The Irishman: Scorsese ends a genre

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on November 29, 2019 Published on November 29, 2019

Defining the genre: Martin Scorsese’s latest film ‘The Irishman’ is based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 non-fiction book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’   -  REUTERS

Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’, a treatise on mortality, ageing and the loss of loved ones, is his finest film in more than a decade

Have you ever noticed how Hollywood mafia metaphors tend to be curiously domestic? In The Sopranos (which, after all, was inspired heavily by Goodfellas), we had mob boss Tony Soprano introducing himself as part of a “waste management” firm (garbage trucks are mighty useful for other mafia activities too, of course). The John Wick movies operate in a universe where members of an international crime syndicate can book “a dinner reservation” when they need bodies to be professionally disposed of. And now we have Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, where Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) asks Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert de Niro) if he “paints houses” by way of introduction. An explanatory montage reveals that the two are talking about assassination-via-shooting, which leaves blood-spattered walls. Sheeran replies in the affirmative, adding, “I also do my own carpentry”, which is to say his services include corpse disposal; no dinner reservations required here.

These metaphors tell us how detached from their daily violence these men are at some level — and also how they use ‘family’, a necessarily abstract and malleable notion at the best of times, to nourish this break from reality and keep up appearances. Scorsese’s own past films about organised crime — Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006) — have dealt with the gangster-as-family-man dichotomy in various ways. The Irishman represents the culmination of this phenomenon, a gently unspooling 209-minute treatise on mortality, ageing and what it’s like to have your loved ones leave you behind, one by one. It is, without a shadow of doubt, Scorsese’s finest since The Departed.

Based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman, streaming on Netflix,is narrated by Sheeran, longtime associate of and hitman for Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a Pennsylvania-based mob boss. When Bufalino asks Sheeran to work for Hoffa, America’s most powerful labour union organiser (who had financial ties with the mafia), initially things are hunky dory. Sheeran is troubleshooter, bodyguard and sounding board rolled into one for the mercurial, pulpit-banging Hoffa. But as political pressure (mostly the Kennedys, who never let Hoffa forget that he contributed to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign) mounts and Hoffa starts trash-talking the mob in public appearances, Sheeran must weigh his friendship against what the business needs.

The iconic three — Pacino, de Niro and Pesci — of course, provide much of this ship’s ballast with their performances. De Niro and Pesci, in particular, give us a fitting coda for their earlier mob pairings in Goodfellas and Casino. In both these films, the two played ambitious criminals whose greed and hubris ultimately prove to be their downfall.

In The Irishman, Bufalino and Sheeran are more careful, cerebral gangsters who nevertheless see the house they built crumbling all around them. Worse, they see their loved ones (such as Anna Paquin, in a touching cameo as Sheeran’s estranged daughter Peggy) drifting away, unable to reconcile themselves with the family’s criminal empire.

Pesci and De Niro end up in a kind of Waiting for Godot dynamic by the end of The Irishman, a geriatric Vladimir and Estragon trapped in the glories of the past, biding their time for yet another triumph, one that they know will never actually happen.

What of Pacino, then? Fans of the legendary actor will be pleased to see him in his element again, after increasingly disappointing returns since Insomnia (2002). He plays to the gallery here, to an extent, but ends up delivering the performance of the film nevertheless. Hoffa was a larger-than-life figure, it’s true — Jack Nicholson played him in an earlier biopic, Hoffa, which came out in 1992. But in Pacino’s hands, Hoffa becomes something else entirely, a man possessed by the idea of his legacy (the scene where he yells, “This is MY union!” is classic Pacino), a man for whom being in power is as elementary as brushing his teeth. He yells, gesticulates and, yes, delivers rousing monologues. But he’s also unexpectedly gentle, introspective, and proves to be a good friend to Sheeran. The scene where the two discuss children and legacies has impeccable meta-fictional energy — two of the greatest actors alive, looking back upon their works with a shrug and a sigh.

Every truly great story, goes a writing dictum, either starts a genre or ends one. The Irishman feels a lot like the latter. The surprisingly theological last half-hour or so makes it clear that as far as the gangster movie is concerned, this is Scorsese’s final confession on the matter. And confessions are important in this world, confessions are everything: Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) confessing to the camera that he feels trapped as “an average nobody” at the end of Goodfellas, Tony Soprano’s constant mea-culpas-by-proxy on the therapist’s chair in The Sopranos, and, finally, Sheeran finding religion behind bars here.

De Niro, apparently, convinced Pesci to come out of retirement for The Irishman, telling him, “We gotta do this. Who knows if there’ll be anything after?” After watching the film, audiences will be inclined to agree.

Published on November 29, 2019
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