Friends to the End
By Michael Koresky

NYFF 2019:
The Irishman
Dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S., Netflix

Time expands and contracts, and faces tighten and fall throughout The Irishman. If nothing else—though it’s much, much else—Martin Scorsese’s film is an extraordinary depiction of the imperceptibility of time. Its length, extreme for a mainstream American narrative, is noteworthy: not for its own sake but for how it affects our intake of knowledge, and how it changes what we think we perceive. Movies, especially period pieces, purport to situate us in particular time-space pathways, but the reality of their construction makes that situation unreliable. Throughout The Irishman, we’re encouraged to look for signs of aging, for signs of decline and deceleration, all as means to figure out where and when we are.

Seeking that historical and temporal specificity ultimately proves fruitless, and provocatively so: The Irishman is, after all, based on an account of a subjective reality, an exactingly detailed version of one man’s perception of history, and of himself.

Goodfellas and Casino are extraordinary achievements for how they explode the basic formula of the gangster picture, and they do this by making their characters subordinate to the cruelties of a more remorseless villain than any of them could ever dream to be: a rapidly accelerant time. In those films, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker shuttle us through decades of criminal activity, sealing their characters’ doom by depicting their lives as cycles of distrust, paranoia, and a greed that becomes almost mechanical in its repetition. Similarly, in The Irishman, based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, a “true crime” account of the personal criminal revelations of union laborer Frank Sheeran, partly written in Sheeran’s first person, Scorsese and Schoonmaker use their super-sized running time—even longer than Casino’s fleet three hours—to close in on the characters. The details of unreliable protagonist Frank’s deeds—the minutiae of his “work”—have piled up, inexorably, brick by brick over the film’s stretched but strangely comfortable length. There’s a pleasing pedal-pedal-break pacing to the film, and a sense that, by its marvelously attenuated climax, it’s catching up to a reckoning of itself.

As the film starts, the camera captures Frank at the end of a lengthy tracking shot, set to the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” snaking through the decidedly unglamorous corridors of a nursing home. Looking like an even more fatigued Ace Rothstein from the last shot of Casino, Robert De Niro’s Frank directly addresses the camera to initiate a similarly mediated version of history. Scorsese then eases us back in time, to the beginning of this epic narrative of tiny gestures, with the start of a journey. It’s a seemingly mundane road trip undertaken in the mid-seventies: a middle-aged Frank and his friend Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie (Kathrine Narducci), are en route through the Midwest for the wedding of Russell’s cousin’s daughter. During a routine highway stop, Frank and Russell notice on the side of the road a gas station and candy store that have tremendous personal significance, marking the location where the men first met two decades earlier. Immediately we’re shuttled even further back in time to witness this meeting. The younger Frank, a refrigerator truck driver who delivers meat throughout the Northeast for Food Fair, first makes Russell’s acquaintance when his vehicle breaks down at that very gas station, and Russell assists in helping him fix the carburetor, a testosterone-fueled meet-cute if there ever was one. About twenty years older than Frank, Russell immediately takes a liking to the “kid.” It’s unclear in the film—and impossible to know from the soft, smoothed-over digital visage given De Niro’s otherwise broad, aged bone structure—but in Brandt’s book, Frank situates their first meeting in 1955, which means he would have been around 35 years old here.

Soon after their fortuitous meeting, Frank finds himself supplying stolen meat to local loan shark and bookmaker Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), which is dramatized as though a criminal initiation, yet Frank’s willingness and ability to venture into shady territory leads us to believe it’s not his first time on the wrong side of the law. When questioned behind closed doors by the lawyer defending him after he’s indicted for stealing, Frank shrugs, “I work hard for them when I’m not stealing from them.” The incident occasions his near firing, if not for the protection of union contracts, which also brings him back into Russell’s orbit, while setting the stage for his connection to already notorious union organizer Jimmy Hoffa.

For the next hour plus, Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian detail with rapidity and bracing clarity Frank’s increasing enmeshment in the world of Philadelphia organized crime. His friendship with Russell grants him protection despite initial missteps, some of which, as he is told by Philly’s top mob boss, Angelo Bruno (a mesmerizingly collected Harvey Keitel), would have gotten anyone else knocked off. Frank and Russell have a connection that’s partly a latent mentor-protégé relationship, and partly a father-son-like bond—it’s related to us that Russell and his wife were unable to have children. Also they discover they both served in Italy during World War II (a brief war flashback is framed as Frank’s initiation into merciless killing). Once Frank speaks clipped Italian to Russell in hushed tones over dinner—an impressive skill for an Irishman we are told—the men’s friendship is cemented. Soon enough, Frank becomes a valuable associate within the overall syndicate, carrying out whatever dirty deeds are asked of him. In Brandt’s book, Frank explains, “I got so close to Russell that I was higher up than a made man. Russell even said that to me. He said, ‘Nobody can ever touch you because you are with me.’ I can still feel him gripping my cheek with that strong grip of his and telling me, ‘You should have been an Italian.’”

As played by a foggy De Niro, Frank Sheeran is an increasingly hollowed-out vessel, his predominant trait the actor’s singular inhabitation of passive-aggression. Doing his best work since Jackie Brown, De Niro makes Sheeran’s climb from low-level hood to President of a Teamsters Local and mafia associate seem like nothing more than the evolution of a working stiff. It’s De Niro’s world-weary fatigue and seen-it-all demeanor—even more than the actor’s clearly aged body heft and lethargic tone of voice—that make the much talked-about technique of digital de-aging in the early passages of the film demonstrably unconvincing. Nevertheless, such incongruities make for a productively disconcerting experience, in which the scars of age—if not the lines—are etched onto youth: the end is the beginning is the end.

As Russell, Pesci’s performance is the gravitational center of the film; everything seems to orbit around his calm. Russell’s love for Frank becomes inseparable from his professional need for him. An actor whose career during the nineties was always flirting with self-parody, Pesci here reminds us, with a quite extraordinary performance of fine, unnerving calibration, that he can wholly inhabit a character without breaking a sweat. In a film that’s so much about faces—what they convey, what they hide, the years they wear—Pesci’s exacting, expressive demeanor betrays a host of seemingly contradictory emotions at once: adoration, skepticism, contempt, disinterest, pride. The way Pesci’s facial muscles tighten and contract around his pursed lips generates as much drama as any of the contortions that fuel the plot.

Pesci’s simmer provides an essential foil for the hearty theatrics of Al Pacino, whose gregarious presence as legendary teamster Jimmy Hoffa gives The Irishman a major second-act jolt. Pacino inhabits, with the required charisma and bravado, the man who rose from being a Detroit fruit and vegetable loader making 32 cents an hour to Teamsters organizer to the most powerful labor leader in United States; he’s tender one moment, the next in a splenetic rage about Attorney General Bobby Kennedy constantly putting the “FBI up his ass.” About ten years closer in age to Frank than Russell—who initially fosters the first connection between the two men—Jimmy also takes an instant liking to Frank, whose cool glower and reliable obedience are apparently irresistible to both of these men, fiercely desirable attributes for those fixated on their own brands of honor. Frank’s tightening bond with Jimmy functions in constant parallel with that of Frank and Russell, drawing out a kind of love triangle, the consequences of which don’t become apparent until the film’s brilliantly attenuated climactic passages.

The faith and trust that both Russell and Jimmy put in Frank is the crux of the film, which leads to its central tragic irony—that love itself can cause pain, even death. It’s a love between men, distinctly, that underpins this ultimately nightmarish homosocial world. The Irishman has a purposefully frustrating tunnel vision, focusing on the men’s relationship at the sacrifice of the others orbiting them, especially the female characters. The extraordinary performances of Lorraine Bracco and Sharon Stone in Goodfellas and Casino, respectively, not only felt as central to their films as those of their male counterparts but also, especially in Stone’s case, helped set the films' overall tone, pace, and rhythm. Here, women are—by choice—an intrusion. This is most pronounced—most heartbreakingly uncharitable, but also most effective—in the character of Frank’s daughter, Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as a grown woman. As a girl, she witnesses her father curb-stomping a grocer who had dared push her around; since then, the film posits that she lost faith and trust in her father, seeing him as little more than a distant, secretive ogre with violent tendencies. She also reserves special ire for buddy Russell, having no time for his overly precious “daddy’s little girl” routines. Peggy’s serene, judgmental expression—again, this is a film about faces—becomes a symbolic representation of that emotional distance, a constant, looming manifestation of guilt that continues, and hardens, into adulthood, when Paquin’s silence grows all the more conspicuous. The actress’s six spoken words take on a deity-like resonance: that it leaves us craving so much more—wanting the connection and absolution that Frank himself so wants from her—feels like both an effective conceit and a failure of imagination. A final monologue might have satisfied, yet also diluted the injustice of it all.

Peggy’s obstinacy is the film’s one gesture to moral awareness; that her face functions as little more than a placid, unforgiving visual motif makes any chance of redemption feel particularly hopeless. The Irishman is not a film about moral gray areas, but about living in a constant state of gray, an endless moral turpitude. In its depiction of Jimmy Hoffa, whose veneration of the working man in America, of tirelessly enabling strikes and securing pensions, were to be achieved by any means necessary, there isn’t much sense of a man wrestling with intent, politics, or legacy—the film is fixated on action, more interested in the ends than the means.

For hours of run time, and for years of narrative action, Scorsese piles up incidents in a series of short, to-the-point scenes that are often noticeably lacking that virtuosic, cinematic thrill we’re accustomed to from his earlier, more muscular crime pictures in favor of a steady gaze. The assuredness of his craft is most pronounced during a late, extended set piece set during an honorary Teamsters dinner celebrating Frank, during which, at Frank’s request, Jimmy is a keynote speaker. At this stage, Jimmy has served in prison for jury tampering and pension fraud, escalated an ugly feud with crime boss and former Teamsters vice-president Anthony “Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham), become reckless and loose-lipped in public about his mafia ties, and has refused to relinquish his group on the union. Russell and his fellow bosses are fed up, leaving Frank in the middle. A master class in darting glances, withering stares, and paranoid corner conversations, the sequence recalibrates and resets the film, dialing down the pop-song underscoring, gathering the shadows around our characters, and preparing Frank for a final reckoning. When the film screeches to a halt, in the unlikely hell of an eerily empty, early morning Howard Johnson’s restaurant, it becomes clear that there’s no regaining the film’s earlier momentum. It’s all been one gradual descent, and now we feel it. A reconciliation of themes he’s explored before but timed to its own new stopwatch, The Irishman is imbued with an intense weariness that for Scorsese, approaching eighty years old, is more foregrounded than ever.

For much of its running time, The Irishman is so fixated on details and moves forward so intently that one may not notice just how preoccupied with death it is. Yet one of the film’s recurring devices is that, upon introducing new side characters, the frame freezes and on-screen text informs us how and when each of them will die one day. Mostly they are violent deaths, yet some are by natural causes. Either way, it’s just a matter of time—for them, and for all of us, even for tireless American filmmakers. In the closing passages, Frank is alone. The thrills and misdeeds of the past are but memories, traces of some other person’s life. Are the stories he’s told us true or the delusions of a man whose memories have been twisted by his own remorse? History has buried—or burned—those secrets and made it impossible to know. Maybe it would have been better for Frank to have been bumped off, quickly and painlessly. Now there’s nothing left but time—time to gather memories like they’re black-cloaked mourners at a funeral, time to regret, time to wonder what might have been.