Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Irishman (2019) Film Review
Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze
Crime does not pay in The Irishman. The title refers not only to the protagonist, but also to the largely omitted confessional connection to the Kennedy assassinations, which haunt the story even more effectively because the conspiracy theories are never fully spelled out. Speaking of confessions, the narrative is framed as such, blending together with anecdotes from an elderly man about a life-changing road trip in his illustrious past.
Not since Albert Serra had Jean-Pierre Léaud look straight into the camera in The Death Of Louis XIV - and by that turning us, the audience, into the Grim Reaper - has the presence of death been so palpable. A sudden silence and an old radiator in the corridor of a nursing home turn metaphysical in the hands of Martin Scorsese. The Irishman is a film punctured with wisdom, the result of life lived not shying away from complicated inquiries into human interactions. Teamwork, loyalty, friendship are threads you sense everywhere behind the scenes and on screen.
The story, based on Charles Brandt’s nonfiction book, I Heard You Paint Houses, screenplay by Steven Zaillian, is that of hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), his mentor, Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their intricate connections to the notorious union leader and Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Much more than a history of post-war organised crime, the film spans decades, with the focus on the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, plus a jump further back to the Second World War and a frame narrative closer to the present.
With the help of the latest digital de-aging technology, which you forget about after a few seconds, Scorsese and his splendid crew (fantastically detailed costumes by Sandy Powell and Christopher Peterson and production design by Bob Shaw) give a sense of times past, meanwhile creating a timely visitation of where the now was born.
This is what roots The Irishman’s timeless questions: What does it mean to do your job when that job involves killing people? What is the effect on your family? What does loyalty actually look like? How does the experience of war change everything? A broken double bracket, starting in a nursing home tale about a road trip, makes personal and national memories come alive.
Scorsese shoots at what is truly important in life and does so, miraculously, by putting the spotlight on organised crime. World War II is shown in one short, startling flashback of Frank talking about how strange he thinks it is that captured soldiers dig their own graves, as if they were "thinking the guy with the gun would change his mind." Frank, we see, is the guy with the gun. De Niro's casual delivery of the line is monumental in its universality of emotional disengagement in order to survive, in this case, 411 straight days in combat. This scene forms the original sin, a kernel that informs the whole movie. It contrasts the men we see on screen and their experience with the majority of the audience in the present.
I was reminded of what Max Brod, a friend of Franz Kafka, said about the enthusiasm of the young men of his generation when the First World War broke out, namely that they were a "spoiled generation, spoiled by nearly fifty years of peace that had made us lose sight of mankind's worst scourge." Frank Sheeran is very much a soldier who has seen the worst. Hence, he is qualified to become an enforcer for Bufalino and Hoffa because killing for a supposedly "just cause" has been what good men did during wartime.
In peacetime, Frank's sense of loyalty is constructed in such a way that it makes sense to us. Herein lies the genius of Scorsese's approach: We are with Frank all the way, become culpable too, constructing legitimisations. Yet, far from endorsing the corruption and illegal acts shown, we are constantly reminded of the cost. Text on the screen, every once in a while, informs us about the violent future demise of the gangsters we encounter on the sidelines of the plot.
Fame is fleeting. It is hard to fathom today, that there were times in the United States when a Union Leader could be a celebrity. Jimmy Hoffa was known by everyone, as prominent as Elvis in the Fifties and like the Beatles in the Sixties, comments Sheeran. Hoffa's disappearance in 1975 puzzled the world. The Irishman's answers to the mystery come too late. It is precisely the fact that nobody cares anymore that is of interest to the filmmaker.
A flat Seventies-style gold watch, blood on the walls, a thick pen marking the map for a road trip to a wedding, smoking pitstops for Frank and Russell's wives (Kate Arrington as Connie Sheeran and Kathrine Narducci as Carrie Bufalino) on the side of the highway. Memory triggers working their magic. It all began with a chance meeting with a man who doesn't give his name at a Texaco station. De-aged faces on no-longer-young bodies are a perfect link to the powers of recall.
There is a lot to be said about the marvels of how the film was made and the spectacular care for detail on every level. From the creases in the pyjamas, to the uncut half of a pink grapefruit on the breakfast plate of a man watching an update on missiles on TV, to the work of putting linoleum flooring in an entryway. There are the flawlessly tailored tweed outfits and crocodile handbags on the extras walking past a place of upcoming crime in a lobby and a very "spirited" watermelon used to handsome effect. This is great cinema in stark contrast to the carelessness and CGI shortcuts of so many big budget productions today.
Frank, trying to make things right for his young daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina, as an adult played by Anna Paquin) overreacts towards the shopkeeper, who, so we hear, pushed her. Frank's "solution" sets the tone for the rest of their lives. Overprotection gone awry is like no protection at all. The incident is followed by a family dinner where only the baby smiles. Peggy, one of four children, is the film's Bartleby, who "prefers not to." She bonds with Hoffa, despises Bufalino.
The explosions and shootings, at times funnily absurd and edited with such rhythmical timing by Scorsese's longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, do not come across as gratuitous. The more you laugh and enjoy yourself, the more an awareness creeps in that this is America. This is the soil of the now, with very specific seeds and on a large scale in sentiment.
We see a spot on a bridge where guns are thrown as a tradition into the water after a crime, followed by a shot of the rusty arsenal of weapons at the bottom of the river and the voice-over commentary that "you could arm a small country" with them. Deeply felt friendship is signified by sharing good bread dunked into red wine or ice cream sundaes with a cherry on top. From an old gas station to the way you wear your hat - there is so much love in this film that some might be tempted to overlook the bitter indictments shown. There is a Janus quality to almost all we see and hear.
Jimmy Hoffa's emphasis on solidarity works on two levels: As a reminder that the idea once was more than the phantom it is today, and, that it also came with a seedy underbelly of ruthless corruption. Literally and figuratively, the fabric of time has a starring role in The Irishman. We celebrate nostalgia and simultaneously have to question it.
The impeccable camerawork by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (The Wolf Of Wall Street, Silence) transforms the Howard Johnson motel into a modernist church with a pool where wives lounge and worship in their Pucci-print bathing suits. In another sequence, the yellow taxis, pushed into the harbour's water, are arranged in a pattern as if they were synchronised swimming rubber ducks.
The Irishman has an extraordinary supporting cast that includes Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno, Bobby Cannavale as Felix 'Skinny Razor' DiTullio, Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino, Stephen Graham as Tony Pro and Jack Huston as Bobby Kennedy.
De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are at the top of their game. Their performances shimmer with truth and insight. When Pesci as Bufalino states "She said 'thank you' once, that's enough," about little Peggy, whose affection he tries to woo with money, the abyss of his existence opens up for a second before it closes again on his expressive sad face.
Pacino gets to the depths of Hoffa in a scene when he insists that the American flag at the top of the Teamster Union building go up from half-mast. "Bobby Kennedy is just another lawyer now," he comments on his nemesis, the US Attorney General, right after the assassination of JFK. Respect and disrespect are always on Hoffa's mind. Showing up late and in shorts to a meeting with him equals a declaration of war. Yet, the real power, as alluded to by Russ Bufalino, is elsewhere, with those who can make or break Presidents of countries, let alone unions.
If Hitchcock has written the handbook of suspense, Scorsese has just added a new chapter to it. A dialogue regarding the transport of fish in a car, is a most brilliant lesson in moviemaking about how much can be accomplished at the same time, in one absurd, thrilling scene. Pivotal, traumatic moments whose full impact reveals itself only later, are as much part of the back and forth structure as are the nursing home and road trip frame.
Frank late in life, rejects cremation and being buried in the ground, because "it's so final." De Niro's wonderful performance injects a moment at the funeral parlour with a wish, as if in the end, there is a return to the beginning, to an innocence long lost. When the priest says "I think we can be sorry even if we don't feel sorry," you can laugh or cry. Is it a joke or wisdom? Why not both? Don't shut the door on that possibility!