It’s been 24 hours since I saw Martin Scorsese's The Irishman and I’m still feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the experience. My youngest daughter has wanted so share thoughts on the movie which she saw the day before I did. But I'm finding it difficult to write or articulate feelings about it. To some degree this is a function of the film's length -- three and half hours -- but more precisely just how rich a cinematic experience it provides and how meaningfully and deeply it reveals the life of one man.
I could trot out the usual cliches that one does for great films but in this case they seem empty. I hasten here to add that I don’t know that I’m ready to call it a “great” film or otherwise label it. My daughter texted me a one-word review after seeing it: "incredible" and I concur. But how and why it is "incredible" is not so easy to unpack. Though it is many respects a rather conventional bit of cinema (the computer techniques to make the actors look younger or older aside). Somehow The Irishman is unique and here again I’m stuck for saying exactly how.
It is a somber film. One critic compared it to Scorsese’s masterpiece, Goodfellas (1990), noting that while the characters in that 1990 classic were having a great time, there is a gravity and sorrow to many of the lives and stories depicted in The Irishman. This is natural given that many of the characters are shown in old age, looking back, not nostalgically but almost mournfully and certainly unromantically. Robert DeNiro’s lead character, Frank Sheeran, a hit man, is forced to reflect on the many people he killed at the behest of his bosses in the mob. The wages of sin. There may not be regrets but there is little celebration in a life comprised of so much violence. His life is the centerpiece of The Irishman.
Scorsese’s use of music is thus subdued as his use of such trickery such as stop action and steadicam shots. As I alluded to earlier it is a very straight forward story. But what a story.
The Irishman is rich in US history from the ‘50s through the ‘70s. Of course the infamous Jimmy Hoffa, who everyone knew about in those days, is a central figure in the film, and he is brought to life by yet another in a long line of bravura performances by the incredible Al Pacino. There are also the Kefauver hearings, the Kennedy election, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK assassination, Vietnam, Nixon, Watergate and famous mob figures like Joey Gallo. All these events helped form the backdrop to my youth. There is — and this is important — also Americana from the time period. The foods, the cafes, the cars, the clothes, there was simply no way Scorsese was going to make this gangster epic and not get the period detail just so.
Themes abound in The Irishman. As with many good gangster films, loyalty, duplicity and revenge are crucial to the characters and thus the story. These are men who love one another, hate one another and rarely anything in between. This is one aspect of the gangster genre that is so satisfying, grey areas don’t exist, rules are clear. Step out of line and you get whacked. You are trusted and loved and protected until you cross a line and then you are simply dead. Justice is unambiguous and swift. There are no legal niceties involved. Except, of course mobsters, rely on their own shrewd lawyers when dealing with the inevitable pressures applied by the government. Of course, you can take the 5th unless your lawyer has uncovered that technicality that will get you off. Ray Romana as just such a lawyer is one of many standouts in the cast.
These are also men of great appetites. Yes, literally many of them eat copiously but they also hunger for more power and after that still more power and for more money and after that still more money. There is no amount of power or money that is sufficient for a mobster. Like the corporations and banks that gobble small businesses and hard-working taxpayers mortgages as if they are flakes of cereal, the gangster lives to consume. Woe betide those in their wake.
What makes a film like The Irishman ingratiating is that we cleave to certain characters while hating their foes. We take sides. We love to see people win while outside of standard conventions, rules and laws. There is a wonderful appeal to those brave enough to eschew the nine to five and live on the outside, like frontiersman of old. We all rooted at one level or another, for Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad because he was not just beating the system, he was kicking the living shit out of it. We live vicariously through our movie and TV gangsters.
Again like the best of gangster films (the aforementioned Goodfellas and The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974) being prime examples, although there are earlier examples from American cinema like White Heat (1949), The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Public Enemy (1931) and the original Scarface (1932)) there are brilliant performances highlighting the show. In addition to the — and he really needed to be — over the top performance by Pacino, there are the two other leads, DeNiro and Joe Pesci (blessedly out of retirement for the film) who give much more restrained, nuanced performances than in, for example, Goodfellas. This is not the erratic, maniacal Pesci of Goodfellas, here he is thoughtful, patient and calm. Mastering this kind of performance is perhaps more difficult but Pesci is, if anything, an underrated actor. Bobby Cannavale and Stephen Graham were highlights of the HBO show Boardwalk Empire, each playing gangsters. They brought their talents to The Irishman. Cannavale’s Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio, a steak-loving mobster who helps get Frank started in “the business” is much mellower than the homicidal Gyp Rosetti of Boardwalk. Graham portrayed Al Capone in Boardwalk, as famous a gangster as ever lived, in The Irishman he is Anthony Provenzano (Tony Pro) a noteworthy if far less well-known crook. Graham is a Liverpudlian but he can play an American crime boss with the best of them.
So one could go on for many, many paragraphs about the cast and their excellence. Just as there is much to say about the editing by the preeminent film editor and long-time Scorsese collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker or the cinema photography of Rodrigo Prieto or the musical score by Robbie Robertson, all were terrific. There’s so much to say about so much of what The Irishman accomplishes. But though I’ve just passed 1,000 words I feel like I’ve said nothing and will need to see it again, -- and again after that -- to be fully prepared to explore the film to my own satisfaction. (Note: yes, the movie is long, but it never, ever drags and I can’t think of a scene I would have cut or shortened.)
It has been useful exercise to write these preliminary thoughts about The Irishman. From them I learned that maybe I don’t yet love the movie so much as revere it. The film represents so much that can be good and right and beautiful and intellectually stimulating and meaningful about cinema and I’m simply going to have to get to know it better before I feel that we’re on intimate terms. I will, however, reiterate that it is, "incredible."