The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★★

Man, this movie still wrecks me. I’m not sure that it’s Martin Scorsese’s best film, but for me at least it is in the conversation. Where GoodFellas is his Hamlet, The Irishman is his King Lear. I realize that analogy only goes so far. Neither Scorsese film plays much like Shakespearean Tragedy. What I mean by that analogy, simply, is that these two great life-in-the-mob sagas can be distinguished as such: the first is a work of urgency and vitality that looks ahead at the immediate moments of opportunity and decision, and the second is an elegiac swan song, taking stock of a life lived from the vantage point of the ravages of old age.

The film employs three timelines as it recedes into the past of its title character, Frank Sheehan, played by Robert De Niro. It begins in a nursing home, near the end of Frank’s life, he’s all alone and starts telling the camera his life story. He reminisces back to a road trip Frank takes with his friend and associate, mob boss Russell Bufalino, accompanied by their wives, from Pennsylvania to Michigan for a wedding. In these road trip scenes, Frank is around his mid to late Fifties, and Russell is in his late Sixties. They’re not fully retired, but the pair are clearly winding down. Russell has to make a few stops on the way, leading to a few shakedowns. Joe Pesci plays Russell and he’s great in these scenes. He shows a world-weariness, as though he’s just going through the motions of things he’s done a thousand times. Yet, he still does so with a level of confidence that is intimidating enough, that you really believe why folks are still scared of him. Only Pesci can pull off the vibe that says, “I’m so over all this, but if you cross me, so help me I will end you.”

Scorsese shoots all the road trip scenes to emphasize their advancing age. It feels like I’m taking a trip with my parents and their friends. One of the first scenes we get with Pesci is him bickering with his wife about smoking breaks. Every detail we get, from Frank tracing his routes on a road map to the early bird specials at the Howard Johnson, reflects the onset of retirement. These first two timelines, then, are the bookends of old age. Frank is looking back on the beginning of the end from his vantage point of the end of the end. From the road trip scenes, we get introduced to the third timeline. A roadside gas station reminds Frank of the day he met Russell, and so we go back and fill in Frank’s lived experience. We see him as a truck driver for the teamsters, a veteran of World War II, who eventually crosses paths with Russ. As they develop a close friendship, Frank takes on a side hustle as a hit man for the mob. His cold-blooded efficiency and his union ties eventually lead him to Jimmy Hoffa. Hoffa is played by Al Pacino. The two become trusted friends as Frank becomes a sort-of ambassador between Hoffa and the mob.

This brings me to what I perceive is the biggest complaint against this movie: the de-aging technology used to make its actors, De Niro in particular appear younger. The one scene I hear singled out over and over again in this respect is the fight scene where De Niro beats up the grocer who apparently shoved his daughter. Despite the de-aging special effects, De Niro’s body language—hunched, slow moving, and elbows bent gives away that he’s an old man. A lot of the criticism seems to expect that the character should be very youthful, in his prime in this scene. From what I can tell, based on a marquee for Three Faces of Eve in a preceding scene, this event takes place around 1957, which would put Frank Sheehan at about 37 years old. Now, far be it from me to suggest that 37 is old. While I will concede that he does look older than 37 in this scene, I think its important to keep in mind that he is of an age where it’s, shall we say, not uncommon that signs of aging have started to occur. Particularly, in this case, given that Frank has spent years in combat and has spent long hours as a track driver.

Be that as it may, you still got a 75 year-old actor playing a much younger guy, and it requires suspension of disbelief. Any movie in which a character ages significantly faces the same challenge. Richard Linklater aside, filmmakers basically have three options: cast different actors, cast a young actor who will have to play old, or cast an old actor who will have to play young. Each choice requires suspension of disbelief and carries its own plusses and minuses. Casting separate actors puts the burden on the audience to pretend that the two performances are of the same person. This can be effective if the film wants to highlight the differences in the stages of life, such as Murph in Interstellar, or if the older or younger version is a part of a separate framing device, like Rose in Titanic. Casting a younger actor would require the audience to work a bit harder when the character ages. This is effective in stories where we get to know the character in his or her youth, and the older version becomes something of a shadow of the younger self, as in Citizen Kane, for example.

When casting an older actor to play young and old, it’s the young scenes that will inevitably seem the least believable. Since most films are chronological, that’s often not the best approach. As such, casting older seems to be much less common than the other two options I discussed above. Perhaps that’s why its use in The Irishman is so controversial. I’m sure there are plenty of examples I’m not thinking of, but the only other film in this category I can recall off the top of my head is It’s a Wonderful Life. Granted, that movie casts a different actor to play the childhood scenes, of course, and George Bailey’s age span as an adult is not as drastic as Frank Sheehan’s. Nevertheless, it does cast the lead actor, Jimmy Stewart, to match the character at the end, and the audience just has to go with it when we meet him as a teenager fresh out of school.

I draw this comparison because, as different as Irishman and IaWL are, they both produce a similar effect. There’s an ethereal quality to the characters’ youth. It’s remembered, but not deeply felt. One movie has a bleak ending and the other has a jubilant ending, but they both tap into a sense of loss that intensifies the emotions heading into the climax, albeit to opposite effect. I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that the more youthful scenes are the ones with the steepest suspension of disbelief. The further back in time we go, the more remote the experience. So the grocer scene isn’t that realistic. Why does it need to be? We never see the grocer again, and the fight itself doesn’t have any significant consequence. It only carries any weight because of the cumulative impact these event have on the character’s soul, as personified by the disapproving gaze of his daughter. If this were played by, say, Robert Pattinson, this scene would be much more vivid than any of the road trip scenes and that misses the point. 37 is young, but you never realize that until you’re no longer 37. Here’s an exercise for you. Take your age and subtract nine. Think how young that age seems to you. Now reflect back on when you were that age. Did you have any idea at that time how young you really were? That’s what this movie captures that I find so powerful. That sense that you’ve lost something that you never even really knew you had.

About two hours and twenty minutes in, the flashback timeline catches up to the road trip timeline. I love the way Scorsese kind of sneaks it up on us. There’s a long sequence that takes place at a ceremony held in Frank’s honor. Hoffa is there to present him an award, and there’s a lot of tensions in various union conflicts that play out. It is very clearly shot as flashback, and we’ve been trained to read these scenes taking place in “the past.” He films the road trip scenes very differently so that we know when we come back we’re no longer in “the past” (I’m leaving aside the nursing home scenes for the moment). So we go back to the road trip, and Frank makes a call, and we see he’s talking to Jimmy. That, in itself is somewhat jarring, because we associate Jimmy with the flashbacks, and now he pops up in this other timeline. Furthermore, there’s conversational cues that suggest that that previous flashback scene at the award ceremony happened fairly recently. It’s a remarkable transition. If the road trip scenes are the beginning of the end, then we’re left to just sort of figure out that the end of the beginning is over before we knew it. But we don’t stop to take stock of that fact because we keep moving forward.

Up until this point, the old age timelines functioned more or less as a framing device within a framing device. The flashback scenes were of a markedly different style: lots and lots of characters, lots and lots of mob hits. Scorsese uses his signature freeze frames, only during the flash backs though, here accompanied by text that tells us who they are and how they died. None of these characters matter, only that they die. We see a lot of violence, but none of that matters either, although, I suppose the fact that they don’t matter is what really matters. But it ends, and there’s still over an hour left in the movie.

The road trip then becomes the focus of the movie. It’s much more methodical. Small cast of characters, not much going on. Only a wedding. And a “meeting,” which gradually starts to loom larger than the wedding. I love the shift in pacing here. The deliberate attention to detail underscores the banality of Frank’s approach to his evil deeds. The “meeting” is not just something that happens, but it’s something that happens in a very specific home, in a very specific neighborhood. There’s a sequence where we go from a restaurant to a house, back to the restaurant and then back to the house again. Rather than cut between locations, Scorsese takes us on the journey, such that we practically learn the route: over the iron-frame bridge, left at the T intersection. This isn’t just a mob hit, it’s life happening in a real neighborhood, in a real town, on the outskirts of Detroit. I get that this takes up a lot of screen time and the movie is already three and a half hours long, but I’m sorry—it’s worth it. An hour or so earlier the movie was taking us from Philly to Detroit to Miami, meeting seventeen new characters and witnessing a half dozen murders in roughly the same amount of screen time that it’s now taking to drive back and forth between locations in one suburb, for one murder that we already know is going to happen. The earlier activity gives us a sense of the characters accumulated experience, and now, the movie is forcing us to come to terms with it, to actually live in that world. I’d take this over a two-hour-twenty-minute action franchise picture any day.

I’m still not sure if this is my favorite Scorsese. I used GoodFellas as a point of comparison at the beginning of this review, but that was mainly because of the similar material. I would think its main competition would be Raging Bull, maybe even The Age of Innocence. It doesn’t matter I suppose. I just feel like there’s a lot more aspects to The Irishman that I want to dig into. Perhaps, though, that’s just the advantage of being two years old rather than forty.