Friday, November 08, 2019

The Irishman

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” Henry Hill states at the start of Goodfellas. “To me being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” Martin Scorsese has often shown us the seductive glamour of a life of crime; the wealth, the status, the power that draws his characters to it like a moth to a flame. One of the most iconic sequences in his work is the tracking shot in Goodfellas that follows Henry and Karen as they are led through the back entrance of The Copacabana to be seated at a prime table while all the schnooks wait in line. Scorsese played a similar game in Casino, dazzling us as his camera weaves through the backrooms where an unimaginable amount of cash flows daily, much of it into the counters' pockets. Both of these films end with violence and death, but before the crash, Scorsese invites us feel the vicarious thrill of the criminal lifestyle, allowing us to understand these men through the lives they've chosen to lead.

The Irishman is a different proposition from the start. There's little glamour here, the style is restrained and the environments are more mundane. The film may begin with a trademark Scorsese tracking shot, but the location we’re gliding through on this occasion is a nursing home, which is the place where the film begins and ends. It slowly makes its way through the corridors until it settles on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who then tells us his story over the course of the next three and a half hours. Steven Zaillian's screenplay is structured like an old man's memories, drifting back and forth in time, from one anecdote to the next, until it coalesces in its final hour into a staggeringly moving portrayal of grief and guilt, but despite the length and the measured pacing, The Irishman never drags. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker are in complete command of this material, and there's hardly a moment that isn't captivating.

This is a film about a tumultuous period in American history with The Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate and more unfolds in the background, and with Jimmy Hoffa (brought to life with ferocious and hilarious bluster by Al Pacino) being a key figure, but at its heart, it's a story about friendship and betrayal. The spine of the film is a road trip taken by Sheeran and crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) as they travel to a wedding in 1975, making stops along the way so Bufalino can settle some business and Sheeran can reminisce. The road is dotted with markers, like the truck stop where he and Bufalino first met, some time before the older man took Sheeran under his wing and drew him into his criminal network as a loyal soldier. In Pesci's previous collaborations with Scorsese, the actor has played livewire characters with hair-trigger tempers; from the minute he appears we await his foul-mouthed, violent outbursts with trepidation. His Russell Bufalino is a different beast, and even more chilling. Watchful and quietly authoritative, he never loses his temper and never raises his voice. He's this film's equivalent of "Paulie might have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn't have to move for anybody," and he's a man who can pass a death sentence as easily as uttering the simple words “It's what it is.” One telling detail is the wariness Frank's daughter Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina and later by Anna Paquin) exhibits towards this family friend. She can see the bottomless darkness behind his avuncular facade.

Peggy has no such qualms with Hoffa, seeing him as both a kindle uncle with whom she can share an ice cream, and an inspiring figure, fighting for a better deal for the working man. Although The Irishman is very much a film about men, Peggy quietly emerges as a key figure for giving us a different perspective on Frank. From the moment she sees her father beat a man in the street as a young child, Peggy acts as a silent witness throughout the film. She watches him leave the house at strange hours, she sees the kind of company he keeps, she reads about brutal slayings in the news and connects the dots. It might seem strange that an actress of Anna Paquin’s calibre has been handed a background role with no dialogue, but her silence is what lends the role its enormous power, and when she does finally speak her few words they cut Sheeran to the core. Her simple act of asking “Why?” is the moment when The Irishman shifts gears and delves deeper into questions of death, sin and mortality than Scorsese has ever gone before.

Throughout The Irishman, minor characters are introduced with title cards, detailing the date and method of their death – “shot four times in the face in his kitchen” or “blown up by a nail bomb under his porch.” They are already dead men when we meet them, and this is ultimately a film about confronting the inevitable, however it comes. Most of the men who choose this way of life get gunned down, blown up or meet their end in some similarly grisly fashion, but those who don’t end up wasting away in prisons; once-intimidating figures now physically and mentally diminished. I can’t stop thinking about one particular gesture in this film, a palsied hand raised as an elderly character says “You’ll see…you’ll see…” before being wheeled out of the film for good. The climactic forty minutes of The Irishman are as pitiless a study of ageing as you’re likely to see, with every scene being marked by death and the lingering weight of a failure to make amends for past misdeeds.

It’s in this final hour that Robert De Niro does his best work in the film; in fact, it’s hard to recall the last time he gave a performance this rich, nuanced and powerful. For much of the film De Niro seems willing to act as a quiet anchor for this epic; a self-effacing straight man for more attention-grabbing turns from the likes of Pacino, Pesci, Stephen Graham (wonderfully pugnacious, sharing two killer scenes with Pacino) and Ray Romano. But as the film moves into its closing stages, and these figures start to disappear from Sheeran’s life, De Niro’s performance as a man haunted by guilt and regret is revealed as a monumental piece of work. At times, the tormented emotions inside him seem to leave him incapable of speech, the words haltingly stumbling out of his mouth in one gut-wrenching scene as he attempts to make a phone call. 

This is every inch a Martin Scorsese picture, a true late-career masterpiece, but perhaps we should regard De Niro as a co-auteur on the film, a driving force in the same way he was with Raging Bull. It was him, after all, who brought the material to his longtime friend and collaborator in the first place, and it’s tempting to view The Irishman as their Unforgiven; a melancholy reflection and recontextualization of their previous work together in this genre, which has now spanned more than 45 years. From the young punks of Mean Streets, through the flashy and ruthless gangsters of Goodfellas and Casino, to the weary old men of The Irishman; it’s a Four Seasons-like quartet that explores propulsive thrill and ultimate emptiness of criminal life with a staggering clarity and force, with the sobering and haunting ending to this film feeling like a perfect final statement. We leave Frank where we found him, in the nursing home, but this time it’s after hours. He has nobody to comfort him, nobody to hear his stories, nobody who remembers the men who defined his life. He can do nothing but sit and get lost in his still-painful memories while he waits for the end, all alone in the still of the night.