Friends to the End
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Martin Scorsese, U.S., Netflix
Time expands and contracts, and faces tighten and fall throughout The Irishman. If nothing else‚ÄĒthough it‚Äôs much, much else‚ÄĒMartin Scorsese‚Äôs 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‚Äôre 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‚Äôs 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‚Äô 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‚Äôs I Heard You Paint Houses, a ‚Äútrue crime‚ÄĚ account of the personal criminal revelations of union laborer Frank Sheeran, partly written in Sheeran‚Äôs first person, Scorsese and Schoonmaker use their super-sized running time‚ÄĒeven longer than Casino‚Äôs fleet three hours‚ÄĒto close in on the characters. The details of unreliable protagonist Frank‚Äôs deeds‚ÄĒthe minutiae of his ‚Äúwork‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒhave piled up, inexorably, brick by brick over the film‚Äôs stretched but strangely comfortable length. There‚Äôs a pleasing pedal-pedal-break pacing to the film, and a sense that, by its marvelously attenuated climax, it‚Äôs 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‚Äô ‚ÄúIn the Still of the Night,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs cousin‚Äôs 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‚Äôre 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‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúkid.‚ÄĚ It‚Äôs unclear in the film‚ÄĒand impossible to know from the soft, smoothed-over digital visage given De Niro‚Äôs otherwise broad, aged bone structure‚ÄĒbut in Brandt‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúSkinny Razor‚ÄĚ DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), which is dramatized as though a criminal initiation, yet Frank‚Äôs willingness and ability to venture into shady territory leads us to believe it‚Äôs not his first time on the wrong side of the law. When questioned behind closed doors by the lawyer defending him after he‚Äôs indicted for stealing, Frank shrugs, ‚ÄúI work hard for them when I‚Äôm not stealing from them.‚ÄĚ The incident occasions his near firing, if not for the protection of union contracts, which also brings him back into Russell‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs top mob boss, Angelo Bruno (a mesmerizingly collected Harvey Keitel), would have gotten anyone else knocked off. Frank and Russell have a connection that‚Äôs partly a latent mentor-prot√©g√© relationship, and partly a father-son-like bond‚ÄĒit‚Äôs 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‚Äôs initiation into merciless killing). Once Frank speaks clipped Italian to Russell in hushed tones over dinner‚ÄĒan impressive skill for an Irishman we are told‚ÄĒthe men‚Äôs 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‚Äôs book, Frank explains, ‚ÄúI got so close to Russell that I was higher up than a made man. Russell even said that to me. He said, ‚ÄėNobody can ever touch you because you are with me.‚Äô I can still feel him gripping my cheek with that strong grip of his and telling me, ‚ÄėYou should have been an Italian.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
As played by a foggy De Niro, Frank Sheeran is an increasingly hollowed-out vessel, his predominant trait the actor‚Äôs singular inhabitation of passive-aggression. Doing his best work since Jackie Brown, De Niro makes Sheeran‚Äôs 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‚Äôs De Niro‚Äôs world-weary fatigue and seen-it-all demeanor‚ÄĒeven more than the actor‚Äôs clearly aged body heft and lethargic tone of voice‚ÄĒthat 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‚ÄĒif not the lines‚ÄĒare etched onto youth: the end is the beginning is the end.
As Russell, Pesci‚Äôs performance is the gravitational center of the film; everything seems to orbit around his calm. Russell‚Äôs 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‚Äôs so much about faces‚ÄĒwhat they convey, what they hide, the years they wear‚ÄĒPesci‚Äôs exacting, expressive demeanor betrays a host of seemingly contradictory emotions at once: adoration, skepticism, contempt, disinterest, pride. The way Pesci‚Äôs facial muscles tighten and contract around his pursed lips generates as much drama as any of the contortions that fuel the plot.
Pesci‚Äôs 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‚Äôs tender one moment, the next in a splenetic rage about Attorney General Bobby Kennedy constantly putting the ‚ÄúFBI up his ass.‚ÄĚ About ten years closer in age to Frank than Russell‚ÄĒwho initially fosters the first connection between the two men‚ÄĒJimmy 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôt become apparent until the film‚Äôs 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‚ÄĒthat love itself can cause pain, even death. It‚Äôs a love between men, distinctly, that underpins this ultimately nightmarish homosocial world. The Irishman has a purposefully frustrating tunnel vision, focusing on the men‚Äôs 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‚Äôs case, helped set the films' overall tone, pace, and rhythm. Here, women are‚ÄĒby choice‚ÄĒan intrusion. This is most pronounced‚ÄĒmost heartbreakingly uncharitable, but also most effective‚ÄĒin the character of Frank‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúdaddy‚Äôs little girl‚ÄĚ routines. Peggy‚Äôs serene, judgmental expression‚ÄĒagain, this is a film about faces‚ÄĒbecomes a symbolic representation of that emotional distance, a constant, looming manifestation of guilt that continues, and hardens, into adulthood, when Paquin‚Äôs silence grows all the more conspicuous. The actress‚Äôs six spoken words take on a deity-like resonance: that it leaves us craving so much more‚ÄĒwanting the connection and absolution that Frank himself so wants from her‚ÄĒfeels 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‚Äôs obstinacy is the film‚Äôs 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‚Äôt much sense of a man wrestling with intent, politics, or legacy‚ÄĒthe 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‚Äôre 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúPro‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs restaurant, it becomes clear that there‚Äôs no regaining the film‚Äôs earlier momentum. It‚Äôs all been one gradual descent, and now we feel it. A reconciliation of themes he‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs just a matter of time‚ÄĒfor 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‚Äôs life. Are the stories he‚Äôs told us true or the delusions of a man whose memories have been twisted by his own remorse? History has buried‚ÄĒor burned‚ÄĒthose 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‚Äôs nothing left but time‚ÄĒtime to gather memories like they‚Äôre black-cloaked mourners at a funeral, time to regret, time to wonder what might have been.