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The Irishman (2019) Martin Scorsese

The Irishman (2019)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Produced by Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler, Gerald Chamales, Gastón Pavlovich, Randall Emmett, Gabriele Israilovici

Screenplay by Steven Zaillian

Based on I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt

Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto

Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker

Music by Robbie Robertson

TriBeCa Productions, Sikelia Productions, Winkler Films

Distributed by Netflix

(3:29) Netflix streaming

It’s my intention to write a short review of The Irishman, in contrast to its enormous running time. It is also my intention not to address any of the following:

Scorsese’s issues with superhero movies

Scorsese’s previous films dealing with organized crime (mainly because it’s been such a long time since I’ve seen them)

The historical accuracy (or lack thereof) of the film

Any speculation as to Oscar nominations and wins

I realize it’s impossible to be totally objective about this film since, c’mon, it’s Martin Scorsese, plus he’s working with modern day icons. Although those elements certainly figure into any discussion of the film, I just want to talk about the film itself and my reactions to it. It will include SPOILERS. I also plan on seeing the movie again, so my opinion may change slightly or significantly from what I’m writing today.


At this point, if you really need the plot of the film, here’s a very brief (albeit slightly modified) one I found online:

“In the 1950s, truck driver Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) gets involved with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his Pennsylvania crime family. As Sheeran climbs the ranks to become a top hit man, he also goes to work for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) -- a powerful Teamster tied to organized crime.”

Yes, that’s a very basic description of a story that stretches out over 3½ hours and several decades. If you need more, you can find it elsewhere.

Initial Thoughts:

Scorsese and his production team (including art direction, set design, and particularly his special effects people) have created a film that’s beautiful to look at, and a real wonder of period filmmaking. I don’t really care how much of the non-actor components were done through CGI and I can’t verify the accuracy of the period detail, but it’s well done without giving us the unnecessary feel of film grain (I really don’t need that much verisimilitude) and other visual elements associated with movies from this era.

Others will no doubt disagree, but the de-aging CGI was very distracting. But what’s the option? Do it with old-school make-up? With the technology we now have (which, don’t get me wrong, is still impressive), making guys who are pushing 80 look believable at 40 and 50 is either something you buy into or you don’t. It was a risk - a huge one - and I eventually simply had to accept it.

The soundtrack, while extensive and mostly impressive, is almost too much to process.

I struggle somewhat with the film’s length. I understand that this is an epic story from a legendary director filled with a legendary cast, and I also understand the need to cover all the historical events that blanket the film, but many of the scenes do the same thing, becoming repetitive. Yet perhaps that’s one of the points Scorsese is trying to make, which does give the film’s ending more of an impact.

Perhaps my most recurring thought was that we will probably never again see these actors together working at this level, so enjoy every moment you can.

Going Deeper

While the film is primarily about Frank, we don’t get a lot (at least during the two hours or so) of information about what really motivates him. He makes some choices early on that he seems uncomfortable making (lying, simple deception, etc.), yet we really don’t see much of a struggle going on, which is fine. We know the struggles (and consequences of his life choices) are going to find their way to the surface as we progress through the film. Maybe the complexity of character that I wanted to see (at least during the first couple of hours) was what Scorsese was trying to withhold until the third act.

We see Frank’s struggles emerge primarily during the film’s last 45 minutes as he’s now elderly and not far from the grave. He’s able to reflect on his life, what he’s done, and what he hasn’t done. One of the most poignant scenes involves the jail time that he, Russell, and the others (all in their senior years) face. Russell - who has guided Frank’s life and career, for good or bad - can hardly even enjoy food anymore and must be carted around in a wheelchair. When you think about the lives they’ve lead, these guys probably never figured to be around at this age. When there’s nothing left to do, all you can do is reflect and attempt to right the wrongs you’ve made to your loved ones.

Frank attempts to do this with his daughter Dolores (India Ennenga), confessing that he didn’t spend much time with her because he was trying to protect her and the rest of his family. She’s not buying it (and neither are we). Frank is used to fixing things and he can’t fix this. It’s too little, too late. Yet this moment also brings to mind the fact that the women in the film (and, by association, in the lives of those in organized crime) are largely ignored. In only a few scenes do we see the female point of view, from Frank’s daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina) as a child, who all but refuses to accept the approaches and gifts of mob characters, and later as an adult (Anna Paquin), who’ll have nothing to do with Frank. It would be interesting to see this entire film narrated from the point of view of the women in Frank’s life, but that’s not what Scorsese was after.

Yet the seeds of what will make Peggy distance herself from her father are presented fairly early in the film. One day Peggy comes home, crying because the owner of a neighborhood grocery store shoved Peggy to the ground. Frank, of course, knows how to take care of this and he does so brutally. Interestingly, Scorsese shows us this scene as if we were an observer on the street, of which there were many, turning it into a “What would you do?” moment for the audience. The answer to what we would’ve done, had we witnessed it? Absolutely nothing. This is a pivotal moment for Peggy that helps determine the woman she will become.

We also can’t talk about Scorsese and his work without talking about Christianity and faith. I would love to go through this entire movie again examining just the references to God, the church, faith, and particularly how we prepare for death. Late in the film, Frank enlists the help of a priest, a much younger man who probably has little concept of what Frank’s feeling. I’d love to know what’s going through Frank’s head. Have his sins really been forgiven? Is he really remorseful? The final shot of the film can be interpreted in many ways, not only as a reminder of Hoffa’s desire to always keep the door open a little (so that he won’t be totally caught off-guard, even while he’s sleeping), but also as a more metaphorical way to keep the door open so that Frank isn’t closed off from life or from God coming through the door.

I could talk at length about the performances of Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, and others, but for the rest of this brief review, I want to discuss a book I recently read and how it relates to The Irishman.

As I do every year, I recently read through the Washington Post’s Best Books of the Year article and discovered a nonfiction work titled An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz. That book chronicles the summer of 2013 in Chicago, telling the stories of people who have survived the crime and violence of the city and those who didn’t. These are intimate portraits of the consequences of gangs and gun violence, devastating and heartbreaking stories that move us, but provide few answers and little hope. The stories seem to tell us that the cycles that have been created in these communities are self-perpetuating with no positive outcomes and no end in sight. Even if we could somehow wipe out all the gangs and guns, who’s to say it wouldn’t start all over again? I don’t mean this as a dismal resignation to the current situation, but rather as a look at fallen human nature and its consequences.

What seems to be behind the crime and violence in An American Summer can also be said to be behind the characters in The Irishman: power, pride, and respect. In both cases, power is the conduit for pride and respect to be recognized. Kotlowitz makes it clear in his book that gang members primarily want to be respected. It’s a matter of pride. If you’re disrespected, you do something about it, which usually means hurting or killing someone. It’s a vicious and deadly cycle and it often happens very quickly (as it does in The Irishman.)

We see the same thing in the power plays in The Irishman, particularly between teamster head Hoffa and rising teamster Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Scorsese constructs a long war between these two not only for power, but primarily for respect. The only way to truly win this battle is by death. There are multiple wars and battles going on in The Irishman, but all of them are primarily about the same thing: power, pride, and respect. And there’s no end to it.

Or is there? Near the end of the film, Frank - now in a nursing home and confined to a wheelchair - is approached by two (probably federal) agents. These men are eager for Frank to clear the air and tell them what really happened to Hoffa. Frank refuses and the men can’t believe it. “Frank,” they tell him, “there’s no one left. You’re the only one.” Even after they tell him that there’s no longer anyone alive to come after him, Frank remains silent, giving them nothing. Old habits die hard, but you never snitch, never.

Well, I’ve written far more than I meant to about this film. So is it a good movie? After only one viewing, I can say that, yes, this is a good movie, a very good movie. Is it great? I’m not ready to say that just yet. It may be. Although I look forward to seeing the film again, I understand that time will be a much better judge than I’ll ever be. But if this is the last time we see these guys together, it’s quite a send-off, and one I’m glad I experienced.

Photos: IMDb, KSQD, HD Movie Cafe

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