Warning: there are spoilers about ‘The Irishman’ in this review
To call ‘The Irishman‘ a gangster movie would be as reductive and misleading as calling ‘Raging Bull’ a boxing movie or ‘The Aviator’ a biopic. While those labels are not necessarily incorrect or misused, they are best employed as rough indications of the universe these stories take place in. Allow the terms gangster, boxing, and biographical, to simply provide a vaguely defined collection of rules in which the story presented to us will maneuver itself.
Firstly, let us briefly examine some of the details. ‘The Irishman’ stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, as Frank Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa, and Russell Bufalino respectively. Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jesse Plemons, and Harvey Keitel are just some of the actors in supporting roles.
Although the life and eventual disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa play a prominent part in the plot, they are not the primary concern here, nor what the film deals with in its totality. What Scorsese focuses on here is Frank Sheeran, a byproduct of the screenplay taking a cue from the book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’, which was adapted for the movie.
A lot has been said about the de-aging effects employed here and public reaction has been fairly mixed. I will say that the quality of CGI employed to shave years off the look of some of the actors here is not a deal-breaker for myself. However, I will say that it works fine in some instances, but not quite as seamlessly natural in others.
The de-aging effect looks the most acceptable on Pacino, resulting in something that looks like a mixture of the actor in the 90s combined with a nasal prosthesis and a heavy application of makeup. It degrades somewhat when it comes to Pesci, with the texture of his face in some shots being a little plastic-like.
Sadly, I think the digital fountain of youth works the least most effectively on De Niro. In the age in which we mostly see him in, there’s an invisible but very much detectable mismatch between his face and his body, as if there’s a floating specter of a visage hovering right above his neck.
This is exacerbated by an early scene of Frank Sheeran stomping someone lying on the ground. While Frank’s face is more youthful than present-day De Niro, his body, his movement, his energy, they all very much resemble those of a 76-year-old man. As mentioned before, however, none of these are enough to warrant any real concern and can be gradually ignored, your eyes progressively accepting the visuals as you get into the second and third acts of the film.
Scorsese has previous history in delving into the minutiae of scenes that, at least superficially, aren’t particularly exceptional in the realm in which they take place. However, as mundane and commonplace as they are, they represent the more visceral elements of life, taking you deeper into the process than you would normally be privy to. This serves two purposes.
Firstly, it reminds the viewer that hands have to get dirty for the wheels of society to get greased. We see tables busy with plates and half-empty glasses smudged with fingerprints and tanned by liquor or effervescent with beer. We see steaks, potatoes and peas, a somewhat two-dimensional image, at once both plain and working class, but also a luxury. We see the interactions, verbal and non-verbal, in this frantic, raucous setting. The entities occupying it. The unspoken hierarchies. The jagged and flimsy harmony amidst the chaos.
Secondly, while patrons are served their food and drinks, we are served foreshadowing techniques and world-building. For example, early on we see the neck of a chicken getting sliced. This scene happens early on in Frank’s criminal career. A sacrifice, a loss of innocence, the spilling of blood that ultimately is not a big deal if one wants their plate to have meat on it.
Further, the busy joint teeming with people boozing it up while discussing underhanded schemes is contrasted with scenes from a Christening. Again, the effect here is two-fold. It highlights the hypocrisy of these men. The belief that they can balance murder, extortion, theft, and all-round violence with a semblance of piety and surface-level respectability.
Moreover, it also signifies Frank’s (De Niro) own baptism, as he is taken under the wing of Russell Bufalino (Pesci), who also becomes Frank’s daughter’s godfather later on. Life has now changed for Frank and the transformation is official, both witnessed and perversely sanctified.
TELL, BEFORE SHOWING
Scorsese uses a variety of tools to tell a story and each tool serves a different purpose. There are instances where one thinks that a more visual way of communicating a point would be more tasteful, more subtle. But that’s not what Scorsese intends here. Certain elements will be made as apparent as possible. Others will be conveyed in less obvious ways. The balance and vacillation between direct and indirect are intentional and work towards the appreciation for the latter.
There’s a moment during the film where Frank (De Niro) walks across a bridge. He needs to discard a pistol. He tells us that this is commonplace, that so many guns have been thrown in the river after someone had used them to murder someone else.
After we are told this, the camera dives into the water, allowing us to scan the iron-rich riverbed. The bottom is peppered with pistols, ostensibly making the aforementioned explanation a needless addition. This is not quite the case.
Scorsese uses voice-over narration, as well as fourth-wall-breaking, to provide emphasis, mild clarification and, most importantly, twisted justification from the point of view of the character talking directly to the audience.
By allowing us to dive into the river along with the pistol we see the full extent of what Frank means. When he says he is not alone in discarding his weapon in the river he doesn’t mean a handful of men. The river has hundreds if not thousands of pistols in it. The narration provides scale.
In regards to the fourth-wall-breaking, we see this exemplified most by Bufalino (Pesci) talking to us after the sanctioning of Jimmy’s (Pacino) imminent execution. It’s succinct and somber. He had to be taken out, we are told.
Another example of the audience being told something before it’s shown on screen is the introduction of Hoffa. The audience is informed of his importance, his popularity, his notoriety. Establishing Hoffa’s character through narration adds a somewhat meta element in the proceedings. The working man needs to unionize. The union needs a leader, someone to talk for the working man. Someone unlike them perhaps; this is America after all. And yet Hoffa himself is spoken about and introduced by someone else before the story’s trajectory begins to bring him into focus. The narration preemptively provides a representation of this man to the audience.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
Scorsese isn’t always as blunt, of course. There are subtler points conveyed to us. We see a giant bear of a man showing unbridled subservience to a man (Russel) half his size. This underlines the hierarchy we’ve been introduced to before in the story.
We see fresh flower arrangements seconds after a murder has taken place. Both corpse and flowers still warm with life but have both been plucked and will soon rot away. The imagery indeed has a funereal spontaneity to it: the dead man alongside the customary flower arrangement.
We see Hoffa’s disdain for drunken sloppiness and why the more to-the-point Frank appeals to him. Professionalism is appreciated in Hoffa’s world. While Hoffa is involved with people like Russell and Frank, there are stark differences between the two. Hoffa is intransigent, stubborn, uncompromising, even when business needs him to be flexible and strategic. He is open about his dislike toward inherited wealth. When Kennedy’s assassination is televised for the first time, Jimmy is the least affected by the news. So much so that he turns away from the television before anyone else and casually carries on with his meal.
There are strong implications that Kennedy being assassinated had been coming for some time and that it was a hit from the mob. Something that in that world ‘had to be done’. This matter-of-fact ruthlessness is the same approach that comes back to bite Jimmy himself later on. It doesn’t matter who you are and what your stature is in public. When people with the means to take you out deem that it is your time, then it’s time to say goodnight, my friend.
Scorsese’s most masterful element of direction in ‘The Irishman’ doesn’t involve the camera, but rather, the use of sound. The sound design dictates our point of view in any given scene. While the camera angles and level of focus almost always present a clear visual composition, the sound design presents a much more varied effect. Are we part of the conversation? Are we allowed to merely exist in the same physical space but are not consulted or directly involved? Are we eavesdropping? Are we being dictated to? All of these shape how Scorsese chooses to allow sound to reach us. A declaration, a murmur, a whisper, an echo, a scream, an utterance.
‘The Irishman’ is not a film about the mob, Jimmy Hoffa or John F. Kennedy. This film is about one’s path and its conclusion and all of the decisions that brought them there. We see this play out on a number of levels, each presented with differences in duration, perspective, focal points, depth, and timelines.
We see Hoffa’s journey. The peak of his popularity and subsequent infamy. We see his overconfidence and denial slowly eroding the ground beneath his feet. Each poor decision escorting him to an early grave. Hoffa occupies large chunks of the film’s second act, sandwiched by Frank and Russel’s beginning and end.
We see Kennedy’s rise and abrupt end. His story plays out in the background, in excerpts and throwaway banter. But it shares the same elements. Moral ambiguity, unspoken debts, pride, ill-advised decisions leading towards apparently inevitable tragedy.
We see glimpses and shreds of Frank’s daughter’s evolution from a young child to a grown woman. We see the fear gradually instilled in her, Frank’s violence and aggressive over-protection rendering the girl practically fatherless. We see that early fear metastasizing into detachment, her recognition of the true world that her father operates in and her early suspicion of her godfather, Russell Bufalino (Pesci). Bufalino tries to buy her love through gifts and money but she refutes it all. She had no agency as a child, her father’s choices foisted upon her. As a woman, she does have agency and uses it to remove herself from her father’s life.
Finally, we see Frank’s life and its sad, pitiful conclusion. This is the main story arc in the film. We see Frank in more levels, moments and across more timelines than any other character in the story.
Though Frank is practically ever-present throughout the film, there is a regretful passivity in his existence. He is there to receive orders and enforce them. He does not actively affect his world in any meaningful way and when he does it’s not on purpose. His decisions and behavior drive his daughter (Anna Paquin) away from him. When he actively attempts to reach some sort of reconciliation he fails to convince her to even engage in conversation.
This finality between him and his daughter is all the more severe and intense because Scorsese deliberately makes us aware that such concepts occupy Frank’s mind. We see him explaining why he prefers a superterranean burial spot over a subterranean one, and why both are then preferable to cremation. To Frank, there are levels to this dying business. He is spooked by the idea of permanence. Cremation deletes you entirely from existence.
Ironically, no such considerations were made when he murdered people. There’s a particular dissimilarity that we are made aware of here. Hoffa, who gets taken out earlier in the story, is killed with no real witnesses, with minimal warning, and is swiftly moved to a different site and cremated. He is completely extinguished from reality. His family know nothing of his fate and even to the very end receive no closure.
What’s grimly funny about Frank is that amongst people like Bufalino and Hoffa, he almost appears like the moral compass of the group, his aversion to hasty and drastic decisions inadvertently painting him as a more tempered personality. This is contrasted to an earlier scene where Frank stomps someone out within an inch of their life, not as a hitman, but rather as a father and patriarch.
‘The Irishman’ is not a film that concerns itself with withholding some exalted climax to a story it goes to great lengths to not truncate. The ending itself is not of value to Scorsese in isolation. The resolution of the story matters greatly precisely because of every scene that leads to it.
This film bucks the trend of ‘mystery box’ storytelling which has plagued this era of cinema and television. Scorsese is very upfront about what’s in the proverbial box and there is neither sheen nor obfuscation added to artificially construct some hollow sense of worth.
Your attention and time are rewarded with an examination of humanity. The punishment of delusion, the inebriation of power and influence, the pain of regret. We see the estrangement between a father and daughter irrevocably defining a lifetime worth of events.
In the very last scene, the Catholic priest Frank has been seeing, and whom we see giving Frank absolution earlier on, leaves the room to visit his family for the holidays. Just before walking away, the priest is asked to leave the room door slightly open. Because even at the end, besides alluding to Hoffa’s own habit, Frank fights the finality of all-encompassing darkness. A thin sliver of light, a slim chance at redemption.
Where the director leaves us in regards to Frank, the sorrow is at its most piercing. He has picked his own casket knowing that by any account his funeral will be sparsely attended. He is plagued by dementia, his own memories fading away, good and bad ones alike. He attempts to impart some wisdom to the nurse taking care of him but she dismisses the gravity of what he is sharing.
What he did, his friends, his enemies, the people he worked with, the things he’s seen, none of that matters. He has chosen to avoid cremation but in every sense, his very existence is slowly being incinerated, both from the outside as well as from the inside.
by Kyriacos Nicolaou