Scorsese’s Irishman could be his last venture into the gangster genre, and he leaves us with something entirely new, and very un-Scorsese.
The marketing for The Irishman would have you believe you are in for a certain kind of experience, whereas the actual film treats you to an entirely different one. I guess this would be where marketing exists in the world – luring people in for an experience they weren’t expecting, and perhaps lessons to be learnt when – doubtlessly – many will be disappointed, or left high and dry by a different experience than they were anticipating.
So, my advice is to approach The Irishman without expectations. Yes, it’s a Scorsese-directed mob drama; yes, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci are all in it, and yes, Scorsese’s genre pedigree suggests it’s going to be one particular thing.
This is a film that has more Silence energy than Casino energy. Where his earlier mob films were inevitably tragedies illustrating how the world a gangster builds up will inevitably come crumbling down (they’re not smart people at the end of the day), Scorsese infused the action with music of the era, as well as Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, imbuing them with their pulse and propulsive energy.
The Irishman is a different beast altogether: while there is some music throughout, much of it is original scoring by Robbie Robertson, and some scenes eschew music altogether and have their tension and seriousness heightened by being played in near silence. To superb effect, mind you – just not the same effect as his earlier work.
Given the pace and energy – not to mention grand, operatic cinematic flair – of Casino and GoodFellas, you’d be forgiven for expecting the same thing from The Irishman.
Given the pace and energy – not to mention grand, operatic cinematic flair – of Casino and GoodFellas, you’d be forgiven for expecting the same thing from The Irishman. But it’s a different beast, and almost fits into the realm of Scorsese’s other trilogy (thematically, the ‘faith is challenging’ troika of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Silence) rather than his mobsters-as-metaphor-for-American-capitalism one.
But it is interesting, as a coda to the man’s screen credits (at 78, and at a rate of one film every three-or-so years, he’s not likely got a lot left in reserve). Many of his enduring themes are revisited here. The Irishman is, of course, another one of his films essentially about flawed, broken men seeking redemption. Much like how Harvey Keitel’s character places his finger over a votive candle to test himself against the fires of hell in Mean Streets, here the notions of conscience, guilt and faith play a significant part in the life of De Niro’s Frank Sheeran.
This is where the “controversy” of Anna Paquin’s near-mute character comes into play. She’s the adult incarnation of Sheeran’s daughter, who upon seeing what kind of man her father is at an early age, becomes reticent, reserved, suspicious of the man he is and the world he operates in. So, her character – Peggy – fits into the narrative as Frank’s conscience, an ever-present reminder of good in a world made up of evil.
That she has little to say is essentially the point of the character – Frank’s being constantly, silently judged. Peggy is his conscience, and fairly representative of the Virgin Mary looking over him and the ill-deeds he’s doing. Paquin rises to the challenge, of course, and does some very interesting work with only a few lines of dialogue.
The film’s 200-minute running time allows the characters to breathe and for the piece to unfurl – an epic in terms of running time and the fact that the piece takes place over six decades. This is why something like this can find a home on Netflix rather than in theatres – it’s a long sit. But it’s worth it, when you take into account what you get to witness.
De Niro gets to be as good as he’s been in years, playing against type (in the mobster genre at least) by playing a middleman here, often the peacemaker, and a guy willing to do what’s needed to please those around him. Pesci’s work is the polar opposite of the kind of fiery hotheads he’s been made his own in GoodFellas and Casino – playing Russell Buffalino as more quiet, contemplative, and methodical boss rather than the explosive psychopaths he’s done in the past. Al Pacino gets the best part as Jimmy Hoffa, and rather than explode all over the screen as is his wont, gives a more subtle, nuanced portrayal of the union heavy. One can’t help but reflect on how Jack Nicholson played the same part in Danny DeVito’s 1992 Hoffa, but Pacino takes an entirely different route and makes the role his own.
If you’re a devotee of Scorsese and his body of work, The Irishman fits into the greater picture quite significantly. Whether or not the film is his masterpiece will probably be figured out over the course of time. But it’s undoubtedly an important work from him, one which shows him deeply immersed in the themes his screen credits have explored going back to his B-movie exploitation days of Boxcar Bertha, to Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and the mob pictures.
It’s a serious, studious and contemplative sit which requires discipline to watch – so the idea of what kind of mastery it took to execute is another thing entirely.