The first two hours of The Irishman unravel like any other Martin Scorsese picture. Period pop songs accompany scenes of extreme violence. Faraway voiceover bleeds out of a broken man knocking on the devil’s door. Cameras track men with suits, guns, and greed. Slow-motion montages glorify slick cheaters and their loyal women.
There are the same bits about how to properly marinate a salad or steak, Sicilian-style. Funny names like Frankie Bing-Bongs or Hunchy or something or other. Wiseguys pluck food from their teeth and lean forward onto the backs of chairs with their big rings and greasy hair. Somebody always owes another money or touches somebody they shouldn’t have, and almost always is there a kitchen scene with a guy in a tank top screaming at his wife, kids, brother, or enemies.
I love Martin Scorsese. Don’t get me wrong.
But it’s the second half of his gangster epic that is tremendously more interesting than the first, and perhaps more than any other of his films this decade. Before I go into it, the first half covers the introduction of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, a truck-driver turned hitman (aka, House Painter) played by Robert De Niro working for Russell Bufalino played by Joe Pesci, and all his buddies like lawyer Bill (Ray Romano), Angela Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale). Frank becomes Russell’s favorite and is eventually assigned to assist teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) in his loud campaign against big business and federal investigations.
While the first chunk of The Irishman juggles one-too many characters and plot threads, the second half finds Frank accomplishing missions in a very calculated way. Here is a man who has put little thought into managing and murdering men for a living. But when he’s suddenly struck with the possibility that his soul might suffer for the sins of his life, things slow down. Robert De Niro has always expressed great subtlety, but here, he manages to construct an entire character based exclusively on the wrinkles in his eyes and the creases in his lips.
Pacino is his great opposite. He shouts his lines as the erratic, big-mouthed Hoffa. De Niro and Pacino never tire together onscreen, although it’s not always easy to buy them as younger men in this film. The Irishman was shot with an extensive use of de-aging technology because it spans decades, and while I won’t say the effects hurt their performances, it certainly does them no favors.
The surprise performance is actually Pesci who finally gets a chance to tone down his crazed Tommy DeVito persona in favor of a more sympathetic, fatherly mobster. If there is one likeable character in this rotten lot, it’s Russell. He’s one of the few that convinces us he may actually be a respectable human being who doesn’t kill for a profession, even though we know he does.
Scorsese never specifies the extent to which these men are involved in the mafia, but I don’t think that makes a difference. They’re bad guys. The key figure is Frank and whether or not he discovers remorse for what he does with his life. In a wonderful scene between he and Russell, Frank shares the time he spent in WWII as a soldier ordered to make prisoners of war dig their own graves only to be shot into them. “I never understood why they did it,” he says. But then again, Frank never understands why he does anything, and the job of a hitman he compares fondly to that of a soldier.
The way Scorsese manages to dissect the minutiae of a hitman’s life and how it influences his family and his friendships is the heart of The Irishman, and the most painfully complex drama he’s put onscreen since the Jesuit persecution in The Silence.
However, I think The Irishman asks too much. At a whopping three and a half hours, the first two indulge in the lavish lifestyle of Frank, Russell, and Hoffa. We witness scenes of absolutely horrifying violence but get to watch these men dig elbows into each other like co-workers at an office cooler.
The point, as I understand it, is to show that even brute mobsters can be everyday American working men too, and that perhaps the face of evil is a face of indifference, that these men were “just doing their jobs.” What’sa big deal?
Sure. It worked in Goodfellas, and in The Wolf of Wall Street, criminals became comedians. But I can’t watch Frank brutalize and murder people for twenty straight years of his life without a single thought only to suddenly grow a conscience when his orders become personal. That’s just not compelling. I’m not even sure it’s convincing.
Scorsese’s work is militantly Catholic. He wants all of his angry heroes to suffer and repent. Or at least, become conscious of repentence. He pursues the conviction and passion in every type of man, but especially rotten ones. That’s his trademark, and while his intentions remain honorable, I couldn’t for the life of me empathize with Frank or any of the mobsters in this film.
Many of the scenes are shot with stylishly dim lighting and smoke that never seems to clear. It’s as if Scorsese’s pulled every frame from his repertoire of hellish set pieces and blown them full of hounding hotheads that are crueler, colder, and more evil than any gangsters he’s ever shown.
It’s too much to laugh with these men, laugh at them, revile their actions, and sympathize for their decisions while mourning their impending deaths. I was repulsed more than I was anything else in this film. Much of it was like reading countless articles on the worst American crimes and feeling absolutely terrible about humanity.
Maybe I’m getting soft to violence onscreen.
Either way, The Irishman is an audacious and impressive film, equal parts funny and deeply, deeply disturbing. After this, I couldn’t imagine what Scorsese could possibly have to say about those gangsters that so long ago traumatized him on the streets as a child. It’s obvious by now that he admires them more than anything.