November 2019

Arts & Letters

Late style: Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’

By Shane Danielsen
Reuniting with De Niro, Pacino and Pesci, the acclaimed director has delivered less of a Mob film than a morality play

Adapted from Charles Brandt’s 2004 true-crime book I Heard You Paint Houses (a far better title than The Irishman – and tellingly, the only one that appears onscreen), Martin Scorsese’s latest film is the story of Frank Sheeran, a World War Two vet who joined the Philly Mob, rose through the ranks of the teamsters’ union, and by his own admission became a hitman, with more than a dozen kills to his name – including that of his one-time mentor Jimmy Hoffa. Frank is played here by Robert De Niro, starring alongside Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, and fans of a certain age might be forgiven for whooping with joy. The old gang – back together again!

In fact, The Irishman is a good deal more complicated than that. Its mood is sombre, its mise en scène coolly precise; those expecting the flashy, adrenalised Scorsese of Casino or Shutter Island might be slightly disappointed. It opens in trademark fashion, with a lengthy tracking shot, but the sequence is scene­setting rather than virtuosic, a way of leading us by the hand towards our destination: the old man who’s going to tell us a story. And why not? Fifty years and 26 features in, Scorsese has nothing left to prove. And there’s something admirable about the patient assurance of his direction – aided, as always, by the surgical precision of Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing.

Billed as a gangster movie, Scorsese’s long-awaited return to the genre he reinvigorated (and arguably perfected) is actually a morality play, a film about death made by a 76-year-old man who’s clearly devoted a not-inconsiderable amount of thought to the subject. (One device, sparingly deployed but queasily effective, makes victims, shown in freeze-frame under a photographer’s flash, look like week-old corpses rather than the subjects of newspaper photos. I was reminded, I think deliberately, of the deathly pallor of the householders in Jacques Rivette’s masterpiece Céline and Julie Go Boating, a film Scorsese admires.)

But fittingly, given its maker’s tormented Catholicism, The Irishman also abjures the possibility of redemption. Hell is real, this film says, and it’s here on earth; what comes after is irrelevant.

Frank goes to war in Italy, and there he acquires certain skills: a facility with guns, a willingness to follow orders, and the ability to kill without conscience; in flashback, we see him executing German POWs with barely a flicker of emotion. Back home in Philadelphia he earns a living driving trucks, but soon senses the potential to make a little extra on the side – a decision that introduces him first to some local crime bosses, and then to north-eastern capo Russell Bufalino (Pesci), who takes a shine to this willing young fellow, and becomes his employer, protector and friend.

Retired since the turn of the decade, it’s gratifying to see Pesci onscreen again. He reportedly refused numerous advances by Scorsese and De Niro to join the project, relenting only when the latter pleaded with him to come on board. (“We gotta do this; who knows what comes after?”) And, as with his director, the anger seems to have drained out of him; what remains is its residue. His silence, his steady, unwavering gaze, convey a menace deeper and more resonant than anything he’s shown before.

Russell, in turn, introduces Frank to union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), for whom he also begins to work – and who, in turn, becomes a friend and confidant. He soon works his way up the ladder, and Scorsese, as ever, is excellent on process, as lucid as Bresson in his listing of quotidian details – even as the film’s frame expands to include the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of JFK and Watergate.

But for those familiar with Scorsese’s filmmaking, there’s a big difference. When Henry Hill joined the Mob, in Goodfellas, it was his entrée to a world more prestigious and enticing than his own. When Frank throws in with Russell and his crew, it’s simply more of the same. The glamour is gone, drained from both the culture and its representation onscreen. Thus, instead of Times Square nightclubs, or the bright lights of the Vegas Strip, we get dismal Philly backstreets, no-name corner restaurants. Neighbourhood dives rendered in various shades of brown, from tan to shit, where every surface looks like it’s overlaid with a thick patina of cigar smoke and fry-grease, and flop sweat glistens on every unhealthy complexion. Grim and squalid, the film serves as an interrogation of both its genre and its audience, making us belatedly re-examine our own responses. Was it always this ugly? Were we, like Henry, blinded by the amoral thrill of it all?

In Goodfellas, the world of crime ran parallel to that of ordinary society, the suburban “schnooks” Henry despised and disdained. In this one, there’s virtually no distinction. Criminal activity not only sustains mainstream America – something Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian make clear in their twinning of the mafia with labour relations, and the teamsters’ rigid control over “everything you eat, everything you wear” – but is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from it. Corruption pulses beneath the skin of industry, necessary as a heartbeat if things are going to get done, and the film offers a scathing critique of a postwar capitalism that, in its broader details, is all but indistinguishable from racketeering.

As for the digital de-ageing technology (the film’s most newsworthy element) … well, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. There’s one or two shots where we edge a little too close to the uncanny valley: an early scene at a roadside gas station, for example, looks regrettably like Grand Theft Auto III. But mostly it’s more subtle, and fairly seamless. (For the record, I see this film as something of a test-balloon for this technology, and have no doubt that Scorsese, or his executors and amanuenses, will go back in 10 or so years and avail themselves of updates, to further refine these shots.) Yet for all these high-tech marvels, there’s something quietly satisfying in seeing the passage of time signalled by something as subtle as the changing width of a lapel.

Some viewers have lamented the recessive nature of De Niro’s role. Frank is an unknowable cipher, it’s true; often he’s reacting to others rather than leading the action – either weighing the risks or carrying out orders. He’s taciturn, stoic; his mouth permanently clenched in a scowl. As the fiery, self-sabotaging Hoffa, Pacino has the more showstopping part – though I’d argue Pesci is even better. But there’s something unexpectedly moving about De Niro’s performance here, as Frank finds his divided loyalties – between Hoffa and Russell, the union and the mob – becoming ever-more problematic. And thus, little by little, the jaws of a moral dilemma begin to close around a man who, by his own admission, had never given such matters so much as a single thought.

In his book On Late Style, Edward Said focused on instances of stylistic innovation at the end of great artists’ careers. The boundary-exploding audacity of Beethoven’s late quartets, the “disturbed” self-examination of Ibsen’s final plays.

This isn’t quite that. Scorsese’s late style – as evinced in this film and in Silence, its 2016 predecessor – is not a reinvention of form, but a kind of pared-down classicism, a lifetime’s worth of technique distilled to its purest essence. Individual shots work cleanly and without fuss, in order to let the performances breathe and the narrative’s greater themes emerge. As such, it’s redolent of the films and filmmakers he loves, artisan-journeymen like King Vidor and Anthony Mann.

Yet I’m also reminded of what Said wrote of Mozart’s late opera Così fan tutte, in which he discerned, beneath the playful frivolity of its surface, hints of “a universe shorn of any redemptive or palliative scheme, whose one law is motion and instability expressed as the power of libertinage and manipulation, and whose only conclusion is the terminal repose provided by death”. There’s playfulness in The Irishman, too – occasional fits of gallows humour: scenes of Hoffa and Frank discussing business in their pyjamas, as they prepare to climb into their single beds for the night, reminded me of a gangland Bert and Ernie; and a recurring confusion over the precise identity of a low-level mook called Whispers, recalls Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine. But overall the tone is fatalistic and harshly determinative. It’s a requiem, not only for the Mob – an era that today, amid Russian cyber-crime and deep fakes, feels as remote as the age of steam locomotives – but also for the Mob movie genre. (And maybe, pace Netflix, the film’s deep-pocketed funder, for cinema itself.)

If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned any women so far, it’s because there (almost) aren’t any. Glimpsed occasionally in the background of shots, Frank’s wife barely exists; Russell’s is little more than a voice box attached to a cigarette. Only Frank’s middle daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a child, Anna Paquin as an adult) registers as a fully defined character. Yet her role, ironically, proves the most pivotal of all.

Growing up in Australia and going to an all-boys school has left me nearly as repelled by male society as Roxane Gay – yet I also have issues with the phrase “toxic masculinity”, which too often is evoked as rhetorical shorthand, a too-simplistic catch-all for a complex set of problems and behaviours. This film, though, is its very essence: a forensic study of the evil that men do, not only to each other but also to those around them. And Peggy – constantly on the sidelines, taking everything in – serves as its moral centre. The wary, watchful little girl grows up to be a woman sickened by the monstrous violence her father embodies – and also by her own unwitting complicity in it, the human cost of the “protected” life she’s enjoyed. Given hardly a word of actual dialogue, Paquin nonetheless manages to indict her entire culture. Her silence (first appalled, then furious) proves more powerful than any speech of renunciation Zaillian could possibly write.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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