Director (Martin Scorsese)
Adapted Screenplay (Steven Zaillian)
Supporting Actor (Al Pacino)
Supporting Actor (Joe Pesci)
Cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto)
Costume Design (Christopher Peterson, Sandy Powell)
Production Design (Bob Shaw, Regina Graves)
Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker)
In so many ways, The Irishman can be viewed as a swan song – Martin Scorsese’s final statement about the Mafia, aging, and even the art of making movies. In this movie, employing end-of-career performances from three of Hollywood’s legends, Scorsese not only crafts a superb elegy to the mobster world, but also paints an intriguing look at the meaning of life and our power to control our own destiny. In doing all that, he brings in an exemplary team of filmmakers who, like him, are at the peak of their careers bringing all the wisdom and experience that old age can offer.
And this is a team of elders. Scorsese was 77 when the film was released, and Robert De Niro (playing Frank Sheeran), the main character, was 76. Al Pacino, in his first time working with Scorsese, plays Jimmy Hoffa at the ripe age of 79. And Joe Pesci, who refused more than fifty times to play any role in this movie, but finally relented after ten years absence from the screen, does an outstanding job as a mob boss with a refined, confident, and subdued performance at the ripe old age of 76. Thelma Schoonmaker, nominated for her film editing work, has worked with Scorsese on many of his previous films and caps her own career with this one at age 80. (The composer Robbie Robertson, who was not nominated, was also 76.) Clearly this is a team of well experienced craftspeople who know something about the art of making movies.
Being someone who is old enough to qualify for Social Security, I am the last person to suggest that age in any way disqualifies someone from working, especially if it is something they enjoy – and they all are obviously having fun. In fact, I would argue that this particular team is bringing more to this movie than just the knowledge and intelligence that comes from having lived long lives. In this movie, they are also looking back on their own lives and reflecting on just what does that mean? Scorsese, through the story of Frank Sheeran, is reflecting on defining issues, like how much control do we really have in our lives, and whether we direct our futures or we are somehow directed by our past.
In this review, I don’t want to spend much time on the actual plot of the movie. Suffice it to say, that it is a mobster movie, in the Scorsese tradition of Goodfellas and The Departed, and that it involves the death of Jimmy Hoffa – at least, one theory of how that went down. As such, it does indeed have violent scenes. De Niro’s character, Sheeran – the Irishman – becomes a mob ‘enforcer’ (another word for a ‘hitman’). The working title of the movie, and of the book it was based on, was “I Paint Houses”. In this case, the paint is always various shades of red! I would argue, though, that the portraits of violence in this movie are always taken at a distance – the blood is not an essential part of this movie, even if it is an important part of the story.
So, the Irishman is about mobsters, but not really. The movie opens, and ends, in a nursing home where Sheeran (De Niro) is in a wheel chair and is, obviously, near the end stages of his life. Both scenes employ long, dolly shots where the camera tracks through multiple rooms finally ending on the face of the main character. The story then unfolds as a series of flashbacks going back to when he was a truck driver in the 30’s. Then it proceeds through the next four decades, bouncing around between different characters and settings, as he tells his tale.
The strength of the movie is in presenting how the threads of life, seemingly disconnected, seem to somehow come together. But in ways that suggest that the course of these threads is only fleetingly within our control. Frank’s rise through the mobster organization is, like so many lives, a series of accidents. He meets his future boss serendipitously when his truck breaks down on the road. (Pesci, the future boss, is absolutely fabulous in this scene conveying with incredible understatement, the power of his internal confidence). He ends up working for Hoffa, almost as an afterthought.
Maybe morality is supposed to play a role in how we conduct our lives. Sheeran does talk to a priest, and even more often to a lawyer (not that I’d put priests and lawyers on the same rung of the morality scale) but it is never clear by what Sheeran’s moral compass is moved. And is that much different than the rest of us?
Frank has a family and sometimes that compass setting is supposed to be moved by our family environments. But, early on, there is a scene where he exposes his daughter to a very gruesome beating of a storekeeper, solely because the storekeeper had lightly pushed his daughter. Was the punishment morally equivalent to the offense? Not even his daughter agreed with that and, in a thread that could have been the subject of an entire movie in its own right, that relationship did not get explored. But the scene does establish Sheeran’s propensity for violent solutions. Curiously, the family is offset against every single one of Sheeran’s hits. And there is almost a silent acknowledgement of what the father had done. But the ‘business as usual’ justification seems to permeate the motives for his agency. He does what he does, not because he particularly wants to, but because that is what is expected of him by those around him.
So, of course, the movie is about the mob. But it is also an exploration of what makes people do things. And it suggests, quite convincingly, that we are rarely really in control. We do what we have to do!
While there are multiple team members in this movie in their late seventies, the scenes flashback to much earlier periods in the characters’ lives. I was curious why this movie was nominated in the Visual Effects category, assuming that spattering blood (painting houses) was an established technology with nothing really new to add. So I was definitely surprised when I learned that the character’s de-aging was all done with computers – not makeup. Much like was done with The Curious Life of Benjamin Button, state-of-the-art facial recognition software was used in reverse to change the actors faces to match the youth of earlier decades. This technology is largely responsible for the $160 million budget for this movie as well as the extensive post-production time.
This is a ‘big’ movie in all respects. Clocking in at three and a half hours, considerable investment is required to watch this film. Critics raved about the movie, although audiences were a little less enthusiastic. Strangely, although it received ten Oscar nominations, it failed to win anything. The fact that this is a Netflix movie might explain its lack of Oscar wins, the academy being a little biased against small screen releases. (After 2020, that may be changing). Like several other movies I’ve reviewed recently, this is a must-see film. I give it a strong 4.5 stars.