Monday, 9 December 2019

The Irishman (2019)

De Niro and Pacino under digital facelifts bring to life Scorsese's meditative The Irishman

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran), Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa), Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), Bobby Cannavale (Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio), Anna Paquin (Peggy Sheeran), Stephen Graham (Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano), Stephanie Kurtzuba (Irene Sheeran), Jesse Plemons (Chuckie O’Brien), Harvey Keitel (Angelo Bruno)

Scorsese had wanted to make this film for almost 20 years but it took the mega bucks of Netflix (to the tune of over $150 million) to finally bring it to life. With complete creative control, we get Scorsese’s epic as he saw it, an over three-and-a-half hour long sad meditation on the life of the gangster. For the first time in almost 25 years, Scorsese is reunited with his muse Robert De Niro – appearing here under various digital facelifts to tell the story of Frank Sheeran, an Irish member of the Mafia, and his relationship with infamous Teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Was the film worth the effort to make it?

I first saw The Irishman in the cinema. I now feel that was a mistake. This is a film that needs to be soaked in like a warm bath. Like reading an involving novel, it needs to savoured and consumed at your own pace. In the cinema in one take - with no intermission - its runtime is punishing. It's the worst form of criticism but in one take, the film can overstay its welcome. In fact it can become a little boring. 

Re-watching the film a year later at home - where I could break it up into three chunks as (I feel) so many people have, it becomes a richer and more engrossing viewing experience. Because this is a totally different beast to Scorsese’s previous gangster movies, a quiet mood piece, contemplative, sad, a genuinely tragedy-tinged, doom-laden reflection on the emptiness and costly violence of the gangster life, and the empty shells it leaves of the people in it. And at its centre, a man so dehumanised by war, by obeying orders, so lacking of personality, so incapable of emotion it seems, that he ends the film as a blank, lonely, abandoned slate. It’s a real, and deliberate, counter-point to his electric gangster films of the past, from Mean Streets via Goodfellas to Casino and the cartoonish The Departed. Here the price of doing business is your soul - and when that final bullet comes (as it inevitably will) you have nothing to show for it.

It makes for a late Scorsese epic - nearly a TV mini-series - slow-paced, wintery and a perfect counterpoint to Goodfellas. There crime is ruthless but you can see it's also fun. Here it's hardwork, unrewarding and inevitably leads to a bloody demise. Time settles on the shoulders of its leads like deadweights and their is a weary sadness as they trudge from one feud to another, each of which can only be resolved by putting another body in the ground. And everyone knows that the next feud might well mean it's their body that will end up six feet under.

Frank Sheeran is a drained automaton, a human being possibly in name only, who takes on violent acts without question, who can kill without remorse. This is the very picture of a second-tier career criminal, a man who takes orders and carries out missions. De Niro brilliantly creates an sociopathic monster, a man almost devoid of his own personality, with little to him but a taciturn killer. Sheeran is a tough character to relate to or understand - but that's because he's not really a character at all. Interestingly he doesn't have the sort of flaws that undermine other Scorsese gangsters, like Henry Hill. His flaw is in fact his entire existence. His sociopathic acceptance of violence, his thoughtless carrying out of killing, his inability to relate to human beings. It's what leaves him alone, unloved and isolated in a care-home. This is a man who can barely muster much emotion about killing his best friend, whose quiet, placid nature perhaps only hides his lack of capability of even experiencing emotion.

The Teamster union politics content of the film is often dense and hard-to-follow. At times it tips into being not that interesting. So it’s tough that it takes up almost two hours of the film’s run-time. It's a sign of the films overindulgence. At the end of the day I'm not sure it adds much to your overall impression of the film. But reviewing the film perhaps that's the point. The very shallowness and even pettiness of this feuding - not to mention the naked, unromantic greed - over how to distribute union pension money, explodes the myth of any romance to this crime. These are blue-collar conmen, using violence as a way to conclude a board meeting.

As Jimmy Hoffa, Al Pacino is the best he's been in literally decades – the film uses his “hoo hah” shoutiness to great effect, but Pacino also makes Hoffa an unexpectedly vulnerable and lost figure amongst all the politics, a showman who overestimates his importance and invulnerability. The entire film is shaped (we discover) around a series of flashbacks from Sheeran on a road trip on what turns out to be the final days of Hoffa’s life (the film includes a solution to Hoffa’s famous disappearance). De Niro and Pacino spark beautifully off each other as a bond forms between them - the films lingering on their growing friendship (and at times strangely homoerotic intimacy) one of its strongest elements, as well as carefully demonstrating how disloyalty is a crucial survival skill in this world.

The film strongest elements are the doom-laden nihilism of the gangster life. Told by Scorsese deliberately without flash and excitement, with a score so sparse that long stretches of the film echo with silence, there seems to be no fun at all in the gangster world, instead a series of mundane men sitting in small restaurants, talking about admin and punching the clock. Many of the gangster characters are introduced with on-screen captions that detail the dates and natures of their violent deaths. It’s the exact opposite of what you might expect from a Scorsese film. It’s a director showing the dark flipside of his previous films, of the way the gangster life is a dwindle through a dull life marked with moments of danger, where death is a sudden violent explosion that ends a life too soon.


And it leaves families in a mess. Anna Paquin speaks very few words as Sheeran’s adult daughter, but only because her silent disapproval and disgust at her father’s life becomes the haunting of Sheeran’s whole life. His daughter's silent disgust is a recurrent theme (even from childhood, she is repulsed by his capacity for violence and his heartlessness). Sheeran's attempt to break through her silent disapproval, to get her to acknowledge him in some way becomes a large part of the sad coda of Sheeran’s life. It’s all part of Scorsese's message: what is the point of a life like this that brings wealth and power, but also leaves you broken, lonely and despised by everyone around you?

And you can’t argue with the skill with which this quiet, meditative, grim and slow exploration of the gangster world is put together by Scorsese – or the artistry that every moment of the film has, or the control of the director. It's beautifully shot and edited. It's pace is at times glacial, but this is resolved by watching at your own pace on Netflix. It's not a film to be binged (ironically Scorsese has made a television novel that he wants you to watch in one go) but instead one to be savoured and considered. That's where it's strengths are.

There are also excellent performances. Joe Pesci, lured from retirement, is outstanding. He's a revelation as a sort of cool, calm, grandfatherly fixer a million miles from the lunatics he played in Casino or Goodfellas. Pesci quietly dominates several scenes, using stillness and quiet like a vicious badger who knows he only needs to swat once to remove his foes. This is a performance of beautifully judged grace and stability, a calm reflectiveness that carries a vicious coldness at its heart. Russell may prefer a peaceful solution - but he will order your death without thinking twice. Also excellent is Stephen Graham as the sort of dangerously impulsive bully Pesci played to such great effect in those earlier movies.

And those famous digital facelifts? Well they are fine technically. You ignore them after a while. But no matter of digital trickery can make De Niro move with the gait, physicality or certainty of a man more than 30 years younger than he is. As we watch De Niro (supposedly a killer in his prime) shamble forward, or gingerly give a rude grocer a kicking, you can’t forget that he’s really a much older man. To be honest the film would have been just as good - maybe better - with actors the correct age filling in for the younger roles. Watching it again, I'm never convinced that I am watching a De Niro the age he was in Mean Streets or even Goodfellas. To be honest, at times the facelifts don't look a lot more convincing than hair dye and a little tape to stretch the skin back.

In fact the digital facelift at times is almost a metaphor for the film: it's a film where age and time are a constant presence. Knowing the lead actors are old men, trying to look young kind of sits with that. These are not dynamic, triumphant young men. But then they never were. These are men who feel the burdens of the world on their shoulders every day. Who at the end of their lives will have nothing to show for it over than a satisfaction that they managed to live slightly longer than they expected. Whose friends and family will hate them and who find they sold their souls and gained nothing but dust in exchange. Long, slow, sometimes trying - but on a second rewatch, also compelling, thought-provoking, heartfelt, insightful and inspiring.

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