Film reviews and more since 2009

Cleaning Up the Paint: My thoughts on “The Irishman”

By: Steve Pulaski

NOTE: While I was outlining my review of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, I realized that there was a good chance it was going to be more elaborate and lengthier than most of my reviews. At 209 minutes long, it’s not the type of film you can keenly or effectively summarize in just a couple paragraphs. Because of that, I felt writing it for my blog — where faithful readers know I post longer, more personal pieces or extensive essays on a variety of subjects — would make more sense. It’s a film essay more than it is a review.

The external gravity of The Irishman is immense. More than likely serving as the final collaboration between Robert De Niro/Joe Pesci/Martin Scorsese, it is a melting pot of all the themes Scorsese has addressed over the decades. It’s an elegy, in a way; a poignant encapsulation of a legacy of sin and deals with a violent man coming to grips with being a violent man as he’s reminded of his own mortality. Simultaneously, he tries to reckon with his own insignificance as time marches on — about the only guarantee in life.

We open with a familiar tracking shot that zags us through the antiseptic hallways of a nursing home where we eventually find Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Wheelchair-bound, with heavy bags under his eyes, graying skin, and snow-white hair, he’s still as a rock before he begins recounting his past life. He is a World War II veteran, who fought in combat for four years before working as a meat-delivery driver. His “in” with the mob was playing dumb when a plethora of cold cuts would fall off of his truck and into the lap of a restaurateur with gang ties (Bobby Cannavale). Overtime, his even-keel demeanor and expertise with swiftly “painting houses” — a mob euphemism for killing someone — earns him the respect of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci in a quiet, subdued role in contrast to the volatile characters he’s played in the past), boss of the Northeastern Pennsylvania-based Bufalino crime family. Russell eventually puts Frank in touch with Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Once “as popular as Elvis,” Hoffa’s name, in the present, is little more than a historical footnote, often introduced and summarized in conversation by the murky circumstances of his disappearance.

Frank ultimately earns Hoffa’s utmost respect when he and an army of gangsters submerge and bomb the vehicles of a Chicago cab company that refuses to join the Teamsters. That’s his ticket to becoming Hoffa’s confidant and enforcer as he leads the Teamsters union until the presidential election of John F. Kennedy leaves him livid while Russell and the other local boys couldn’t be happier. This starts a tug-of-war between the mob and the union, which lands Hoffa in prison for several years. Hoffa’s release years later and subsequent desire to regain control of the Teamsters by ratting out the involvement of organized crime in the current administration leaves Russell and company uneasy, leaving Frank to cool tensions between Hoffa, the Bufalino family, and fellow Teamster Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham).

One of the most apparent details that sets The Irishman apart from other films of the same genre is the pacing and structure. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian (working off of the novel I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt) bravely defies cinematic convention by inserting flashbacks within flashbacks and jumbling up the timeline. Zaillian’s subversion of narrative shouldn’t be this successful, let alone as coherent as it manages to be. It has two frame-stories, after all: one is the aforementioned setup of an elderly Frank sitting in a nursing home while the other, happening years prior, involves Frank, Russell, and their wives, Irene (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie (Kathrine Narducci), respectively, embarking on a road-trip from Philadelphia to Detroit with multiple pit-stops along the way. Zaillian hopscotches at leisure, sometimes to dizzying effect, making this very much a nonlinear narrative.

As rocky as the structure sometimes is, its presentation still feels so quintessentially Scorsese, from narration to the detail-oriented sets, and the dialog, whether it be nuanced and reflexive or appropriately vulgar. He and the tireless Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese’s go-to editor since Raging Bull) do their parts to make sure we’re never fully lost in the narrative.

The decision to allow De Niro and Pesci to play the younger versions of Sheeran and Bufalino with the help of “de-ageing VFX” works almost without drawing much attention to itself. De Niro’s face looks a little artificial in his younger years, and still shots of the film do the disservice of making the characters look like wax figures, but in the film, it’s nearly seamless. Maybe it would’ve been better to have different actors portray the younger Sheeran and Bufalino (might’ve helped the budget costs too), but I’m not one to complain about getting more De Niro and Pesci as the two function firmly in their twilight years. Pesci, for one, has seldom acted since his role in the 2010 drama Love Ranch. Blessed be, he has a new vocal jazz record coming out soon, but that is for another day.

Some viewers might note how this film feels less violent than Goodfellas or Casino; it admittedly doesn’t fancy itself as brutal as those classics. As viewers, thanks to medium-length takes and long-shots that often capture the fights and deaths from afar, we feel detached from a lot of the savagery. Frank kicks the hell out of Peggy’s boss at a grocery store when she’s young after he is said to lay a hand on her for mouthing off, leaving his hand bloodied and broken with the help of the curb outside. He, too, whacks “Crazy Joe” Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) on his birthday at a diner, right in the presence of Gallo’s family. None of these hits feel as sinister as they did in, say, Casino, where Pesci’s Nicky and his brother Dominic are left beaten, bloody, and barely breathing, swallowing sand in a shallow grave. That’s not Scorsese’s focus this time around. Instead, it’s more about coming to grips with the life of sin and the wages it pays, which ends ugly, isolated, and without the confidants you thought you had all along, for one reason or another.

But there is no hiding the violence inherent to this world. On-screen graphics pop up when many new secondary characters are introduced, telling us their names and how they will meet their fate. Not since Cold Pursuit earlier this year has a film treated death so bluntly with a touch of snark.

Moreover, I feel many have been or are going to be expecting a mob film they simply weren’t going to get from Scorsese at this stage in his life. This is a more meditative film in-line spiritually and holistically with Scorsese’s under-seen passion-project Silence, or even his older, religion-driven films, The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. Seeing some respond negatively to The Irishman reminds me how many failed to acknowledge that picture’s very existence, which is a good part of the reason most of us will stream this film as oppose to have the privilege of seeing it in a theater. At least it grants us the ability to swiftly rewind certain scenes, which I did a handful of times during my initial viewing.

Much has been made about Anna Paquin’s role as Peggy, Frank’s daughter who, from the beginning, is so disconnected from her father and she doesn’t even find the gall to speak to him. Paquin has merely seven speaking lines in the entire film. I’m not going to remotely entertain the utterly laughable accusation of Scorsese’s “misogyny” perpetuated by the daily outrage culture our society is becoming.

Paquin’s muted role — and, consequently, Peggy’s limited involvement in the story — goes back to the film being told from Frank’s perspective, which we see greatly undermines the role of his wife and daughters unless absolutely necessary. Paquin’s Peggy is a presence unto the film and the scenes in which she appears, whether it’s when she finds her father eating his breakfast in the kitchen with the news covering another one of his murders, or sitting in the living room nervously after learning one of her childhood idols, Jimmy Hoffa, has disappeared. The unease she has when in the same room with her father is impossible to ignore. It starts at a young age, when she’s quiet and reserved even in company of the comparatively gentler Russell.

By the time Frank recognizes his failed parenting, it’s far too late. Peggy has learned to live life without the assistance or need of her father. Frank comes to realize he needs his daughter during his final days, but a make-up is a lost cause. This was one job he couldn’t execute effectively; one bridge permanently burned.

One of the negatives of The Irishman is there are indeed too many characters that feel too significant to be as underdeveloped as they are: Harvey Keitel (Philly crime boss Angelo Bruno), Ray Romano (Teamster Union lawyer Bill Bufalino), and Cannavale (Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio). This is where Zaillian’s script could’ve been bolstered by tighter writing, with a touch more coherence as opposed to a shorter runtime (209 minutes, with credits, still feels warranted). At times, it feels like we’re missing key transitions between specific events, namely during Hoffa’s rise and budding conflict with the Kennedy family, which defines the long second act of the film.

On the flip-side, The Irishman made me recognize Robert De Niro’s ultimate strength as an actor: his ability to play hard-headed, reserved men who conceal their emotions well and at times feel like passive entities in stories about their lives. The only way you can begin to understand them is by following them over a long period of time, which was the case for Jimmy the Gent, Sam Rothstein, and now, Frank Sheeran. Over the course of the film, Frank can sometimes blend into the background; no better example is the scene when Hoffa is chewing out his cabinet, scolding them for being aloof and worthless. Hoffa doesn’t even notice Frank’s presence in the room until he emerges, angry, and ready to quit the Teamsters all together. Frank’s a product of being well-connected thanks to “right place, right time” circumstances coupled with a brand of fence-sitting when it comes to alliances that allows him to be perpetually accessible and perceived as trustworthy.

Distilling a film of this length and magnitude is not easy, especially after one viewing. The Irishman is a sprawling epic, showing where organized crime and politics converged, and how massive, impacting events in the 1960s and 1970s — from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to Jimmy Hoffa’s meteoric rise in the Teamsters Union — coincided with the bloody mob conflicts of the time. It feels like a complete, comprehensive package even during its occasional muddled instances where there are too many characters and underdeveloped motivations swirling. Unpack it more precisely and you might have all the answers you’re looking for, in due time.

The last 45 minutes of The Irishman could very well be some of Scorsese’s finest filmmaking. It’s notably slower and less rigorously paced the two-plus hours that precede it. It plays like a complete distillation of all the themes he’s addressed in his pictures over the decades, from the head-shaking moral impotence of Frank, his Catholic guilt and struggle for remorse and feeling, and the mob code of honor he retains despite all of his confidants being long gone. As someone who has admired Scorsese’s long, winding stories of mob relations, casinos, religion, guilt and rationality, purposefulness, and having it all before losing it so pathetically, The Irishman ends in a wonderfully satisfying, elegiac fashion.

Its conclusion is a farewell to a bygone period and the crime genre as a whole. There will be other films of similar approach and focus, but there won’t be another trifecta quite like the one that spanned four unforgettable pictures.

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Kathrine Narducci, Jesse Plemons, and Sebastian Maniscalco. Directed by: Martin Scorsese.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality in North Central Illinois. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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