Dir: Martin Scorsese
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman is the story of Frank Sheeran a World War II veteran who becomes embroiled in goings on with the mob and Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters of the 50s and 60s. The world’s greatest living director (Sam Mendes acceptance speech at the Golden Globes began “There’s not one director in the world who is not in the shadow of Martin Scorsese, I just had to say that.”) has assembled a dream team of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino & Joe Pesci to tell this story of historic union corruption and politics and perhaps more importantly, what some might refer to as toxic masculinity.
Just the fact that this is Scorsese’s first film with Al Pacino makes it an historic moment, but The Irishman is historic in so many ways it’s hard to detail them all. First let’s just say this, The Irishman is a flat out masterpiece. An epic meditation on a life of crime, growing old and as stated before, the epic pitfalls of masculinity left unchecked. Whilst Italian mob movies are well associated with Scorsese, actually only two of Scorsese’s twenty-five feature films prior to this are Italian mob movies, his other mob movie The Departed is actually half about a cop, and half about a mobster, who is in fact Irish. There are a couple more that naturally touch on the subject of mafia but are not actually movies about the mob. To be so powerfully associated with Italian mafia movies is a testament to the impact Scorsese’s two mob movies have made. However it should be understood, this film is totally unlike Goodfellas and Casino in every way. The lurid attraction to mob life showcased in Goodfellas and the naked ambition and hedonistic Las Vegas world of Casino are nowhere to be found. Instead we find DeNiro being absorbed and naturalised into a life of crime almost purely as way of getting ahead in his life and career, rather than as a lifestyle choice (aka greed) or as a result of some out of control psychopathy.
In an era when a man was almost entirely defined by his job, this is career option open to you once your moral certainty has been untangled by the act of going to war as a young man. Having faced death and delivered it in wartime can render the rules less clear than they might otherwise have been. Without any hint of malice or greed, the rage buried inside, and the loss of this moral compass paves the way for a “respectable” job opportunity readily available to those willing to put in the necessary ‘work’. Unlike Scorsese’s other mafia films we don’t see any glitz or glamour. A continuous series of subtitles inform us of the ultimate fate of almost every character we meet in the film. From the off, it’s clear this is a dead end job. In fact all of these characters are literally dead on arrival. The movie never moralises (as Scorsese always takes care not to) but it leaves you in no doubt, this career is a waste of life.
The film cuts between different eras, and famously this is the first big use of the digital de-ageing technology that has allowed Pesci and DeNiro to play their characters at all different ages throughout the story. During the first scene they appear in de-aged, it’s a little distracting, firstly as it’s the first time you see it, and secondly it’s a scene in broad daylight which is not especially kind on this new technology. After that however things are much improved and you quickly settle into it’s use, which at worse is no less distracting, and only akin to, any film or theatre makeup for a role. Having said that, on a second viewing of the movie I was often astounded at how well the technology worked in the vast majority of scenes. Given it is the first major outing for this technique it’s astonishingly advanced. Some people have complained about it not looking natural, but to me, for the most part, it looks great. This may of course be because I don’t need a de-ageing tech to be so perfect I am completely fooled, because for example if I was watching a stage play and a guy came out wearing a stick on white beard, I would be content to take that as a signal he was older than he was in the last scene. The intent for the story is what matters, and I really don’t have any major complaints about the de-ageing past it’s first scene. Videos of people supposedly using other techniques to de-age the actors have been circulating online, touting themselves as being “better than the effects in The Irishman”. It is of course nonsense given that they are using select clips, some of which don’t even remotely bear out the claim made, but more importantly these videos alter the performances. The facial expressions in these bootleg clips are markedly different from the actual performances given, which in a film of this type certainly would dramatically effect both the intent and the believability. It is the performance itself from any actor in a makeup be it digital or otherwise that convinces the viewer of it’s authenticity not the makeup itself, and boy oh boy what performances these are.
Al Pacino is always good value, and this is another great performance, but it’s Pesci and DeNiro who are firing on all cylinders. But not in the way one might think. Both have powerfully understated performances. Pesci who is returning for this one time role after retiring following what is really a 20 year absence from full time acting (since 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4 Pesci has played one on screen role proper, made a cameo and done a voice for an animation) absolutely nails his performance as crime family boss Russell Bufalino. It is a million miles away from Pesci’s brash, reactionary characters of Goodellas and Casino. The violence is ever present, but it’s cloaked violence hidden from view in much the way Pesci’s performance hides all his evil and malice from his outward expression. Pesci presents a reasonable, calm, almost relaxed face to the world, but without ever giving any obvious clues, the film, and Pesci, make it clear there is a unimaginable evil lurking beneath the surface. It’s an absolutely astonishing performance.
Meanwhile DeNiro who carries the bulk of the load is at his very finest here. Without spoiling the plot, the phone call DeNiro makes after speaking to his daughter (which DeNiro’s performance cleverly foreshadows early on) is one of the finest single scene performances ever captured in film history. So brimming with truth the scene sets off the whole final hour of the film as it calmly and cooly grapples with it’s real themes. The “discussion” he has with his daughter has been the subject of scrutiny too. Anna Paquin’s role as Frank Sheeran’s daughter is allotted only 7 words of dialogue in the movie, and as the ‘major’ female role in the film this has come in for some criticism. Sadly to make such a critique is to entirely miss the point. This is a movie about the absence of the female voice, about what evils will occur as a result of a society dominated by men, where (literally) women’s speaking voices do not have a place. When Paquin’s character does speak about two thirds of the way into movie, she needn’t say much, as what little she does say is deployed on the film like neutron bomb. It triggers the aforementioned phone call scene and subsequent hour that completely puts pay to the idea that these men made the right choices in life by following their pattern of behaviour, and marginalising the voices of the women in their life, as was not only the custom in mafia households but more broadly across society at this time. Scorsese builds this theme into the movie all the way through using moments such as the fatalistic on screen titles as mentioned above as well as a series of silences from the young Peggy that later you realise are the entire moral compass of the film.
The entire film is indeed a cautionary tale about toxic masculinity, as well as a spin through American political history, which may be a little opaque for some British or indeed younger audiences. But with twenty-five features under his belt Scorsese has shown he can do ‘accessible’, all he is interested in here is greatness. Deeply compelling, the movie is destined to consigned to the scrap heap by many, primarily because it is, as ever with Scorsese, a great piece of art designed to be shown in the cinema. Netflix is a desperately inappropriate primary home for Scorsese’s work, and this one in particular is going to be turned off and on and seen in piecemeal due to it’s running length and meditative style by the majority of viewers. The movie loses its immense power when not viewed in one sitting as intended by Scorsese and his master editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Schoonmaker works so hard to build up hypnotic rhythms and silences that crescendo or even reverse crescendo and rely directly on the rest of the film as tempo and mood reference for their impact to have the desired effect.
Indeed such meditative master film making relies on the enveloping large screen, big sound, and hushed atmosphere of the cinema. Otherwise this movie is a shadow of it’s true self. The idea that people are sitting at home watching this movie in bits like some sort TV series is horrifying, on top of the general horror regarding it’s lack of theatrical presentation. This lack of theatrical presentation won’t just hurt it with audiences, it will hurt it at The Oscars too. It’s a shocking irony that studios saw a film directed by cinema’s greatest living director and three of the world’s greatest living actors as too much of a financial risk. Or at least not as lucrative as some Avengers crap, meaning that Scorsese had to turn to a company that are the very antithesis of cinema in Netflix. A company so desperate for credibility it will pay any price (they are $13 billion in debt) and allow any creative freedom such as The Irishman’s longer running time. A longer running time that is totally unsuited to it’s own platform. When Martin Scorsese griped that Marvel movies were not cinema he was entirely correct, but the real point being made was Avengers movie etc taking up screen time is killing actual cinema.
I was lucky enough to see The Irishman in a cinema on the closing night of the BFI London film festival this past October and it was a magical experience. One which fully brought home the weight of the film’s final act, which let’s be honest is not some sort of twists and turns spectacular but an exceptionally mature and very subtle (but none the less immensely powerful) indictment of the cognitive dissonance at play that allows men to ruin their lives and the lives of those around them in such a way. In 1988 two of the undisputed greats of cinema corresponded when Akira Kurosawa wrote a letter to Ingmar Bergman that read “I fully realize that a human is not really capable of creating really good works until he reaches eighty”. He goes on to say that at this time of life, is the time when “I believe you would agree that a human becomes capable of producing pure works, without any restrictions”. When Scorsese made The Wolf Of Wall Street he would have just been turning 70 and I often would point out to people that with it’s vibrant non stop action, humour, camerawork and generally outrageous energetic and wild content, this was not the work of an old man reaching retirement but more akin to the voice of a brash young upstart. But in The Irishman we have something quite different, it’s a film that teaches you about the futility of the brutality of youth. It grapples with the moral hangover of these men when growing old very honestly (another thing people don’t like to face up to causing them to pause Netflix til another day) and it’s as brutal as it is understated in the movie. Scorsese has made a movie of immense depth here that shows mastery of every aspect of the art form avoiding cheap tricks at every turn. Kurosawa also wrote in his letter to Bergman, “I am now seventy-seven (77) years old and am convinced that my real work is just beginning”. Scorsese turned 77 this past year, perhaps (ironically with the help of new digital de-ageing technology) his real work is only just beginning.
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