Review: The Irishman is Scorsese’s Avengers Endgame!
Three Out of Five Bullet Holes
Hot off of a controversial press tour, Scorsese’s gangster epic The Irishman is having a limited theatrical run before heading to Netflix on November 27th, 2019. Running a staggering three and a half hours, and covering a span of almost fifty years, it truly feels like this is Scorsese’s final word (his final will and testament, if you will) on the mafia culture that he has dedicated large portions of his extensive filmmaking career to. Basically what I’m saying is, if you see it in theaters, maybe skip the large soda unless you have a bullet-proof bladder.
The Irishman (based off of the nonfiction crime novel I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt) tells the story of Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), real life teamster, World War II vet, and alleged hit man for the Bufalino crime family. The story begins with Frank, now elderly and confined to a wheelchair – and abandoned by his family in a retirement home – telling the story of his life. It jumps around in time (sometimes having flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks), starting from the time he meets Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), all the way through his involvement with the rise of corruption within the unions in the 1960s and 1970s, and then to his close friendship with (and ultimately, death of) infamous Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino.)
First things first. Much ado was made about the de-aging special effects used on De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, and whether or not it would be successful or distracting. It is least successful on post World War II truck driver De Niro. I believe the attempt was to make him look like he was in his mid thirties. Unfortunately, because I (and most likely a large chunk of the audience for this film) have a clear picture of what De Niro actually looked like in his thirties (raise your hand if you thought young Vito Corleone was hot as hell), this aged down version looks and feels wrong. Part of that is due to the fact that while they were able to age down his face… it still amounts to a young face on a frail, 76 years old body. That, and they gave him the creepiest pair of blue eyes I’ve ever seen. (It’s the equivalent of Hugh Grant’s brown contacts in a A Very English Scandal, it’s just wrong.) It all adds up to an uncanny valley nightmare akin to the Polar Express travesty of 2004. Luckily those scenes are brief, and the de-aging is much more effective, in fact hardly noticeable, once the characters are all in their 50s and up.
De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino are all fantastic. But that’s hardly surprising, given that they are doing what they do best. It’s particularly fun to see the rivalry that forms between Pesci’s Bufalino and Pacino’s Hoffa for Frank’s loyalty and affection. Pacino is a notorious scenery chewer, but under Scorsese’s direction he is able to channel those tendencies into a character that is also… shall we say… extra af. Let’s be honest, no one can shout “Cocksucker!” quite the way Pacino can. Also, I must say, his Hoffa wig is A+ and deserves its own Best Supporting Actor award. But where his Hoffa really shines, is when Pacino lets you see the deep rooted insecurities that are at the heart of his bluster, temper, and stubbornness. He is a man who is afraid of change, and most importantly afraid of losing power.
Where Pacino is harsh and loud, De Niro is stoic and subtle. Frank Sheeran is a man who plays things close to the vest. (A point Hoffa makes when he offers Sheeran his first position in Teamster leadership.) The way the opposing personalities (and opposing acting styles), interact creates a dynamic chemistry between the two – which then ripples throughout the rest of the film – adding shades and levels of nuance. The scene in which Hoffa (not noticing Frank is in the room), berates his bumbling staff, until Frank storms out insulted is a perfect example of this. There is something to De Niro’s subtlety that lends itself well to his more sociopathic characters. It makes the extreme acts of violence he commits all the more explosive.
And speaking of subtle, Pesci as Russell Bufalino is a terrific inversion of his – some might say iconic, others stereotypical – usual role. Instead of the brash, hot tempered, irritating bottom feeder, his Bufalino is the calm, charming, well-liked spider at the center of his crime family’s web. He’s the guy everyone does favors for because he will return them in kind. And while he is always polite, always smiling, and maybe he even does view Sheeran like a son – he is also a coldblooded and ruthless killer. And if you think De Niro and Pacino have the only dynamic chemistry, then just wait till you see Pesci and Pacino. They only have a couple of scenes together, but there’s something about seeing this trifecta play out what is essentially a mob love triangle (Hoffa and Bufalino pulling Sheeran between them like two grizzled old dogs fighting over a bone) that feels like a satisfactory conclusion to their time in this genre. Essentially, they are three great tastes that taste great together!
But there was one glaring frustration for me throughout. No, not the run time (well, not entirely, I’ll get to that). During Scorsese’s now contentious press tour, he was asked about the lack of female roles in his new film and he retorted that having female leads was a “waste of time” if the script didn’t call for them. And boy howdy, are there really not any female leads in this movie. Women (and girls) are ever present throughout – one of the past storylines involves a road trip that Bufalino and Sheeran drag their wives along with – however they function as essentially passive, sometimes nagging, accessories. They are voiceless pieces of furniture. Especially Peggy (seen as a child and then played by Anna Paquin as an adult), Sheeran’s favorite daughter. Special attention is paid to her silently observing and understanding everything her father does. She is clearly terrified of both him and Bufalino, (while she forges a bond with Hoffa) but she has no voice with which to express that terror. As an adult, when Hoffa is “disappeared,” Peggy finally speaks. She speaks seven words (she asks her father why he hasn’t called Jo, Hoffa’s wife about the disappearance). Seven. Words. I counted. And then she disappears (Sheeran says via voiceover that she refuses to speak to him ever again) for the rest of the film. Three and a half hours and the women get maybe, in total, two minutes of dialogue.
Y’all can you imagine casting Academy Award winning actress Anna Paquin and then only giving her seven words of dialogue?! I myself was rendered speechless. Now it feels like a very clear choice on the part of Scorsese. He has directed films with iconic supporting female characters in the past (Sharon Stone in Casino and Jessica Lange in Cape Fear to name two). But here he is sending the message that to these men, (and according to his press tour, to him) the women don’t actually matter. They are prizes to be fought over – Bufalino is constantly upset that Peggy never warms up to him, and grows jealous when she takes a shine to Hoffa – but they are of little importance.
They are left to silently observe the men in charge. Which, because this is all from the perspective of Sheeran, is really a critique of how gangsters and mob bosses view women in general. However, as a woman, it is extremely frustrating to sit through three and a half hours of mob boys mobbing around, waiting for Peggy to finally tell her dad off, only to be denied it. Which, hey, was probably a choice as well. Sheeran is obsessed with power and control, and the reason he can’t let Peggy’s literal Irish goodbye go is because it demonstrates that he has no control over her.
Stylistically, while watching The Irishman, I found Scorsese’s other controversial comments about the superhero genre to be highly ironic. I was only half-joking when I titled this “Scorsese’s Avengers Endgame.” At three and a half hours, it is roughly the same length as the superhero epic. It features a crew of men from their own, sometimes overlapping, film franchises/careers teaming up for an epic battle. It has funny banter. It has gratuitous, stylized violence. Hell, it even has excessive amounts of slow-motion. It’s basically a superhero movie, minus the super powers. Now I know that his comment was more about how he doesn’t feel that superhero movies are “cinema” because to him they don’t tell stories about “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” (Which I mostly disagree with, but whatever!) But even that I find extremely questionable considering gangster movies were for a long time considered low-bro genre fare (aka “not real cinema”) until “auteur” directors in the 1970s like him and Francis Ford Coppola “elevated” (barf) the genre. On top of that, I would argue that this film, out of all of them seems to be Scorsese’s condemnation of gangsters for their literal lack of humanity.
While films like Goodfellas and Casino (or Coppola’s Godfather trilogy) may have glamorized the mafia with their flash, money, and violent bravado, The Irishman seems to be pointing out that in reality, their lives consist of the opposite. That bravado, like Hoffa’s, is a front. The actual business of being a hitman is bleak, cold, and often times, dull. Sheeran spends most of his time running errands or patiently waiting. On top of that, these characters are all either sociopaths or psychopaths. All they want to do is control one another in order to maintain their own power. They don’t feel empathy, or compassion, and they certainly aren’t trying to convey an emotional experience or connect with other human beings. And Sheeran’s punishment for a lifetime of cold blooded murder, is not an equally violent death, but living. He lives and is abandoned by his family. Left to rot in a nursing home, with only a priest, a nurse, and the occasional FBI man to try and get a confession out of him. Even at this point, he refuses to talk. His only concession, is perhaps the guilt he feels around what happened to Hoffa. But you even question whether or not he actually wants redemption (and therefor salvation), or if he just thinks that it’s what you do.
Overall, despite my critiques, I did very much enjoy The Irishman. It is surprisingly funny, and the three leading men give the performances of their careers. If you managed to read all the way through my lengthy review, you might have the attention span and bladder fortitude to make it through The Irishman. Which, if you are a fan of Scorsese and want to see him officially close the book on gangster “cinema,” you should see in theaters if you can. And if you aren’t, well there’s always Netflix and the beauty of the pause button and bathroom breaks.
The Irishman is in theaters now.
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