Monday 14 October 2019

LFF 2019: The Irishman

The Irishman is the second film that could truly be classed as 'late Scorsese'. Like Silence before it, but a bazillion miles away from The Wolf Of Wall Street before that, Marty's latest is an understated piece that sees him in contemplative mood. It's a return to the worlds of Mean Streets, GoodFellas and Casino that he's become most famous for (despite making over 20 other, non-mob-related movies), but he's not remotely interested in repeating himself. Where those films boiled over with youthful energy, The Irishman is a more meditative affair. As its protagonist looks back on a life of crime, its director looks back on a life of crime drama; whether either of them truly find closure is as ambiguous as you'd expect.
We're introduced to Robert De Niro's Frank Sheeran in the first of two framing devices. Parked in his wheelchair in a care home for the elderly in around 2000, he reminisces on a fateful road trip he took in 1975. This becomes the jumping-off point for an epic, decade-spanning riffle through the bloodstained pages of his life: a personal journey through American crime and politics in the mid-late 20th century. A not-entirely-honest trucker in the late 1950s, Sheeran's willingness to circumvent the rules brings him to the attention of mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, reluctantly coming out of retirement for one last hit). Bufalino hires Sheeran as muscle for various unpleasant jobs, eventually lending his services to truckers' union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and his relationships with both men form the bulk of the narrative.

You'll have noticed some big names there, and it's a genuine delight to see all this Hollywood royalty turning out such great work. De Niro surprises as an initially somewhat naive gopher with a gun; possessing none of the authority of GoodFellas' Jimmy Conway or Casino's Ace Rothstein, Sheeran comes across as a blunt instrument wielded by the mob. Desensitised to violence after a tour of duty in Italy in the Second World War, he's happy to do as he's told regardless of the mounting cost to his soul: "Like the army, you follow orders, you get rewarded." De Niro still convinces as a raging bull when necessary, but he conveys the sense that Sheeran's survival has more to do with his unswerving loyalty than any wiseguy acumen. He also does The Robert De Niro Face for pretty much the entire running time, and that is a gift.

Al Pacino, meanwhile, pulls up just short of Full Pacino, and there's some fun to be had wondering how much Scorsese had to reign him in. But it's Joe Pesci who provides the most by giving the least: withered and creased, even when de-aged with CGI, he plays Bufalino with a softly spoken, authoritative menace that never needs to go near his trademark levels of madness. He and Scorsese know you've seen what he's capable of, and trust you to keep that at the back of your mind while he calmly, but terrifyingly, mediates and negotiates.
The Irishman blends new and old school Scorsese, as each of his successive films does. Violence is still a key motif, but in line with the mood, it's less glamorous, clumsier and over quicker than in previous films. Gunshots crack where they used to thunder, and those fountains of blood are reduced to brief, murky spatters. Execution-style killing just ain't what it used to be. Marty still delights and surprises with his trademark flashes of brilliance, though: low-level hoods are each introduced with a caption detailing their eventual method and time of demise (1980 was clearly a bad year for bad guys), swooping crane shots pull you right into the centre of the drama, and that obsession with detail is still there. When Sheeran explains that the best chilli dogs are made by steaming them in beer (recalling GoodFellas' sliced garlic), it's with the same weight as the decision-making process by which he chooses the right gun for a hit (recalling Taxi Driver's Easy Andy). And then there are those wonderfully obscure terms whose meanings you have to infer yourself: "I heard you paint houses" and "Going to Australia" have very little to do with interior design or Antipodean holidays, and "It is what it is" carries considerably more threat when muttered by a gimlet-eyed Joe Pesci.

There are, of course, two elephants in the room, one of which is an extremely long elephant, and the other of which has been made to look like a younger elephant with CGI trickery. At a bladder-bothering 209 minutes, The Irishman could probably survive a minor trim. But it genuinely doesn't feel like three and a half hours; Marty and editor Thelma Schoonmaker are by now the dons of keeping an audience interested for lengthy periods of time, and you won't notice your joints have seized up until the credits roll. That said, the colossal running time and the film's home on Netflix are not unconnected, so there's always the opportunity to spread out a viewing over several sessions if you're a total monster. The digital de-ageing, meanwhile, is barely worth mentioning simply because it's so good you hardly notice it beyond its first appearance, so let's dismiss that elephant too.
If the film suffers, it's from a lack of exposition that Scorsese deliberately withholds. Events are presented as the memories of an old man, so it's understandable that you might have to play catch-up on a few occasions, but there are relationships and motivations going on here that I struggled to follow as thoroughly as I'd have liked. A hefty chunk of the third hour left me frustrated because I genuinely didn't know what conflict characters were trying to resolve. Again, though, maybe that's what Netflix is for. But it won't be able to do anything about the glaring lack of any decent female roles; one of Sheeran's four daughters is the only woman to play an important part in the story, and Scorsese opts to give her the bare minimum of dialogue, even when her adult self is played by an actress of Anna Paquin's talent.

In the final reckoning, The Irishman is a sober rumination on loyalty and legacy. Like Henry Hill at the climax of GoodFellas, Sheeran's choices lead him to a lonely fate where all he can do is reflect on what he's lost, which amounts to pretty much everything, and his reaction to that is characteristically downbeat. He did it his way, but there's no Sex Pistols on the soundtrack to suggest any of it was worth it. I wish I'd been more moved by that than I was, but there's enough in The Irishman to tempt me back for another 209 minutes, and maybe then I can get fully on board with Late Scorsese.

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