Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman

On Film / The Daily — Sep 30, 2019
Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019)

Since the world premiere of The Irishman opened this year’s New York Film Festival over the weekend, reviewers have been measuring this new decades-spanning, three-and-a-half-hour, Netflix-backed film against Martin Scorsese’s other movies about mobsters, and in particular, Goodfellas. “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster,” says Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill at the outset of that 1990 film, and much (though certainly not all) of what follows makes a convincing case that not only does crime pay, it’s a blast. The Irishman is, as Rolling Stone’s David Fear puts it, “the anti-Goodfellas.” It’s “Scorsese’s least sentimental picture of mob life, and for that reason his most poignant,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “To watch this movie, especially in its long, graceful final movement, is to feel a circle closing. This isn’t the last film Scorsese will make, or the last film anyone will make about the Mafia in its heyday, but it does arrive at a kind of resting place.”

Scott notes that the opening shot of The Irishman echoes and may even intentionally comment on the famous tracking shot in Goodfellas that follows Henry Hill and his date through the bustling bowels of a hot nightclub while the Crystals chime “Then He Kissed Me” on the soundtrack. In The Irishman, it’s the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” a tune about as sluggish as doo-wop ever got in the 1950s, that underscores cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s long wander through a nursing home in the early 2000s. Eventually, the camera finds Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the real-life hit man who claimed to have offed union leader Jimmy Hoffa, now eighty-one and fading, and he’s going to tell us his story.

As Jason Bailey points out at Flavorwire, Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York), adapting Charles Brandt’s 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses, approach Frank’s story “mostly as historical fiction, without making any real claims of authenticity either way, which is probably wise.” In the days and weeks leading up to the premiere of The Irishman, several writers—most prominently Bill Tonelli at Slate and Jack Goldsmith, author of In Hoffa’s Shadow, in the New York Review of Books—have laid out their cases against Sheeran’s claims. All well and good for future reference, but with strict regard to The Irishman as a film, pretty much beside the point. At RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz argues that “Frank’s storytelling aligns him with some of the most mesmerizing unreliable narrators in Scorsese’s voice-over-heavy career.”

Chronologically, Frank’s tale begins in Europe during the Second World War. Without hesitation, he’s carried out orders to shoot German prisoners of war after he’s had them dig their own graves. “It’s a tough movie that’s willing to snuff our idealism about America in WWII,” notes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. Back home, he drives a truck, and at some point in the mid-’50s, falls in with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the head of a Pennsylvania crime family, who will eventually introduce him to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). “Once Hoffa enters the picture, The Irishman hits its stride,” writes Jon Dieringer at Screen Slate. The mob, the Teamsters, and the CIA are seen working in tandem, wittingly or not, at crucial points in the history of America in mid-twentieth century such as the election and assassination of John F. Kennedy or the funneling of arms to Cuba in an effort to overthrow Castro. All the while, Frank carries out orders to “paint houses,” that is, to splatter the walls with the blood of anyone who gets in their way. At TheWrap, Alonso Duralde notes that Scorsese and his long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, “could teach most documentarians a thing or two about explaining process and guiding audiences through the basics of How Things Work.”

Dieringer is not the only critic to be reminded of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return while watching The Irishman. Both works, he notes, “see major auteurs reuniting with a career-spanning cast of collaborators and thematic concerns with reportedly greater creative control afforded by non-studio financing. And in each, extended runtimes give the directors more breathing room for entertaining tangents . . . And accordingly, as advanced-career works, both deal explicitly with themes of aging and death.” Because The Irishman’s three leads, like Scorsese, are all in their seventies, depicting time’s relentless toll has entailed digitally de-aging their faces for the scenes set in their younger days. Just about everyone agrees that the technology isn’t quite there yet.

But most would also agree with Time’s Stephanie Zacharek, who argues that “the special effects are hardly a deal breaker, and in the end, they probably add to the movie’s mythological vibe: The veracity of the real Sheeran’s confession matters less than the fact that De Niro’s version of Sheeran absolutely, without a doubt, pulled the trigger.” For the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, the de-aging is “the movie’s moral spine. Time, generations, and age are central to The Irishman; it’s the story of its characters but also the story of an era, and it’s crucial to the movie’s affect that its protagonists are played by people who were formed by those times, both culturally and unconsciously. These actors aren’t merely powerful and subtle (the Academy will have its hands full with De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci), or at the very summit of their talent; they are incarnations of the past.”


Pacino, working with Scorsese for the first time, is “fabulous here, hitting the sweet spot between great and hambone,” writes Zacharek, and for Keith Uhlich at Slant, De Niro “expertly sketches the moral bottoming out of an immoral man (his mumbly, halting call with Hoffa’s wife after the deed is done is a particular highlight), and it’s thrilling to see him so engaged.” As Frank’s daughter, Peggy, Anna Paquin is the film’s “silent Greek chorus, her gaze a damning indictment of his failures as a father and a man,” writes Nick Schager at the Daily Beast. At the Verge, Jesse Hassenger finds that it’s “a shame to see Paquin in a Scorsese movie without anything more to do than issue reproachful looks, but at least that neglect is thematically appropriate.”

The performance drawing the highest accolades, though, is Pesci’s. “A pop-top in Raging Bull and especially Goodfellas and Casino, he plays Bufalino as almost supernaturally focused and watchful, always hypersensitive to other peoples’ rhythms,” writes Vulture’s David Edelstein. “Who could imagine Pesci triumphing as a man who looks for equilibrium, who seeks to modulate every encounter, who accepts that murder is inevitable but sadly, seeing in it a sign of failure? I thank the gods of acting that he came out of retirement to do this.”

The closing half-hour of The Irishman is “a finale of stifling bleakness, of the pathetic emptiness of crime and of men who mistake their priorities in life, the discovery arriving all too late,” writes the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee. “There’s an almost meta-maturity, as if Scorsese is also looking back on his own career, the film leaving us with a haunting reminder not to glamorize violent men and the wreckage they leave behind.” The A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd finds that, while Scorsese “still directs with the energy of a hungry young filmmaker, his command of montage yanking the audience forward from scene to scene,” in The Irishman, “death looms over every minute, more of a guarantee than a threat.”

On November 1, The Irishman will begin showing in a few theaters willing to play along with Netflix before the film starts streaming on November 27. Variety’s Gregg Goldstein talks with NYFF director Kent Jones about landing the premiere for the festival, and Film at Lincoln Center has video from the post-screening Q&A. Deadline’s Antonia Blythe interviews producer Jane Rosenthal, and Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold gets a few words with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. The conversation to read, though, is the cover story of the new issue of DGA Quarterly, a long and leisurely chat between Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. They cover a lot of ground, and when it comes to The Irishman, Scorsese says, “It’s a quieter pace. It still has violence to it, it still has humor. But it comes in different ways. It’s the old story: The more pictures you make, the more there is to learn.”

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