The Irishman - Theatrical release poster

Theatrical release poster

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, is a monumental achievement, a late masterwork produced in an era in which there is no real danger of what the journalist and screenwriter Michael Herr called “masterpiece fatigue.” Shouldn’t we expect a work of art from a  director who, as a child, was attracted to aspect ratios and created drawings in 1:1.3.3, and who once said, “I’m going to die behind a camera?” Scorsese’s obsessive career—spanning more than fifty years— began in the editing booth, where he was able to use what he had learned from his careful watching of Eisenstein. During the shooting of Woodstock in 1969 Scorsese was hired to work alongside the indispensable, three-time Academy Award-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who was to become his frequent collaborator; Schoonmaker also edited The Irishman (along with Raging Bull (1980), The Color of Money (1986), and over thirty films) and she is as equally unrelenting as Scorsese in getting the vision down right—during the editing of Taxi Driver (1976), Schoonmaker and Scorsese locked themselves into a room and cut the film over a score of nights although she remains uncredited for her work.

Even though The Irishman dives into the underworld of Italian mobster life in Philly, with its golden oldies music, white-tablecloth restaurants, gruesome murders and cuts of prime meat (medium rare), Scorsese brilliantly transcends the observational details he is justifiably lauded for. Here he’s looking to pin down something far trickier, and much more profound. Scorsese the chronicler of the lurid has aged into a philosopher.

The Irishman might challenge anyone’s endurance because of its epic running time (roughly three hours and a half), but the film, produced by Netflix, is currently streaming, so you can watch this powerful work in the comforts of your own home, and take bathroom breaks if need be. This is not to say that the film is so glacially paced that you’ll drop to sleep, only to jolt awake when you hear the brain-scraping sound of a violin string, as if you’d been watching a Bergman-Beckett-Tarkovsky black-and-white art-house mash-up that takes place in a sunken belfry by the light of one candle (the score of The Irishman, composed by legendary musician Robbie Robertson, is much easier on the ears, a bluesy harmonica update of Charles Bronson’s theme in Sergio Leone’s 1968 spaghetti-western epic Once Upon a Time in the West ). Scorsese is so ferociously the entertainer that the time swiftly passed, and before I knew it the bookending song “In the Still of the Night,” by The Five Satins, reintroduced its unsettling plaintive echoes from the distant past and the closing credits rolled, bringing with it an ineffable sadness. I’ve never been so moved by a Scorsese film before, though I count a half a dozen of them as my personal favorites. If the tears stand in your eyes as they did in mine just let them tumble down.

First edition cover of the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt.

Based on Charles Brandt’s true-crime book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman is essentially a biography of Frank Sheeran, an Irish hitman for the mob and a friend to Jimmy Hoffa, former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the most famous disappeared man in America (missing since 1975). “I heard you paint houses,” are Hoffa’s first words to Sheeran—a “housepainter” is code for a mob executioner (the blood splattering the walls is the paint). The real-life Sheeran was a killing machine, racking up at least twenty-five hits throughout his gory career; and Sheeran, mesmerizingly played by Robert De Niro, is no less prolific, supplying enough bodies to keep the skin trade going for a year, except with a difference: the film has such depth that the idea of “painting houses” grows in significance when we subtract it from the mob milieu. After all, to take up a brush and paint is to refresh, restore, and renovate; one chooses the color and style and mood; and what this means is that Frank Sheeran, the man with the brush in this particular story, can choose to paint the past as he sees fit.

This is because, in The Irishman, Frank is our narrator and guide. We first see him old and infirm and locked into a wheelchair in a Catholic assisted-living facility. The camera sneaks along corridors with a wary and unsteady trudge, as if one of the elderly were ambling along the halls (the cinematography is by Rodrigo Pietro, more sedate and controlled where he had been freewheeling and exuberant in the 2013 box-office hit The Wolf of Wall Street), what I saw as an undercutting of the celebrated Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas (1990) (more on that a bit later). And the instant we settle upon an isolated Frank, whose face appears quite battered, he speaks, and does not stop until the screen cuts to black.

His voice is striking: it’s as if a rock in his lungs is impeding his vital capacity, giving the sound an added rattle. This is the sodden, somber tone of one who has kept his feelings submerged for so long that when they do come up it is like the dipper water hauled from a well that had lain stagnant for a century: murky, unpleasant to drink, even poisonous. The human voice is essential in this film. The Irishman is at its most compelling when people simply settle down to talk: what the characters say, and, more importantly, what they don’t say, holds dire consequences.

The dialogue of the characters is terse and naturalistic, not snappy; there’s no tough-guy noir broadening of the shoulders. This is far from what you’d find in a Mamet film or play, where the characters indulge in pregnant Pinteresque pauses, and stammer and staccato archly, as if malfunctioning jackhammers were lodged in the esophagus. This, in Mamet town, is what passes for streetwise (oddly enough, it works when he’s in confined spaces, judging by the fireworks in the real estate office in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992); but when Mamet is on the move in the world at large—think Homicide (1991)—the language is so stilted that the actors speak as if they’re handcuffed to the stage).

Joe Pesci

Joe Pesci

Adapted by the Academy Award winning writer Steve Zaillian (in 1993 for Schindler’s List), The Irishman often unfolds like a comedy of manners: the gangsters kvetch and cavil like tailors in a sewing machine shop (apt, since the capo Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci in a quietly calibrated stunner of a performance, conducts the majority of his business in a fabric store in Pittston, Pennsylvania), and relay messages of great import to each other according to chain of command (from boss to hitman to civilian). This is amusing, for it is like watching men well advanced in years handling gossip as if it were teenager dynamite. Yet we cannot confuse these images with mere pittura ridicola. It is only later that we come to the stark realization that these messages determine one’s life, and more often than not, assure one’s death.

Those aforementioned deaths, arriving in well-choreographed scenes or in a flurry of pops, are never hyper-stylized. Instead of fuel-injected mayhem, as we’ve seen in previous Scorsese films such as Goodfellas or Casino (1995), The Irishman jogs along at a leisurely, meandering pace, like octogenarians taking their time on a tour of the continent. The narrative highway of The Irishman is fraught with switchbacks and turnarounds and sudden stops, like the route that Frank traces on a map with red marker from Philly to Detroit, where he will drive his “rabbi” Russell and their cigarette-smoking wives (Katherine Narducci, memorable as the pragmatic and tough Charmaine Bucco in the HBO series The Sopranos (1999-2007), and Stephanie Kurtzuba, seen in the offices of Stratton Oakmont in The Wolf of Wall Street) in order to attend the wedding of the daughter of Bill Bufalino (a good-humored Ray Romano, of Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005) fame), a mobbed-up lawyer and Russell’s cousin. A short Cessna flight from Ohio to Detroit will lead to the tragic murder that is the linchpin of the entire plot.

Before those all-important brains are splattered against the wall, however, we are privy to Sheeran’s earlier years, in which he graduates from working man to working killer, and befriends the one man in his life he arguably loves more than Russell: Jimmy Hoffa (played by a blustering, raging, tender, and ultimately heartbreaking Al Pacino).

Robert DeNiro in The Irishman

Here, through the much-ballyhooed trickery of de-aging technology, the seventy-five year old Robert De Niro becomes like the immortal jellyfish of Japanese waters, who have the enviable ability to turn back time via a cell development process and essentially revert to their immature selves in the polyp stage. Thus the younger Frank Sheeran, who arrives on the 1950s scene precooled from the abattoir of World War II, in the guise of a meat-delivery driver, looks like your typical ham-and-egger in a working-class uniform, with the rosy-cheeked bloom of a Norman Rockwell milkman. There is nothing charismatic or particularly striking about him, aside from his unearthly blue eyes. Frank is what you could call “execution-dependent,” a term ripped from the movie business, which means that a film has to be good in order to be successful—and Frank has proved himself lethally proficient during the 411 days he spent in combat in Italy, so he’s a shoo-in to be the mob’s number one killer.

Frank leads a rather blank and stolid life. He appears to exist along the edges of his family home, the blurry, silent figure whose beer and plate settle into the grooves made by his time at board. He is a man who eludes his own family (comprised mainly of women), as well as our own grasp; he sits before our eyes like a shaft of ephemeral sunlight, and depending upon which cloud passes, is either hardly there or not really there at all. He is also a man who takes what’s coming in a stoic manner; when his delivery truck stalls on the highway he doesn’t bash the steering wheel and fling vicious curses through his teeth the way the rest of us would, but calmly assesses the scene, notices that there’s a Texaco station and a Stuckey’s dead ahead, and immediately decides upon his course.

This is when he meets Russell, future boss and father figure, who instantly refers to Frank as “kid,” and points to the symbolic problem under the hood: “Uh oh. Timing chain.” Indeed it is. Had Frank simply pushed his car to the side of the road and waited for assistance, he would have continued on as a blur of a family man with a history of wartime violence. But now Russell, who “owned the whole road,” will set him on a unique course as hitman for the mob.

Russell, with his sad eyes, appears resigned to the taskwork of life. His slow-walking style has the air of inevitability about it, as if fate had attached lead weights to his wingtips. But behind Russell’s mournful gaze and his beautiful manners, his unhurried stride and easygoing ways, lies a serpent that is more subtle than any beast of the field, for this is a creature bent on survival.

We are fooled by exteriors; there is “no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Take Harvey Keitel’s Angelo Bruno, the “boss of Philadelphia,” who carries about him a terrible and austere authority as he monitors his kingdom from a booth in an elegant restaurant: he could coax an egg out of a hen with a simple nod. Russell has the strength and dignity of a Florentine clock tower: his seconds turn at the shifting of a hand. But Angelo maintains a more funeral style, for his is the word behind the bullet. Both men, steeped in what Pauline Kael dubbed the “feudal ruthlessness” of the mob, conceal a steely spirit within their well-packaged exteriors; we cannot see the hearts calcified within. But the rot they generate will transmit across fifty years of screen time, from the 1950s to the 2000s, infecting all that they encounter.

Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa testifying at a Senate hearing on labor racketeering Washington D.C. August 11, 1958.

One of those they infect is, of course, Frank Sheeran; the other is James Riddle Hoffa. The real-life Hoffa was a hard-nosed and articulate man, a consummate street brawler who, as Frank makes clear, “in the 50s was as big as Elvis.” In The Irishman Hoffa is a man in thrall to his own celebrity, to the point of hubris: “I’m always right,” he insists. Pacino gives Hoffa an excess of volatile energy—he confesses to Frank that he runs away with himself, that he “gets abrupt.” He is the ranter and raver, the sloganeer, the bearer of deep grudges, the sensitive man of power who feels any number of slights. He appears exhausted by his capacity for expression—”He likes to talk, don’t he?” Russell says—; he even falls asleep mid-conversation, the way Abraham Lincoln sometimes did, to the consternation of his cabinet. But Hoffa is not just a conduit of power. His fondness for children and sundaes, and hatred of tardiness and alcohol and the Kennedy clan, present a complicated man who not only enraptures us but also makes us care for him very deeply. He is utterly human, with his passions and his flaws, and therefore recognizably tragic.

What Hoffa wants above all is to regain the union he had lost when he was charged with fraud and sent to prison for five years. But the Philly mob wants him to step down; they prefer Fitz, Hoffa’s former underling, as boss. “But it’s my union!” he roars, sorely testing the patience of the capos, and little realizing the danger that he is in. The issue comes to a head because of Hoffa’s tense relationship with one man. “Who the fuck is he?” Hoffa says to Frank, in reference to his mortal enemy, “the little guy” Tony Provenzano (English actor Stephen Graham, no stranger to the American gangster role, having played the bantam Al Capone from 2010-2014 in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire), a New Jersey mob boss who is dug into the marrow of the Teamsters.  “He’s a gangster. I run the union, I’m the president.” Hoffa wants his guys to take over the locals and overthrow the rule of the capos, so he could wear the Teamster crown: and therein lies his tragedy. Fluffing the pillows and smoothing over the sheets will not erase the fact that he slid into bed with the mafia; he fails to see that he is not more powerful than his enemies.

Al Pacino

As Russell says to Frank, in reference to the John F. Kennedy assassination and as a warning to Hoffa, “If they can whack a president, they can whack a president of the union.” But Hoffa thinks that they wouldn’t dare, naively believing that the files and records in his possession detailing their crimes make him bulletproof. The puppet dangling on the strings is blind to the mastery of his marionettes. “Which side are you on?” Jimmy shouts, rallying the crowd during Frank’s testimonial dinner. And later Frank will say, “I’m behind you, Jimmy, all the way,” one of the many dramatic ironies laced throughout the film, and a statement that will prove the crack in his bond of loyalty.

*     *     *      *     *

So what, besides an exploration of conflicting loyalties, is Scorsese after in this film? Why is such emphasis laid upon the invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961, and the subsequent assassination of JFK in 1963? (And why is it that tears sprung to my eyes at the announcement of the president’s assassination when I wasn’t even alive at the time? Does it have to do with my being an American? Then why did my wife succumb to silent weeping, even though she is Turkish? I’ve given this some thought, and I think it is because when titans fall, even at the distance of more than half a century, the reverberations are so thuddingly loud that even the ants in their burrows are shaken from their sleep). The mob’s depredations in Cuba have been well-documented: various families held large shares in the casinos and hotels in Cuba, and helped transform Havana into an American fiefdom, where prostitution, gambling, and drugs were rampant; and it is also well known that these were lost once Castro toppled the dictator Batista and nationalized all American businesses, thus ridding his island of an imposthume that threatened to burst.

Scarface, 1932.

What is also known—and asserted in the film—is that the mobsters wanted to reclaim what they had lost in Cuba, and the only way to do that was through the auspices of President Kennedy (whose father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was an alleged bootlegger with mob ties). This gets at the corruption at the heart of American life; and all of us are complicit, for aiding and abetting, if you will, because we have long been entertained by the leeching of shylocks, the brutality of extortionists, the violence of gangsters and notorious killers, we have demanded more blood and more bullet-riddled deaths, and we have delighted in how these bad men (and the majority of them are men) put one over on everyday people and enriched themselves in the process. Since the Pre-Code Days in the 1920s, when gangsters were first introduced on the big screen, they have become our heroes. Without an audience, they would have no glamour attached to them. As Cotton Mather, that terrifying exemplar of New England Puritanism, wrote over three centuries ago in Magnalia Christi Americana, “It is our own backsliding heart, which has plunged the whole country into so wonderful a degeneracy.”

Scorsese appears to be reckoning, finally, with the mobster stereotype that has been linked with Italian culture. The Sopranos dove into this with wonderful irony, through the character of Richard De La Penna, Dr. Jennifer Melfi’s pompous and earnest ex-husband, who was played by Richard Romanus. Richard, who favored Ivy League sweaters tied over his shoulders, was a card-carrying member of the Italian American Civil Rights League (founded in 1970 by the crime-family capo Joe Colombo ostensibly to combat racism against Italians) and was disgusted that Dr. Melfi welcomed Tony Soprano into treatment, a mob boss who perpetuated pernicious stereotypes. The irony is that Romanus had starred as the arrogant loan shark Michael in Scorsese’s 1973 New York masterpiece, Mean Streets.

In The Irishman, The Italian American Civil Rights League is reflected in the pin Russell wears on his suit at a nightclub, which riles up Crazy Joe Gallo, an unpredictable gangster with ambition who had ordered Joe Colombo killed in 1971 (Colombo survived the shooting and died in a state of paralysis in 1978). Gallo says derisively, “You believe in all that shit?” to which Russell responds, clearly aggrieved, “Joe, I’m Italian,” before Gallo is led away by the peacemaking Frank. This affront to the so-called honorable side of Italian culture, which the refined and elegant Russell wishes to reflect, and which “Crazy Joe” clearly refutes with his boisterous, disrespectful manners, signifying language, and murderous rampages, seals Joe’s doom, which leads to his famous execution at Umberto’s in Little Italy in 1972 (“That was a beautiful hit,”” Dr. Cusamano, Tony Soprano’s next-door neighbor, proclaims with wonder on the golf course, alongside his non-Italian friends in The Sopranos).

If history is, indeed, “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind,” as the great historian Edward Gibbon wrote, then the gangster genre has its importance, for a large chunk of this entertainment is bound up with the evils of capitalism. Alcohol (when it was prohibited), drugs, racketeering, kidnapping and murder, crime, gave birth to the early gangster movies of William A. Wellman, Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang (and of course those of Martin Scorsese which followed), raised the luxury hotels in Miami, delivered weapons into the hands of the anti-Sandinista Contras in Nicaragua, the FARC in Colombia, and The Shining Path in Peru, delivered RPGs and Kalashnikovs to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and arguably provided Pakistan with the means to build the nuclear bomb. If crime doesn’t pay, then of course all of us are left footing the bill.

In The Irishman, the consequences of a criminal life are made poignantly clear. Scorsese does not give us “the party’s over” ending he did in Casino and Goodfellas; he refutes the glamorous vision of mob power, where even in prison the criminals could fry choice steaks and uncrate lobsters. Instead we have Russell and Frank and a few of the other capos confined in gray asperity. Russell, toothless, debilitated after a stroke, is no longer the suited eminence. The man who breathed into Frank’s nostrils the breath of life, and calls him mio figlio, is like a bag of straw in his wheelchair. When he is near death, unable to take even the simplest of nourishment without small pains, he turns to the offices of the priesthood to offer him absolution: the final hustle, where with the turning of a rosary the sins of a lifetime are expunged and the gates of heaven are flung wide. “Don’t laugh,” Russell says to Frank, as he is pushed toward the chapel. “You’ll see. You’ll see.”

Russell is right. An old man himself, a moral cripple in a wheelchair in search of absolution, Frank is asked by a younger priest if he feels any grief for the victims’ families. Frank’s neutral response serves to keep them at bay. “I didn’t know any of the families,” he says. “It’s water under the dam.” Throughout his life Frank had maintained the ability to make brutal decisions without straining his neck to look back upon the folly of regret. To say it in gangster-speak: “That’s a sucker’s game.” Besides, how could he feel for anyone else’s family when he barely knew his own?

Much has been made of the lack of strong female characters in this film, but I would argue that they are nothing but strength. Take the silence of his daughter, Peggy. This is a child who had once seen her father mangle a grocer’s hand on the street for pushing her around in his store, so there is no doubt that she has become terrorized into silence by the ferocity of his violence, although he never lays a hand on her. Later, for having been deprived of the gentleness and tender sympathy all children should enjoy, this buried terror transmogrifies into seething rage. What better revolt against her father’s world of articulate brutality than withdrawn silence?

This is why Frank talks and talks—it’s his form of exorcism. Only he’s like a bodybuilder who believes he will sculpt new mounds of muscle by drinking filled milk; he is under the delusion that Peggy will forgive him his trespasses, though what his trespasses are, he cannot truly say.

It is interesting to note his family’s silence in his presence (as God commands quiet obeisance in church). Was he ever truly a good father and husband? How telling that a single tear does not fall at the funeral of his beloved “Reeney,” dead from lung cancer, the mourners silent and emotionless: the collateral damage of his life of violence.

It’s no accident that the aged and infirm Frank ends the film in the company of a priest considerably younger than himself. Who better to exonerate him, and lend credence to his doubt concerning the possibility of penance, let alone forgiveness, than the cleric who may be roughly the same age as the daughter he let slip through his fingers?

But the young priest is not there to promote heaven exactly, for like Claudius at prayer in Hamlet, Frank does not have faith in the exonerating words. The priest’s task is to attempt to prune the vile roots. But it’s too late for Frank, for his life had long ago sprung from the trunk of evil, and the rot has done its work, leaving him hollow, and without a soul.

At the heart of mob life is an emptiness, Scorsese seems to suggest, and as it stands it is on life support; in this film, Scorsese pulls the plug, as David Chase did at the conclusion of The Sopranos. There is no happy resolution. There’s only life . . . except when there isn’t. Eventually, we will all cut to black.

Edwin Rivera is the Editor of The Match Factory and a Writing Instructor at the School of Visual Arts. He is a playwright, fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His first play, In the Palace of the Planet King, was produced at the Wild Project theatre on May 9th, 2019, as part of the Downtown Urban Arts Festival.