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?

Now I love films that take their time, and I have a great deal of time for films with long runtimes – but good Lord I struggled with The Irishman. It feels like the worst, laziest, form of criticism to say it – but I found the film a little bit, well, boring. And I totally get what is being attempted here. The Irishman is a totally different beast to Scorsese’s previous gangster movies, a quiet mood piece, contemplative, sad, quiet, lacking in vibrancy and energy, 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, engaging, dynamic gangster films of the past, from Mean Streets via Goodfellas to Casino and the cartoonish The Departed.

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. But he also essentially has no – or very little – personality, a taciturn killer. To be honest he’s a tough person to follow, and he’s not really that interesting or engaging at all. De Niro’s blankness, his coldness, is perfect for the character, but it hardly makes for a compelling viewing experience. Sheeran’s life should be full of incident, but it drags as the film’s long run-time stretches over impenetrable union politics and gangster turmoil.

The Teamster content of the film is dense, hard-to-follow and frequently not that interesting. So it’s tough that it takes up almost two hours of the film’s run-time. Al Pacino is good value as Jimmy Hoffa – 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) – but the story of Teamster funding of gangster crimes and the struggles of Hoffa to win back the presidency of the Union after his imprisonment for fraud, is frankly not as engaging as it needs to be. It’s almost a slog.

The film is stronger on the emptiness and 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. The attempt to puncture her silent disapproval (present from her school days) with some form of acknowledgement and engagement becomes a large part of the sad coda of Sheehan’s life. It’s no surprise that this sort of life leaves the gangsters alone and abandoned at the end of their lives.

I 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. But nevertheless, it makes for something that increasingly feels a little dull, a little hard-to-watch and not always as engaging as it should (I’m not surprised so many people have assembled a viewing guide on Netflix to break the film up into chunks). I frankly didn’t care about any of the characters, so watching four hours of them lead miserable lives that lead to isolation, failure and death was hardly entertainment.

There are good parts for sure. Joe Pesci, lured from retirement, is a revelation as a sort of cool, calm, grandfatherly fixer a million miles from the lunatics he played in Casino or Goodfellas. It’s simply brilliant work from Pesci, whose every scene suggests quiet reason laced with real menace and ruthlessness. Stephen Graham is also excellent as the sort of dangerously impulsive bully Pesci played to such great effect in those earlier movies.

And those 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. The whole thing makes for a metaphor for the entire film – it’s an old man of a film, given an expensive new face, but at heart it’s a little bit slow. I feel guilty saying it, but the film is a handsome bore, something that goes on far, far, far too long and while it’s a great mood mirror to Goodfellas, it’s also a tough way to spend a long evening.

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