shares with Buffalino’s crime syndicate. As Frank’s outer-reticence recedes to reveal a man whose loyalty has earned him too many friends, too much respect even, the strands of story weave into the aforementioned wrinkled car journey of Frank and Russell’s idling road trip. Allegiances will flex to the point of fracture.
Though The Irishman seemingly shows total recall for the lovely and lively vignettes that make up the DNA of Frank ‘the Irishman’ Sheeran’s life, it holds no hands in its themes of family, respect, choice, morality and facing up to the demons dressed in gowns of guilt. It has the bitter air of a ghostly Dickensian allegory and the magnanimous scope of a Greek tragedy edited with a Shakespearean eye for comedy. All of this culminates into a reason to believe in cinema once more. I think 2019 has been a dire year for originality in film. Pageantry and pomposity decorate lazy writing and self-reverence as the only point of audience reference. The Irishman isn’t only a bastion for those who believe in character, in emotional nuance and a disagreeance toward a story trying too hard to fit a mass-produced label, but it’s also an example of how to do homage. Mainstream Hollywood, you have to establish a hearty menu teeming with brave choices and innovative visions, and I’m not saying it can’t feature spaghetti and meatballs but that recipe best be refined through generations of satisfied made-men and women before you try to pay it homage. Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino and Pesci are all establishments to themselves but with The Irishman they have stood atop their dense histories to distribute an original piece of art that shivers with thin-skin punctuated in liver spots but looks to a future past itself with weeping eyes as aware of the lives they’ve seen as they are the lives that have seen them and blossomed. If this is a swansong for all involved then its elegiac tones might just have awoken us from a slumber of brutish banality.
Fuggedaboutit? Not easily.
Aaron studies Creative and Professional Writing at Bangor University and is Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut and Nation. He is also a Young Critic for the Arts Council of Wales.