dir: Martin Scorsese
I don’t really have the reverence for Martin Scorsese that almost every other film critic and reviewer on this green but burning earth possesses, but that’s not the same as saying I don’t like him or like his movies. I like him well enough, as an old man, but especially as someone who loves movies. His series on film history is sublime, especially since it’s not about his movies.
In the discussion about this flick that I was having with a dear friend, I felt compelled to open up and admit that I’ve never really loved any of Scorsese’s films in the manner in which a lot of other people fall over themselves to admit. His films, to me, for the longest time, felt like homework, like you had to love them, or else people would frown upon you. Admitting you couldn’t stand Taxi Driver or Goodfellas could be enough to get you thrown out of a pub if the people you were arguing with were drunk enough.
There are dozens of reasons why much of his oeuvre hasn’t resonated with me, but I would never be foolish enough to pretend that he hasn't had an immense impact on the medium of film.
What’s ironic for me is that in this, his most recent film about the same shit he’s been making films about for decades, the element that disgusts me the most about his depiction of toxic masculinity here is transformed into something else entirely. Wow, what a convoluted fucking sentence. What I’m trying to say is that many of his other films depict the depths of toxic masculinity but also have their cake and eat it too by showing how much glorious fun can come from being the perpetrator of this mobbed up version of toxic masculinity. The Irishman lays bare that mentality, showing how completely it defeats itself over the longest term.
It’s really a film about old age and regret, made by an old Catholic man with regrets. The hushed tones and awards screeds pretend that it’s important because it reveals the “truth” about various chapters of American history. Honestly, give us a fucking break. This should be held up as a glowing beacon of truth and honesty the way Oliver Stone’s JFK is held up as a shocking film about what really happened: it’s isn’t, no one does, no-one mentions it any more.
This film doesn’t work only if you believe its central contention that the chap of the title Frank Sheeran, was actually present when momentous moments occurred in American history. That was a bit of an awkward phrase, but my intentions were good: it was my convoluted way of saying “if you believe this bullshit you’re probably a Trump supporter too stupid not to keep buying lottery tickets based on your star sign”. But really what I’m saying is that it works even if you don’t buy that Sheeran really did kill bunches of people for the mob, including probably the most famous mob murder of them all, being Jimmy Hoffa.
It doesn’t matter. Its veracity doesn’t matter. What matters is, a man tangential to the actual players in the mob, does some shit over the decades, is alienated from his daughter, dies miserable and alone, but not only that, has ample time with which to marinate and suffer, wallowing within his regrets, which is a luxury many of his contemporaries didn’t get to enjoy.
Mostly because he blew their brains out, or someone just like him did, not giving them long enough to regret their life choices.
Who is Frank Sheeran? Who cares. I don’t really feel like I really knew him or wanted to know him. Robert De Niro has been playing these roles for so many decades that saying he could play these roles in his sleep seems like an understatement: I actually don’t doubt that he does, at this stage, play these roles in his sleep, probably not every night, but some nights at least. Sheeran, like pretty much every man of this type that I’ve ever met in my life, will tell you either directly or indirectly that they did everything you ever heard about in the 20th century. They didn’t fake the moon landing, but they can tell you who did. Maybe they didn’t kill Kennedy, but they gave the gun to a guy who knew a guy, who did it. They made the sandwich that killed Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas, and sold the pill to River Phoenix that killed him. They saved Hendrix from a lynch mob and had a threesome with Marilyn Monroe and Madonna on a motorbike etc etc
In other words, they’re a mixture of self-aggrandising bullshitters that are desperate for others to buy the version of themselves they put other there, or genuinely delusional shitheads that no-one takes seriously.
But some of them can be quite convincing, or charismatic, or both. Frank Sheeran himself is neither, no matter the time period you care to mention. He’s just a guy, a dull functionary, but he knows some interesting people. De Niro’s greatest strength in this flick is dialling back the bluster and the forcefulness that he is best known for. Joe Pesci manages to do the same, and it’s to both of their credits. Let’s be honest, though, old men playing slightly younger and then slighter older men isn’t much of a stretch. Much has been made of the use of CGI to “de-age” various people in the flick to make it period believable and such, but you never get over the fact that, as good as it might look (it generally is painfully obvious), you are still having old men play young men. There’s no getting around the fact that De Niro physically can’t play a man 40 years his junior. The stiffness of the joints, the way they walk, all the CGI in the world can’t paper over that.
That’s why, back in the pre-CGI world, having an actor play a younger version of a character in a film wasn’t considered that fatal a flaw. In fact, I seem to recall a younger Robert De Niro winning some kind of award for playing the young Vito Corleone in Godfather II, despite not looking that much like Marlon Brando… And they both got to do their thing with a character and with human history without a skerrick of CGI to be seen…
But I digress. It doesn’t matter. For all the dialling back that many of the characters do, Al Pacino manages to do the complete opposite, over-inflating his portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa so much, so comically, that it almost makes you look forward to his murder. Maybe that’s overstating it a bit, but Pacino is as Pacino-y in this as he is in both his best and worst roles, so go figure.
This is a long arsed, arse-dragging flick, but that didn’t bug me at all. Admittedly I watched it over a couple of days, but I reckon it could easily have had another couple of hours added to it. I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to watch more scenes of Sheeran trying to reason with unreasonable mobsters or Hoffa in a quiet but wheedling voice, but some more context maybe with the union shenanigans, or some of the interesting people that pop up only to be killed. With some of them, like a great blink and you’ll miss it Sebastian Manascalco as some guy called Crazy Joe Gallo, he’s only around long enough to get enough of a good scene; you wish there was more time in which to understand why they’re even in the film. Presumably, in the book that this was based on, every single guy Sheeran claims he killed or was involved with killing pops up in the film as well, but that’s not enough context to get why such and such became a problem, or why such and such was killed.
That the mob has a hierarchy, and that it has its own code of honour and behaviour has been the stock in trade of cinema and tv for decades. I used to watch it and accept it, but I’m older now, and it just seems like self-aggrandising bullshit, like misplaced PR done not for the sake of audience understanding, but to make organised crime seem like less of a cancer than it actually is. It gives the illusion of benignity, the notion of the mob only turning on itself, generally leaving the “public” alone, but we all know it’s bullshit.
The flick perpetuates that same kind of bullshit even now, but there are cracks in the mask, CGI though it might be. Sheeran portrays himself as an almost dispassionate soldier just following orders, who takes people out without any particular malice or sadism, but we know it’s bullshit. Listen to Sheeran’s voiceover as he plans murdering Crazy Joe in front of his family, on his birthday, and the ways in which it needs to be done for maximum awfulness, and you know you’re not dealing with noble people.
Much has been made of how little dialogue there is in the flick for female characters. It’s true. Female characters don’t get to talk much in this flick, despite its great length and width. Could be… Scorsese doesn’t much care for women, or that women didn’t really play that much of a role in these awful people’s lives, who knows. But this is a film about the toxic masculinity that leads to men banding together and forming crime syndicates that are organised, in which all their worst aspects are prized and celebrated, and where deviations from their strict codes are punished with murder or worse.
So what role do women play in this story of men and the awful things men do to other men? The women, well, one woman in particular, stand in judgement. The men, for all their shiteness, have agency, they do things, they achieve things, they destroy things, and the women tag along, if they’re lucky. They are accessories to this story, as they seem to have been accessories to these men. But one woman stands there judging Frank and his friend Russell (Pesci) over the decades, never confronting them openly, but always judging them with her judgy eyes.
Don’t forget, for Catholics in general and this Catholic director in particular, women are either the Virgin Mary Mother of Christ or whores but rarely both, and Peggy is very much the disappointed Madonna glaring down at us from an icon for our many sins.
Yes, they argue that the Peggy Sheeran character played by Anna Paquin, and by a non-CGI younger actor as a child (Lucy Gallina) doesn’t get enough dialogue, but what she lacks in lines she has in abundance in judgement. She is not privy to this version of history within the context of the film that Frank tells, presumably, but all along she is shown as knowing just how much of a piece of shit Frank is. Very early on Peggy sees her father beat the shit out of a shopkeeper, and from thence she is constantly wary around him. Not only that, but there are multiple scenes where Frank and Russell, like the creepy old men they are, trying to coax or coerce some affection or friendliness out of Peggy towards them, even with substantial bribes.
But it never works. And, to add insult to injury, and even to factor in as a potential extra motivation, Peggy gets along fantastically with Jimmy Hoffa. Oh, how she delights in his attentions and laughs at his jokes. In him, a thoroughly corrupt jerk but not a mobster, she finds the father figure that her own father, and the other men in her life, could never be because she is repulsed by their criminality.
For all the paucity of lines, she still gets the most important line, which she even gets to repeat “Why haven’t you called her yet?” with enough of an edge to her voice, that we suspect she might even know the reason why. It leads to a scene of stunning awfulness, where a guy who killed a close friend, calls the close friend’s wife in order to express confusion and sorrow about the chap’s disappearance.
And the thing is, despite the ample evidence that he’s a sociopath, you can believe that he is sorry that his friend is gone forever, because he is going to miss him, and he never really wanted to kill him anyway. He did it because he had to, he did it because he was told to, and he did it because “it is what it is” is a phrase oft repeated in the flick that has the force of destiny to it.
When his other long term friend Russell tells him “It is what it is”, it points to an irrevocable certainty, a path that cannot be avoided, and the inevitability of Hoffa needing to be killed, because he thinks he’s bigger than the mob. It also turns out to be a loyalty test for Sheeran, in that it is assumed it’s not his capacity for loyalty in general that’s being tested, but his loyalty to his mob masters.
As masters, they are unforgiving. I can’t say exactly how much of the film is devoted to the slaying of Hoffa, because, with the partial structure of the ‘road trip’ being used to move the story in flashbacks (within other flashbacks), what follows is an intricate nuts and bolts approach to the slaying itself. It’s almost like true crime without the stern voiceover. Beyond that though there is this insanely convoluted way in which the idea was to both make it plausible that Sheeran was the trigger guy, but also to maintain some strange kind of plausible deniability about how he couldn’t have been there. It’s bonkers, and it reeks of the kind of over-explaining someone indulges in when you ask one too many questions about how someone really could have been somewhere.
That being said, as excruciatingly slow as this section leading up to the murder is, I wouldn’t trade a bizarrely banal second of it. There’s a whole bullshit argument about transporting a fish in the goddamn car that made me laugh like an idiot, and it really emphasises that none of these jerks are bright intellectual lights who could solve a Sudoku without the ample support that comes from being part of a criminal syndicate.
And after all, after all this history, after all this sound and fury, the end for many of these guys and for Frank comes not from the barrel of a gun or from the actions of the State, but from mortality, from living selfish lives and dying alone, unloved, in nursing homes, unforgiven and unmourned by the daughters whose love couldn’t be coerced or bribed. Sure, Sheeran sees the inside of a cell, for what we are assured are pointless but political convictions, but he never pays the price in terms of justice until the facility he’s put into isn’t the penitentiary, it’s the old folks home, and it’s one from which he’ll never be released. Even there he yearns for the understanding and the forgiveness that he’ll never get, and you almost feel sorry for the murderous bastard.
Almost. I think the lingering sympathy I have for this film, for this old man, both character and director, is the misplaced sympathy that comes from pitying these old monsters before they die. Where perhaps there should be anger in my heart, or condemnation, there’s something akin to sorrow, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept their excuses for their appalling actions or for their toxic selfishness. That they are gone, or soon to be gone, is the only consolation.
The Irishman. A film you watch if you want to pity old people.
The Irishman: A film you can’t enjoy if you blame the previous generations for all the world’s ills.
7 times these strange people and their obsession with leaving the bedroom door open out of 10
“I'm just trying to understand how a person can buy a fish and not know what kind it was.” – it’s the film’s greatest mystery, and it’s never solved. Never ever! – The Irishman