By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 30, 2019)
After any sprawling Martin Scorsese epic, I’m usually left with the same feeling. No one, ever, has managed to depict excess and the downfall that accompanies a life of indulgence better than this guy. Whether it’s based loosely or more strictly on fact, whether it’s about the American mob in the 20th century or something that came generations before, he’s the greatest we’ve ever seen, and probably the greatest we will ever see.
It has led in some cases to his movies being polarized for being too glamorous of that “life,” but I don’t recall feeling uplifted or drawn to being a scumbag after watching a Scorsese movie. Consider the Jordan Belfort character from The Wolf of Wall Street, who despite having all the women and alcohol and money and drugs a man of his sort could ever want, was a pretty awful person that didn’t have much in the way of REAL friends.
I don’t know all of the history of Jimmy Hoffa, nor have I read Charles Brandt’s 2005 book that served as The Irishman’s source material. I Heard You Paint Houses tells the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and his stories of working as a hitman for the Buffalino crime family, which put him not just in the orbit, but standing awfully close to the legendary Teamsters union power broker, whose disappearance has been discussed nearly as much as the D.B. Cooper story.
Before we get into the acting and the various smaller details of the movie, let’s talk about one of the more uninteresting debates that’s raged since the movie debuted on Netflix a few days ago. This thing is long folks, a full 3:30, and from its opening monologue, once you hear Robert De Niro’s voice, it’s ready to hit you in the face. This isn’t just a tale of excess, but a brutal tale of underground and above ground misery. Many consider GoodFellas to be Scorsese’s best, along with Taxi Driver, but your list could include any number of achievements.
Wherever you slot The Irishman is up to you, but this felt like Scorsese’s best since at LEAST Casino, if not his best since the story of Henry Hill. That’s not to say it’s something I anticipate rewatching for about five or six years, because again it’s an undertaking, but this is a magnificent movie. Whatever you want to say about Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola and how important they think themselves to be, the former is one of the great directors of all-time.
Articles have been written about taking The Irishman in stages and watching it in parts like it’s a television episode. Folks, this is insane. This emanates from a lack of attention span and the idea of binge watching deeply dramatic drama series. This is by no means easier to watch than something like Avengers: Endgame, but it’s no more difficult to watch than a quarter of a House of Cards season, which many of you have done in one sitting. Also, the emotions you feel and the way the story affects you deserves to start, grow, and end, before you distract yourself with anything else.
I promise, it’ll be okay if you just carve out the time, put away the phone, and watch Frank’s tale unfold. Admittedly, I’m a less is more guy, so I definitely think a 2:45 version of the movie wouldn’t have been a bad thing, but I also wasn’t bored at any point watching it. I was particularly invested and intrigued by the theory surrounding the mob involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, which has always been part of the conspiracy theory, but finally someone showed HOW and WHY these people might have been perturbed at the Kennedy family and the President in particular.
Quickly, when David Ferrie was brought up by Russ Buffalino, I had to fight back laughter. He said “a fairy named Ferrie,” and I immediately wondered if that’s who he was talking about. The reason it was funny is because Joe Pesci played David Ferrie in Oliver Stone’s JFK, and here he’s the guy informing Frank Sheeran about the man he would meet, who Stone’s movie posited was crucially important in the larger plot to kill Kennedy.
Someone sent a message to me about the movie saying that the “de-aged” De Niro being a heavy that could brawl, but could barely walk on rocks, took him out of it. I’ve always thought about the fact that a lot of these big time mobsters are frail men approaching their twilight years, and because of it, I was fine with the age and the lack of imposition of the actors on screen, because it was always about the guys doing the dirty work, and whether Sheeran could run a 4.3 40 or not, a bullet to the brain could still get the job done.
The Irishman felt important and it felt big, because we had some of the most recognizable and respected names in the past half century of motion pictures all in the same orbit, surrounded by the genius of Martin Scorsese. When you can take De Niro, put Al Pacino back in his element to play Jimmy Hoffa, and allow Joe Pesci to go from the crazy unhinged guy to the thoughtful, diabolical, business savvy Russ, you have a movie that if you didn’t know better, also could have been released at your local downtown single theater in 1990.
There’s a lot of makeup and a lot to make the actors appear like their real-life counterparts, but movies are make believe. I had no problem buying who I was seeing as these characters, and watching them act… I can’t even remember the last time something felt “right” for Robert De Niro. Frank Sheeran was Bobby… this was the guy he was born to play, just as he is for Scorsese in other roles in the past. It’s possible this is the final time we watch those three icons in a movie that feels unmistakably “them.
The story is a sprawling epic that spans years of Buffalino power and basically tells the rise and fall of Jimmy Hoffa, why he made enemies after going to prison, and why his unwillingness to compromise led to someone he had to view as one of his closest friends ending up in an unthinkable spot in a small house in Detroit. The violence is abrupt and its quick and though blood spatters across the walls, we don’t see the cameras hang on its gore. We don’t need to. It makes its point as fast as a bullet pierces human flesh.
Scorsese’s best trick, if there is one, is in his ability to showcase other crime figures in random conversations or in banquet rooms or courtrooms, freeze the shot, and put a text window up telling us who these people are, what they did, and how they died, in many cases again emphasizing that as much as you might have in the bank account or as much power as you might hold, the vast majority of these people ended up murdered in cold blood. I absolutely loved this directorial choice. You’re only alive until you’re not, which is all of our story, but many of these people knew from moment one that what they chose would be the cause of their end.
Nothing was out of place, every shot had a purpose, as did the length of time we saw it. We would learn something early that would return later and mean more, like Frank tossing guns into the river. When we listen to him tell us how he selects the tool for a hit, including why it wasn’t smart to use a silencer and why a wise hitman only uses a clean gun, that stuff is incredibly compelling. Scorsese had no problem loading the movie with talent, which also included Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, and some excellent stuff from Stephen Graham as “Pro,” and Steven Zaillian’s script works exceedingly well. Graham played Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire, which also had Scorsese attached.
Zaillian is one of those that should make you pay attention anyway, as he was the executive producer of HBO’s The Night Of, is behind next year’s Ripley, built off the Patricia Highsmith Tom Ripley novels, has an unreal resume, and has a history with Scorsese, including writing Gangs of New York, which was extraordinary.
Not every Scorsese film clicks for me, and some go a little further than I’m comfortable with, but The Irishman had everything he does well and ended in such a way that the lasting message and impact was positive. Basically, it’s awesome that we are not these people. Their lives were miserable. Look at how much arguing and stress and hatred and backstabbing they dealt with merely to stay afloat and try to get more power and more money that would lead to… more of all of those other things none of us want.
The fact this movie went to Netflix and was only in theaters in limited fashion for a week as an attraction could be a game changer, because this will get a Best Picture nomination. Imagine if it wins. It may well not, but it’s unquestionably one of 2019’s best, one of Scorsese’s best, and it will be heavily decorated in numerous award categories, from acting (all three of the most major names could easily be nominated) to directing to adapted screenplay. It is a beautifully brutal, vividly dreary portrait of a different America and a different world than we have experienced. It’s one of the three best movies I’ve seen in 2019 and will be in consideration when I have to submit my ballot later this year.