I watched The Irishman last night, all three and a half hours of it. I’ve been a long-time fan of Scorsese’s distinct directing style, a man who is often imitated but never duplicated. Goodfellas was the first movie I ever saw of Scorsese’s and, in fact, the first “film” I ever saw period. The style, the dialogue, the shots, I was brought into a different universe within the opening scene.
The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran, Russ Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa. It’s an interpretation of who killed Hoffa back in 1975. The expounding is pulled largely from the book I Heard You Paint Houses, a nonfiction narrative published in 2004. It was written by Charles Brandt, Sheeran’s former attorney.
Scorsese is best known as a master director of gangster films, focusing primarily on east coast Italian and Irish-American crime organizations. His start began in the ‘70s with films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. I would argue that he reached his prime in the ‘90s with films such as Goodfellas and Casino. The early aughts had award-winning films as well, Gangs of New York and The Departed. All of the films above have been met with criticism for their gratuitous violence and machismo admiration.
The films all cover different epochs and legends of America’s mafia but the one thing they all have in common—their undeniable glorification of the life. I’m no critic of such romanticism, art is limitless, but that is what made The Irishman stand out and why it will be seen as his outlier gangster classic.
It still has many of the iconic Scorsese signatures—a zooming featherweight camera, a deadly soundtrack, guns and his favourite leading men as the ensemble.
The difference with The Irishman is that unlike Ray Liotta’s character Henry Hill in Goodfellas or Robert Deniro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein in Casino, one feels no empathy for the leading characters.
The Irishman tells the story of Frank Sheeran (Deniro) Russ Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) and each are presented as apathetic. They have no charisma or charm, perhaps Hoffa at times but he is still shows no moral calibre.
In past movies, Scorsese presents even his hitman thugs as being good fathers or loving husbands in an attempt to show the duality of man and have the viewer somewhat on their side. Sheeran is the centrepiece of the cast and he is routinely shown to be both a negligent father and husband.
The movie is a whopping three and a half hours and one could make the case that it doesn’t need to be but I believe it is drawn out to show the debilitation of its characters. These men value life so little that to watch them die of old age is almost more unsettling than the murders they committed in their younger years.
I think ultimately that is the point of the film; mobsters are supposed to die young, preferably in a blaze of bullets like Sonny Corleone in The Godfather II. The idea of withering away in prison on a life sentence, or planning out your funeral as a geriatric from an old age home is definitely outside the genre’s motifs.
Scorsese, who is 77, is no doubt contemplating his own mortality and the film is certainly evident of that. The veneer has been removed. The deaths in The Irishman, of which there are plenty are done in a way that is anti-climatic, swift and gritty.
The Scorsese of some years ago would have likely portrayed those same scenes with a perfect application of slow-motion camera work, a classic crooning song and the blood would flow in an artful stream. That isn’t the case at all with The Irishman. The men and their actions are presented the way the law and society, in general, would see them, brutish and cold.
One can’t help but wonder if Scorsese feels a certain amount of guilt for having made so many films that glorify the ugly deeds of these sociopathic “goodfellas.” Perhaps, for a man who is ensconced in his own Catholicism, it was time for some directorial penance: “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned, I have made a litany of award-winning box-office smash hits that romanticized the lives of heathens, I promise this next film will make it all right.”
In any case, The Irishman is a great film, it’s no Goodfellas but it doesn’t need to be. What we see in The Irishman is a seasoned director in the tail-end of his career telling a final truth often ignored within a genre that he perfected.