Boy, Martin Scorsese sure has been drumming up a lot of attention on the internet lately, hasn’t he? One of the biggest figures in the New Hollywood movement and one of America’s greatest cinematic auteurs, Scorsese has become a bit of a controversial figure among some of the more stubborn corners of the internet, largely because he expressed the perfectly valid opinion of not quite enjoying Marvel movies, or what they represent. That threw quite a few people into an absolute tizzy, some of whom made bold declarations that Scorsese was just jealous, and that he wished he could make something as popular as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now, I don’t want to get all into it, but rest assured I think the whole thing was insanely blown out of proportion and silly. People are allowed to have opinions that don’t match your own, and all that should matter about a movie is what you personally thought of it. But, I do take affront to people seemingly calling Scorsese some sort of washed up hack. Because few directors in American cinema are as reliably strong as Martin Scorsese. And, he’s always up for trying something new, finding some new way to tackle the themes and ideas that he’s been fascinated with for decades. And, this creator who occasionally gets hilariously pigeon-holes as a maker of “dumb gangster movies,” has gifted us with a dense, meditative, extremely thorough examination of his whole fixation with gangster stories in the form of the Irishman, a film that has the potential to be seen by a much larger audience than normal due to its partnership with Netflix. And, I really encourage anyone to make the commitment and experience all three and a half hours of this epic, becuase it’s a wonderfully thoughtful and moving film that could quite nicely serve as a summation of everything Scorsese has sought to do.
The film tells the life story of a man named Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran who seems to find a calling in life as a hitman working for the Mafia. He was unable to find his own version of the American Dream after returning from war, but did end up ingratiating himself with Russell Bufalino, the head of a Pennsylvania based crime family, after meeting Russell’s union lawyer cousin Bill during an issue. And, taking to the extremely violent and heartless work, Frank begins forging a serious bond with Russell, becoming his go-to hitman and moving up the ranks of the family, killing many people, and gaining quite a bit of respect. And, through Russell Frank ends up meeting Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the most powerful union in America. Hoffa works closely with the mob, and ends up using Frank quite a bit in order to ensure that the union remains as powerful as possible, getting Frank a pretty decent cover-job, and sending him around on various assignments around the country, keeping people in line, solidifying the link between the mob and the Teamsters, and keeping Hoffa in power.
Frank and Hoffa become dear friends, much to the chagrin of Russell, and Frank finds himself an indefensible part of Hoffa’s organization. Which is why it becomes so difficult when Hoffa is sent to prison for jury tampering. He gets out fairly quickly, thanks to bribes to Richard Nixon, but in his absence Hoffa’s empire has been stolen away from him. He then begins trying to do everything in his power to regain control the Teamsters, often at the expense of his relationship with the mob. And, eventually things reach the point where Russell orders Frank to take care of the situation. They trick Hoffa into thinking that they’re going to work as middle-men in a meeting with various Teamster heads, but in actuality Frank has to lure Hoffa to a state of security, and then execute him. Frank and his fellow mobsters are frequently seen as people of interest in the murder, but they maintain their innocence. However, eventually they all end up getting arrested for various other crimes, forcing Frank to spend quite a bit of time in prison. And, when he finally gets out he finds that most of his colleagues have either died or been locked up forever, his family has been completely cut out of his life, and he has nothing waiting for him. He floats through his final years, making funeral preparations and being sent to an assisted living home, where he prepares to die, fully alone.
The Irishman is a truly fascinating film. One that seems almost purposefully noncommercial, a sprawling and slow-moving epic that tries to tell the full life story of a man most people have never heard of, utilizing some at times shaky digital effects, all of end with one of the most profoundly depressing final notes that I’ve ever seen in a film. And yet, I found it hypnotic. I was lucky enough to see the film in a theater, and it really is a film that immediately grabs your attention, and doesn’t let you go. It’s a leisurely film, one that really takes you a while to piece together what it’s actually going to be about. Because, it really is just a life-story, telling the story of Frank Sheeran, and just slowly building the house of cards that is his life, only so that the bitter reality of his final years becomes that much more clear. Robert De Niro is absolutely phenomenal in the film, putting in a much sadder and more world-weary performance than we’re used to seeing from him, especially in films directed by Martin Scorsese where he’s so often the more gung-ho characters. The film is stuffed top to bottom with amazing character actors, all of whom are putting in some of the best performances of their careers. Just a bunch of old men reflecting on their own legacies, having lived lives long enough to accurately bring the emotional weight and burden of their lives to the screen.
Martin Scorsese often gets erroneously pegged with glorifying the life of criminals and gangsters. I think if someone were to actually watch his film you’d realize that he is in no way supporting the acts of these broken men, and in fact is specifically showing you the alluring danger of the mob, only to show everything collapse around them, but apparently that’s not something enough people pick up on. So, it seems like Scorsese has decided to make a definitive refutation to that idea, a singular and massive statement that the lives that these men lead will only lead to ruin. This film doesn’t really have any of the glitz or glamour that some of his other films have, instead making the mob look like just another job. There are close friendships and relationships, but there’s nothing too appealing to them. Which makes that end of Frank’s life that much more tragic. He spends his entire life trying to be loyal to the mob, trying to gain respect. And it gets him absolutely nothing. He does everything that’s asked of him, he’s a model mobster. And by the end of his life he’s completely alone, forced to pick out his own funeral arrangements before his death because there’s absolutely no one in his life willing to help him. He has to kill his best friend, and all it gets him is a lifetime of loneliness and regret. He didn’t do what was right during his life, he did what he was told to do, and he literally just has to sit in his decisions by the end of the film, alone in a room and asking to keep the door open so that he can feel some connection to the world outside him. Or, perhaps more tragically, so that it would be easier for someone to get in and end his life for him. All of Scorsese’s crime films end with a flourish of regret, these ridiculous men realizing that everything they’ve done has only lead to the ruination of their lives. But the Irishman takes it all to its furthest extent by explicitly and dramatically showing us what a lifetime of regret does to a person, showing us clearly and poignantly that it was not worth it.
The Irishman was written by Steven Zaillian, directed by Martin Scorsese, and released by Netflix, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk