David G. Hughes on Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ (2019)
Medieval Roman Catholic monk Thomas à Kempis once instructed that the devotional should, “Make your companions the lowly and the unpretentious.” Few filmmakers have been as true a Soldier of Christ in this regard than Martin Scorsese, the once asthmatic Catholic schoolboy turned filmmaking doyen, humble enough to get down and dirty with the mobsters, miscreants and loners of this world in the search for salvation. One would think that in his septuagenarian age, with a legacy well secured before the turn of the century, the man would put his busy, ambling feet up. Yet, none of this has stopped the blue-collar aesthete from producing some of the most exciting work of this century, and the very finest work in a long film career. I’m thinking The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Silence (2016) and, now, The Irishman.
It’s hardly surprising that for someone who has made a more than significant contribution to film culture — as much a Soldier of Cinema as Christ — Scorsese has been expressing concern about the crude degradation of the art he chose over the Priesthood. When the CEO of the Walt Disney Company can compare a thoroughly mediocre and opportunistic money-maker like Black Panther (2018) to the finest work in the Scorsese pantheon, and a horde of unthinking IP slaves will back him, one has no choice but to cheer Scorsese harnessing his well-earned cultural capital against financial capital as the be-all-and-end-all of a medium he, quite evidently, considers to be something more humanistic, indeed spiritual. Scorsese’s a soldier but also an obstreperous rebel, unapologetic and uncommercial about the fact that all an artist has is their perspective. One can only smile as he doubles-down, triples-down, and quadruples-down when asked his opinions on Marvel movies as if his answer would have changed in the interim.
This is the film culture that Scorsese’s The Irishman lands in. As such, it’s a sadly archaic movie — a mega-picture that’s long, sullen, and morally challenging, sensitive to the religious level of complexity in images, and performed by a roster of the finest actors in the post-Brando generation. It has no time for ideology or trends, it’s not ‘topical’ or ‘urgent’, and has none of the visual drabness that we associate with today’s TV cinema. This is, simply put, the work of an artist, without any of the parentheses that people now attach to this term.
The film is a fifty-year chronicle of WWII veteran and “working stiff” turned mob hitman, Frank “The Irish” Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Frank negotiates a world in which mafia, government and unions all vie for post-war power, with the plot unfurling via references to everything from the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of JFK, the Watergate scandal and the Kosovo War. While the film concerns the topic of politics in this way and it’s enlightening to see the historical connections between mob and government (which still remain relevant today, it being revealed that the real Frank Sheeran helped to get Joe Biden elected), this is not a political film, and politics is treated as little more than a tool for power and preservation. Scorsese is far more interested in dynamic personality and tribal culture, an expert at showcasing how loyalty is involuntary, determined by group identity over solidarity, be it the Irish, the Jews or the Italians. One of these personalities is hot-headed union boss Jimmy Hoffa, played with relish and gusto by Al Pacino, a man who champions the working truck driver whilst also using their pension to build Las Vegas and accrue personal power. Watching Pacino perform is deeply pleasurable, his line delivery impossible to rehearse and far beyond what can be scripted on the page.
The Irishman is a tale about survival in a world of permanent winter, of men trying to live within organisational structures even if those structures are slowly killing them. Frank is no hero; he is, in fact, a cowardly and pusillanimous loyalist to whatever organisation will give him a veneer of purpose. On first meeting mob boss Russell Bufalino, played with exceptional minimalist precision by Joe Pesci, Frank tells a story about German PoW’s digging their own graves and his astonishment at how willing they were to perform such an activity, “as if doing a good job” would prevent the inevitable execution. It becomes clear that Scorsese is telling a story about men who dig their own graves, albeit slowly and perniciously, how we put our faith in the wrong place and tell ourselves that as long as we do a good job everything will be alright—until it’s not.
This is the lesson that Frank, or anyone else, doesn’t seem to learn. A man who says he doesn’t mind the cold early in the film will later suffer from crippling arthritis; chain smokers will perish through lung cancer; a man who sits silently whispering hit orders will be wheeled way into an unceremonious, quiet death. This is Scorsese’s one reaps what one sows perspective, his portrayal of self-destructive spiritual entropy and otiose tragedy. The depiction of male idées fixe and sclerotic obstinance is on-the-money, and The Irishman may be the finest articulation of the director’s philosophy: that men wrangle and deform themselves into something so emotionally disfigured that they’re incapable of even knowing an absence exists. This, to Scorsese, is spiritual Hell. It’s a Catholic ethos but also a Buddhist one, showcasing the three marks of existence—suffering, impermanence, and the absence of self-nature. “It is what it is”, as characters tell each other. His men are known for the demons that possess and block them: sexual jealousy and pride, a propensity to violence, ego and brute power under civility and codes. A lot of critics have described it as a picture about “regret”, but it’s not. It’s about the inability to feel regret, lacking the basic emotional capacity to do so. This is a stark vision about just how hard it is to gain peace and perspective, and it is usually at dusk, too late, when such perspective arrives.
This is no intellectual exercise; the film registers deeply, slowly and profoundly. The narrative ferments across an extended run-time, rich as cinema but sour for the characters, with an emotionally devastating cosmic pointlessness told visually, absent of dramatic dialogue or self-aggrandisement. The script by Steve Zaillian, based on the book by Charles Bandt, is top-drawer — funny, filled with quotable lines, and its temporal-operatic ambition made seamless through Thelma Schoonmaker‘s masterful editing. Everyone is on best form here, and it’s a pleasure to witness.
Particularly De Niro. He is a subtle performer, ideally suited to this role as a shy man with a killer ruthlessness. As he stutters and mumbles in old age, it is less a performance of generic oldness than a subtle gesture that afflicts the character following a harrowing phone call in in which he can’t get his words out. It is a stutter that stays and expresses more about the character’s interiority than he is capable of doing verbally. At this point it is almost completely redundant to describe De Niro as a ‘great actor’, but The Irishman marks his finest work in twenty-five years, since Heat (1995). Playing the younger version of himself with the assistance of digital “de-ageing”, this isn’t De Niro as we knew him young, but an alternate version — stockier, on a different diet. The physique recalls his performance as the Creature in Frankenstein (1994) more than any early Scorsese picture, which seems entirely appropriate to a story about spiritual malformation. The de-ageing process is far from convincing and I must confess a prejudice towards it, but its a credit to the movie’s dramatic power that you mostly forget about it.
Everything in The Irishman alludes to a nothingness, a sort of empty space. Its minimalist aesthetic reconnects Scorsese to his original influencers — Bresson, Ozu — as he wrestles with time and its passing. The film is filled with stars and talent who bring their technical expertise but also, most importantly, experienced emotional lives to the table. The gradual disintegration of said lives on-screen corresponds to the erosion of the rich film culture they represent—a type of filmmaking on its way to the morgue. To watch it shuffle into non-existence is hard and rather emotional. The Irishman is minimal, subtle, parochial, and yet extraordinarily ambitious, dealing with the biggest questions: death, and the attempt to work it out. To watch this figuring-out is a devastating privilege and the film a monumental artistic achievement. We can only be grateful that it exists.
The Irishman is in select UK cinemas now and streaming on Netflix 27th November 2019.