When you are waiting for the most anticipated movie of the year for most film buffs, featuring legends (Scorcese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel) who we’ve grown to adore since we downloaded films during college, all coming together for 1 last hurrah in the twilight of their careers, it’s natural to be overwhelmed with nostalgia. Naturally the experience was almost cathartic which may cloud an objective review. Since I’m sure fans of Scorcese would have already seen the film on Netflix, I’ll use this review to explore more on the core themes at the end rather than just a review, however I’ll try to ensure I’ll not give any major spoilers (be assured through the film doesn’t rely on any big plot-twist that spoils the whole experience, it’s the journey than the ending :P)
However, after regaining my bearings, I can safely conclude that objectively this is Scorcese’s best film since Goodfellas, primarily because even after 50 years of filmmaking, he has shown another evolution in his filmmaking style. People expecting a heady concoction of high-octane foul mouthing, violence with raw masculinity and dark humor associated with most of Scorcese’s gangster films will be disappointed. The Irishman at 210 min length (thanks to Netflix not having any theatrical release constraints) gives Scorcese ample time to direct a slow burn which is at times violent, humorous but mostly has more of a poignant streak. The film is told from a first person perspective of the truck driver turned gangster Frank “Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) as he recounts and reflects on his life of the past 50 years from his turn to crime, with particular focus on his association with Labour Union Boss James Hoffa (Pacino) while in the background working as hitman for Mob Leader Russell Buffalino (Pesci).
We see an old and decaying De Niro recounting his old days of crime while being left in solitude to reflect and suffer on the choices he has made, almost like living life in purgatory. There is a streak of poignant nostalgia and reminiscence running throughout the entire length of the film, right from the opening tracking shot running to Fred Paris’ 1960s classic “Still of the night” as we pan into an old and fragile De Niro. On a metaphysical level, it’s tempting to think Scorcese was using this film as a vehicle for his last hurrah with his long-term collaborators who have come together to reflect on their past highs and lows.
The story of Irishman is told through an innovative use of 2 flash-back threads running in parallel – The major thread focusses on Frank Sheeran from his early years of truck driving to getting involved with the Mafia and various “dirty jobs” to make an extra buck, his rise up the ranks culminating with his involvement with Jimmy Hoffa. As Jimmy Hoffa asks Fred “Do you wanna be part of this history”, the events are played in the backdrop of JFK’s victory over Nixon, the Bay of Pigs invasion (Scorcese seems to affirm the conspiracy theory of the Mafia involvement in the disastrous invasion of Cuba), JFK’s assassination and Robert Kennedy’s prolonged war with the Union bosses. The secondary thread is a gradual reveal of an older De Niro in his 50’s who continues to be associated with Russell Buffalino going on a road trip, which as we realise towards the last 1 hour, has a specific motive. Like the multi-layered flash backs of Goodfellas, the Irishman plays out the 2 threads effectively, though the sheer volume of events can make the film a bit stretched in the middle.
Scorcese is often considered to be the guy who brought the “cool” to gangster flicks, a style which spawned many pretenders who just wanted to focus on the style (read black humor, record no. of F words, violence playing to cool music, hell yeah!). He has pioneered a style which is so exhilarating to the point of producing a “high”, that we can be mistaken to brand him as a one trick pony while conveniently forgetting that this man has made many other gems outside cool mafia films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Last temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, Shutter Island, Hugo and so on). I mean, we are talking of 1 of the greatest directors of our generation with one of the longest active careers in the Industry. The Irishman does have the usual troupes of a Scorcese gangster flick that we have come to love, complete with black humor, jazzy music, bursts of violence and wise guy talk (“Now is not the time not to say it”). Other than Tarantino, only Scorcese can make a conversation between 2 antagonized Union bosses and Mobsters turn to a debate on whether coming 10 minutes or 15 minutes late in a meeting is acceptable, and make it both funny and menacing at the same time (as James Hoffa says “More than 10, you’re saying something. You’re saying something to me”?). The Irishman, for the initial 2.5 hours of the film at least, is much similar in structure to the story of Henry Hill and how “he always wanted to be a gangster” in Goodfellas. But we see a little less violence (hell even the killings are not stylized ala Tarantino with jazzy background music in slow-mo; they are quick, done in a flash, almost cowardly in its nature by the killers), a little less swearing and a lot more character development. Because in the end, the Irishman is the bonding between 3 people who share in the crimes and corruption and how their loyalty towards each other is eventually put to the test, which is inevitable in a life of violence. In that manner, the film is less like a Goodfellas and closer in themes to Sergei Leone’s underrated masterpiece Once Upon a Time In America (another epic of similar run-time, also features De Niro, Pesci and imho one of the best mafia films after Godfather 1 and 2).
What sets Irishman apart from Scorcese’s earlier works (and also most of the other Mafia films drawing generously from Scorcese’s style) is the last 1 hour of the film. Scorcese’s prior gangster films never lasted long enough to show the characters in the aftermath of all the violence. Yes, Goodfellas ended with most of the mobsters going to jail without a guilt for their actions, rather a scant regret that they cannot have the cool loves anymore. Departed ended amidst a blaze of headshots. Here in the Irishman, already 2.5 hours into the movie, Scorcese has the “cojones” to slow down the pacing to the point of becoming a meditative exploration of death, the impermanence of life, the nature of crime and guilt and eventually having to answer to no higher power but oneself for one’s actions, its consequences and the legacy one leaves behind. Quoting from the film “Sooner or later, everybody has a date when he’s gonna go. And I think there’s gotta be something when you go, cause, otherwise, how the hell did this whole thing start?” The focus shifts entirely to Frank Sheeran and Scorcese uses the run-time to shift from a plot driven narrative to an intimate character study, a peek into the soul of a man in living death.
It may be noted that Scorcese had a very religious upbringing, and amidst all the violence in his films, he has time and again explored the basic themes of actions and consequence, penance and salvation (Eg. His Faith trilogy including The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, a lesser known film on the Dalai Lama and Silence, a passion project of his). Or take his more renowned films, recall the biblical quote at the end of Raging Bull – “the Pharisees summoned the man who had been blind and said: ‘Speak the truth before God. We know this fellow is a sinner.’ The man replied ‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know. All I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see’”. For all of Jakes La Motta’s self-destructive actions, can he eventually see, and finally attain peace and absolve himself.
On the other end, for all the misdeeds and betrayals that Frank Sheeran was responsible for as acting hitman to Russell Buffalino without ever truly realizing the consequences of his actions, does he feel remorse or in the word of the Padre in front of an ageing De Niro at least “be sorry even when you don’t feel sorry”. It is quietly devastating to see an ageing man size up his life and see the hollowness of all his actions. The usual line of mobsters entering into a life of crime out of necessity with only the family’s good intentions in mind seems hollow (“I know I wasn’t a good dad. I was just trying to protect all of youse “ “From What ?” she says). All is left is to suffer in quiet contemplation. Is his silence a symbol of penance or a denial borne out of an inability to face up to his actions, the families he has wronged and a desperation to preserve whatever legacy a man leaves behind. There is a fine line between feeling genuine guilt on the one hand, and on the other, feeling regret and desperately seeking absolution through religion. That is the conundrum that Frank Sheeran faces in his living purgatory.
No discussion of the Irishman is complete without commenting on arguably the strongest cast assembled in this century, that would put Hollywood’s walk of fame to shame. It is always heartening to see ageing artists defy time and immerse the audience in a virtuoso performance. Even in the twilight of their careers, these maestros continue to shine even if for 1 last time. It’s not a competition among who gets the bragging rights in a clash of titans, each actor complements the other beautifully under the directorship of Scorcese. Pacino gets some of the best lines which, true to style, he plays out with aplomb and totally owns the scenes he is in. Pesci, is a revelation as the suave Mafia don, an understated performance which is a cry from the volatile characters he has played in Goodfellas and Casino. However, the film is in the end a magnum opus for De Niro, the fulcrum on which Joe Pesci and Pacino play out their roles. De Niro plays with equal ease a 30 something truck driver, a 40 something hitman, a 50 something influential Union worker to a 80 year old approaching his death bed. The last 1 hour of the movie is Scorcese’s gift to De Niro, a vehicle for the man to deliver his most complete and wide-ranging performance in decades. The hard-boiled screwed face we have come to be in awe of now breaks our heart with its fragility, inspite of knowing the crimes the character has perpetrated.
It is a sign of our times that such a film can no longer exist in the traditional structure of the Hollywood Studio. In an age of endless franchises churning cash cows for Big Studios, no Studio would want to bet on a film at a budget of USD 150 mio (Scorcese’s most expensive film), featuring an ageing cast and director to a mainstream audience, no matter what their past achievement may have been. For now, this gap for passion projects and independent cinema is thankfully being filled by Online Streaming sites. This does not mean Online sites aren’t profit seeking, their business model is simply not driven by profits per film, for them each production is a part of the overall target of getting more subscribers for their service. In this changing landscape, it is not surprising to see more independent cinema moving entirely to streaming sites while Theatres will exist mostly for big franchise films. Netflix has made a start with Cuaron’s Roma last year and this year betted big on arguably the movie of the decade. Without a traditional theatrical release, whether it still can be considered as “Cinema”, is well, left to the viewers and the Hollywood fraternity (including the Oscar Academy) to decide!
Scorcese, unlike his close friends Copolla and Spielberg, even in his late 70s rages on against the dying of the light by pushing his boundaries and staying relevant without compromising on artistic integrity. When 3D came from Avatar, he embraced it artistically in Hugo, when online media came, he has embraced Netflix to tell a story which isn’t constrained by theatrical runtime. With the coming of CGI, he embraced it by giving fans a chance to see some of the greatest actors come alive together even though they are well into their 70s. Thanks Scorcese and, even though I’ve never been a big fan of it, thank you to Netflix for allowing Irishman to exist!