Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, out in selected UK and US cinemas. Warning: some spoilers ahead…
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert De Niro,Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Jesse Plemons
As far back as my late middle age, I always wanted to be a gangster.
By simply having De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel in an epic-length crime movie, celebrated movie brat and auteur in excelsis Martin “Marty” Scorsese automatically had the critics onside. He may not have had the multiplexes, or comic movie fans on board, but a film that had such a strong nostalgic tug for past triumphs meant that this project was already in sacred cow territory. From 1973 to 1982 Scorsese had produced and directed more timeless classics than any of his illustrious contemporaries – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy. Then there was a lull. Then after a few more wilderness years, there was the return to form, Goodfellas, the ultimate movie to eat pizza to. Since then there have been some moderate successes, but nothing to match the kinetic rollercoaster ride through Henry Hill’s floorshow, crammed as it was with archaic yet compulsive grotesques and that killer soundtrack. It was authentically lurid, four colour, hip and bloody. Casino inhabited the same milieu but didn’t hold up as well thematically. And now, 25 years after that, the gang has reconvened (well, minus Liotta and Vincent). But has Scorsese left it a little too late?
De Niro, finally back in the Scorsese saddle, plays mob hitman and enforcer Frank Sheeran, a man whose wartime experiences hardened him while inuring him to killing. In the 1950s, Sheeran, a meat packer, starts selling his wares to the Bufalino crime family, headed by Russell (Pesci), a taciturn soul who, after taking him on board learns that he paints houses (conducts hits). Russell then introduces the young Sheeran to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) the boss of the Teamsters Union. Within a short time, Hoffa, considered by Sheeran to be one of the most important people in America, makes him his personal bodyguard and confidant. The main issue from thereon is Hoffa’s conflict with Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham), a rival teamster who also happens to be a New York crime boss. And it is (after several twists and turns) Hoffa’s burgeoning megalomania that gradually aggravates Russell and the mob, leading to the film’s coda.
Despite the film’s considerable length (over three hours) there isn’t a vast amount more to it than that essential plot strand. It may be an epic, but it doesn’t feel like one, even if there are many rally or function scenes. Apart from the framing device (an extensive cross country trip featuring Sheeran, Russell and their two wives) there are few outdoor shots, and little magisterial sweep – it’s all claustrophobic restaurants, hotel rooms, prison cells, televisions relaying breaking events and at the end, a nursing home. As hinted at in the epigraph, the de-aging special effects (the “youthification”, as Scorsese put it) does distract, especially with the dissonance between the actor’s faces and general comportment. When Sheeran dishes out a par for the course savage beating to an errant local grocer (thereby frightening his young daughter Peggy) he just doesn’t possess the physical presence or co-ordination to administer it. Furthermore, even if you take the youth-endowing special effects into account, the cast veterans still look too geriatric, especially when they are playing off actors thirty years their junior, such as Bobby Cannavale (Felix DiTullio) or Stephen Graham’s Tony Pro. Check out their Goodfellas era selves – they looked menacingly genuine then, but not quite so much now. Nevertheless, with a little disbelief suspension one gets used to it and it ceases to matter. And at least we get to see Pacino being directed by Scorsese, even if he does look like he did in Dick Tracy.
In many ways however one could say that although it is a pared down reflection of Goodfellas’ hyperreal extravaganza, it is also a more accurate portrayal of mob life, at least in parts. There is a great deal of mundanity and drudgery, with Sheeran the put-upon companion to the explosive Hoffa. Sheeran goes about his business with calm rigidity, the mob assassinations he carries out as graphic as before but oddly disconnected. For Sheeran, it’s just a job, not a lifestyle. He never revels in his position as an outsider or power-crazed thug and never crosses lines, although his endgame reminiscences do exude self-satisfaction. De Niro’s performance anchors the film of course, and is never showy or demonstrative. He is excellent, but then he is also as one would expect – his internalised diffidence barely a digression from previously. Perhaps Pesci’s turn as the aging mafia boss is the biggest surprise – gone is the psychosis and swagger, replaced by a quietly understated, almost genial implacability. Of course he’s far too old to be Tommy DeVito again, but it’s still excellent work for a man who had to be coaxed out of retirement.
So what keeps this from being a classic such as those five aforementioned movies? The blame has to be at least partly apportioned to the director’s handling of Pacino, whose relentless big acting does tend to pall after a couple of hours. Hoffa doesn’t so much grow as a character but devolve into caricature – his meetings with Tony Pro, either in jail or a hotel suite, ever more ludicrous and tiresome. And it gets even sillier in the courtroom scenes – compare Pacino’s method turn in the senate hearing section of Godfather Part 2, or indeed the scene itself – his acting is entirely implicit and restrained, while the portrayal of the trial is cinematic reportage at its finest, with the viewer not just inside the court, but inside history. In The Irishman, Pacino is wild-eyed and hyper, the history on offer a sideshow.
And then there’s the rest of the cast – it’s great to see Harvey Keitel in a Scorsese picture after thirty odd years, but like the equally wasted Bobby Cannavale, he’s virtually airbrushed out of the narrative by the end of the first hour. Stephen Graham’s character is little more than a turn as well, which is a shame for such a gifted and committed actor. And for a Scorsese mob picture, there is even less dialogue than usual for the female characters. Even Goodfellas, which wasn’t about balancing the family with the Family, had some decent roles in that department. The Irishman’s central theme is about moral failure, and although this is echoed in Sheeran’s daughters’ attitude to their father, it is only Anna Paquin’s brooding, silent character Peggy who is visibly alienated by her dad’s profession. When Sheeran asks another of his daughters about her feelings towards him, the response is that the entire family were too terrified to engage with him much. Paquin, despite her lack of dialogue, is excellent, especially when she deduces what Frank did to Jimmy, the only connected man she liked.
Many critics have stated that this is Scorsese’s best picture since Goodfellas, which may be slightly hyperbolic (Casino was better and more dynamic, and The Departed, for all its ludicrousness, was about as good). The trouble with the film is that it comes across as Scorsese resting on his laurels, revisiting old themes, places and characters, without providing much of a new angle beyond the banality underpinning the violence. It’s also the case that The Sopranos (sorry to bring it up) made it rather difficult for all subsequent mafia-based projects, as it covered all aspects of the world of organised crime and the strand of the Italian-American experience that goes with it so definitively and comprehensively that there couldn’t be much more to add to the genre. Rather ironic considering what an influence Goodfellas was on that series, with so many cast members migrating from the movie to the show.
The Irishman is a decent if flawed movie, whose whistle stop tour of 60s politics and mob influence plays well enough but lacks the depth to make the context much more than the setting. As an essay in toxic masculinity it is worthwhile, despite all its repercussions generally being off-screen, not to mention the fact that the protagonist never has what one would refer to as an arc. It’s also at least forty-five minutes too long, with Pacino’s Hoffa outstaying his welcome long before De Niro’s Frank blandly shoots him while his back’s turned, while the naturalistic slow burn of the film’s denouement is out of kilter with what came before. Even the irony of Hoffa’s most trusted and long-time friend ending his life (and all the moral dilemmas therein) fizzle out long before Frank gets back in the car with Russell. Still recommended, but ultimately its problem is that it fulfils expectations but is predictable with it – and despite the ardour of dedicated fans who have convinced themselves otherwise, its reach never quite manages to exceed its grasp.
Here’s the film’s trailer too