For reasons that go beyond his thoughts on the latest breed of Hollywood blockbuster, I cannot say, truthfully, that I hold Martin Scorsese in the same esteem as so many others do. Oh, he’s a good director, with a filmography that is most impressive, Goodfellas is a film I will praise to the heavens, and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull speak for themselves. But what has Scorsese done lately? Leaving aside his penchant for documentary film-making you have the self-indulgent Gangs Of New York, the overly-praised The Departed, the weird-for-the-sake-of-it Shutter Island, the tone-deaf The Wolf Of Wall Street and the miserable slog of Silence. The Aviator and Hugo buck the trend a little, but while all of them are interesting in their own right, and they all have redeeming features, are any of them truly on the same level as Goodfellas or Taxi Driver?
But The Irishman was a project that intrigued me the moment I heard about it, and not just because of the obvious potential of the source material or the obviously eye-catching cast. A director of the status and temperament of Scorsese working with Netflix? How would the old master try and adapt to the world of streaming, with its emphasis on smaller screens and shorter bite-sized chunks of entertainment? The answer appears to be “He won’t”, as Scorsese continues to encourage viewers to watch The Irishman in theatres and in one sitting, when he isn’t slating entire sub-genres of film. So this was the kind of mix that might make movie heaven or a total disaster. Which side did The Irishman come out on?
Facing the end of his life in a nursing home, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) relates the story of his time as a mafia hitman: his friendship with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci); his role in numerous crimes and murders across multiple decades; and his ties to powerful Teamster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). As Sheeran prepares for the end, he must contemplate what it was all for, and whether it was worth it or not.
It certainly isn’t heavenly, but neither is it a disaster. Instead, it’s somewhere in the middle, but the question must be asked is that really that much better of a position to be in? For someone like Scorsese, I think not. I regret to report that The Irishman exhibits some of Scorsese’s worse impulses as a film-maker, and is actively harmed by Netflix’s apparent hands-off approach when it comes to creative control: The Irishman is a film that is very much out of control, in many different ways.
It’s a meandering thing for sure, a 209 minute journey through Frank Sheeran’s life, and through so many other lives as well. Scorsese, with his reputation and with Netflix’s approval, is very much off the chain here, and the result is a bloated ungainly production, that takes in so many events and characters that it quickly collapses under the weight of its own narrative. It is simply put that The Irishman is far, far longer than it has to be, or had any need to be.
The film needs an editor with a bit more balls and a director with a bit more restraint. It feels like every scene, every exchange of dialogue, every large sequence is one that should have been cut down, filled as they are with all manner of unnecessary back-and-forths between principals (nearly every conversation has to include some manner of pointless small-talk or awkward talking over one another) or distractions from the main point (like freeze frame cue cards outlining random mobsters bloody fates, to no particular point save a half-decent gag an hour and a half in). In scene after scene, Scorsese indulges some of his worst instincts, and comes out with a picture that has scenes that I am convinced would be decried as laughable if another name was on the marquee, where nameless characters pontificate about people whose names you don’t recognise and couldn’t possible care about.
The narrative structure, in line with the bloat, is also needless complicated by the decision to jump around in the timeline. The Irishman opens with Sheeran in a nursing home, then going on a cross-country trip decades before, then goes back to him as a younger man, and is happy to flip between these perspectives at critical moments. The effect is not, I presume, what Scorsese intended, because all it did was take me out of the main action – that set in the late 50’s to the mid-70’s – with every recourse to everything else. One brief scene where we see Sheeran executing German prisoners in World War Two is a prime example of an unnecessary cut from the central story, that seems to serve only to increase running time, and adds very little that the accompanying flash-forward isn’t already doing. The film is a flashback in a flashback in a flashback, and that’s just not good.
Don’t worry about not being in tune with what year Scorsese is setting certain scenes in: he’ll be sure to let you know with a succession of remarkably clumsy historical way-markers, usually in the form of background news broadcasts about JFK’s election, the Bay of Pigs invasion, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, in scenes that look like something a college student would have come up. Elsewhere The Irishman comes off as just a series of mafia-related anecdotes that Scorsese just wants the opportunity to film and put into a movie, even if, as stated, they really don’t serve the movie.
All of this would be much more passable if The Irishman was the acting masterclass that it could certainly be, but, whisper it, De Niro, Pacino and Pesci just aren’t that good here. Much like my reaction to Joker, it seems to me that the way to get kudos for the acting craft from so many critics today is to adopt an accent or a certain manner of speaking and just stick with it to the bitter end, and that’s all that I can see here. That, and a certain whiff of nostalgia-bait in the efforts to get the central three back on-screen with each other.
De Niro shuffles awkwardly through the role of Sheeran, speaking mostly in clipped, almost stuttering, sentences, so reserved emotionally that it is difficult to get any kind of a read on Sheeran. Pacino has a bit more too him as Hoffa, but ultimately goes too far in the other direction, playing the union man like he is suffering from some kind of OCD-related mania the entire time. And Pesci, while being the best of the three, is very much an actor at the conclusion of his career, and no longer capable of the same kind of performances he would have been capable of two decades ago (and De Niro appears to be not far behind him, having failed to do anything with his career of any real note in decades). All of them are a bit too, shall we say, “projecting”, a bit too much with their resorts to loud voices in place of nuance. The trio appear more to be imitating than acting.
The supporting cast is so numerous that its hard to take them all in. The standouts are Ray Romano as a mafia/union lawyer, Bobby Cannavale as a mafia heavy, Stephen Graham as a rival to Hoffa, Harvey Keitel as another mafia kingpin and Jack Huston as Robert Kennedy. But the truth is that they all come and go so quickly, alongside dozens of others, that it is genuinely difficult for anyone to make a lasting impression. Even De Niro has that problem.
Despite being the Irishman of the title, there are huge parts of the film where Sheeran is not the main character, and really isn’t anyone of consequence of all, just sort of there in several scenes. Once Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is introduced, De Niro takes an obvious back seat for something close to an hour, which is not what The Irishman really needs, seeing as how the friendship between the two should be the beating heart of affairs. Instead, owing to the limitations of either actor’s performance when on-screen together and Scorsese’s failure to imbue a predictable tale with tension, it seems more like a false friendship, an inorganic thing.
Scorsese has never been a woman’s director, and boy does that show with The Irishman. The only significant female role is given to Anna Paquin as Sheeran’s emotionally stunted and eventually estranged daughter Peggy, but she’s utterly wasted in a role where the character is treated more like a mute (she has seven words of dialogue). At times, it seems like the director is going to make more of the Peggy character than he does, seeing as how people Hoffa or Russel spend so much time with her, often in a strangely leering, perverse kind of way. But she never really gets to be anything other than a silent judge of Sheeran’s actions. The only other women, mostly nameless wives there to fill out a few scenes, are further evidence that the director doesn’t value the experience and perspective of an entire gender.
It certainly isn’t all bad. One sequence that really stood out for me as an example of the great work that Scorsese can do was one at around the 130 minutes mark, with the setting of a Teamster union award ceremony for Frank. It’s an extended scene lasting around 15-20 minutes, where the facade of a glamorous night of celebration hides a multitude of murky goings on, as Sheeran, Bufalino and Hoffa verbally spar back-and-forth over Hoffa’s actions, knowledge of mafia criminal activity and future intentions, before making sure to go back out on the dance floor and put on the mask again. You could have made a whole film out of this setting, a 90-minute dialogue heavy piece of intrigue and underhanded dealings, to explore how the mafia came to the final decision that Hoffa could not be allowed to continue breathing. It would have been more interesting than the larger production that the sequence is just a small part of.
But where The Irishman most definitely gets things right is in its reaction to the act of killing. Its final sections consist of Sheeran contemplating the end of his existence and what his lifetime of death has resulted in: a large portion of his life in prison, failing health and deteriorating or non-existent relationships with what family he has left. The ultimate framing device is of an elderly Sheeran wasting away in a nursing home, attended to by nurses who don’t even know who Jimmy Hoffa was. In depicting Sheeran’s final days in such a manner, full of loneliness and failing efforts to come to terms with his sins – Sheeran struggles to demonstrate true remorse, in awkward scenes with an earnest priest – Scorsese appears to be rejecting the narrative that his films glorify violence and killing.
One can’t help but think of Scorsese’s many imitators, Todd Phillips most recently, and how they have aped his visual style while portraying murder as an empowering act. If The Irishman does nothing else, it showcases a late-in-life viewpoint of such things, and that view is predominantly negative. And yet, even this calls attention to flaws in the film: we spend literal hours with Frank as a mob hitman, but never adequately explore how he became so amoral in the first place, bar that brief-to-the-point-of pointlessness glance at his experience in World War Two. Perhaps The Irishman may have been better if it had devoted some time in the 70’s for Frank’s introspection.
It’s Scorsese, with the very accomplished Rodrigo Prieto beside him, so The Irishman of course looks great, even if the normal method for viewing the film will probably make the director tear his hair out. We open with an entrancing tracking shot through a nursing home until we come to focus on an elderly Sheeran, before Scorsese goes to his tried and true methods of showcasing the criminal underworld, all gritty streets, masculine presence and sheltered conversations. The production details are superb, and you are never in doubt as to what period you have been landed in scene-to-scene (an assassination scene around the mid-point especially is awash with so many small details, its clear its been assembled in minute fashion).
The oft-debated CGI effects used to “de-age” De Niro and others have their positives and negatives. It’s noticeable at first, especially those alarming bright blue eyes, but the length of the film means that your brain has plenty of time to acclimatise to the sight of a young De Niro. Once you do, you can appreciate what the tech can do. It’s in other things that it falls apart, most notably when wider shots encompassing most of Sheeran’s body mean that a 76-year-old De Niro is shuffling along in a 30 something body. A scene revolving around Sheeran assaulting a shop-owner is particularly notable for this, with De Niro’s body movements very obviously those of an more infirm old man.
I couldn’t help but be disappointed by The Irishman. Scorsese is, with this, merely continuing what I can only see as a run of unexceptional form, and betraying some of his own insecurities with recent ill-advised comments. The film is far too long, its running time evidence less of epic scope and more of an unrestrained ego. The central three simply aren’t up to the task of carrying the amount of material that they have to carry, and the digital efforts to help them are hit and miss. The film’s treatment of female characters and actors is fairly shameful. And while there are some moments and sequences, especially in the latter half, that show what could have been, too much is lost in the larger morass of a production that, to reiterate, seems to have been out of control. Scorsese’s apogee was a while ago, and The Irishman does little to change that opinion in me. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).