Friday, November 29, 2019

The Irishman ***1/2 (2019)

Many years in the making, The Irishman serves as the capstone to Martin Scorsese's cycle of mob themed movies, an anti-nostalgic epilogue to the passing of era, one rhyming with our own in uncomfortable ways. A fitting contrast to Quentin Tarantino's irresistible portrait of the late 1960s in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, The Irishman unfolds in blues and grays, a character study overcast with existential malaise told in dank Midwestern bars, hotel rooms, and offices. A gloomy film redeemed by Scorsese's steady hand, Steven Zaillian's literate script, and heavy duty performances from Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino.

The film follows Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a truck driver who by tricks of fate fell into the orbit of mob figure Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). CGI helped de-age the actors for a story spanning several decades, providing a verisimilitude that's never too distracting. A WWII veteran of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, Frank is an unassuming man familiar with violence. He never enjoys the act of killing, but he's really good at it. He also makes for reliable confidante to Bufalino and Hoffa. One could read the film as a dark version of Forrest Gump.

Pesci came out of retirement and here he's far cry from the violent psychopaths he played in Goodfellas and Casino, here he's a quiet and gentle man who wields great power. Pacino also delivers as Hoffa, portrayed as a besieged figure whose need for power and respect led to many disastrous decisions. By turns petty and sensible, Pacino exudes a wave of contradictions, by turns comical and tragic.

De Niro's performance is not dissimilar to his talk show appearances, cryptic and impenetrable. We never get inside the head of Sheehan, on the surface a simple man who powerful figures were drawn to and used to further their own ends. Taken deeper, there's something much more disturbing - the everyman hero turned on its head.

The violence, when it occurs, is never stylized or overstated. No music from Cream or Rolling Stones to accompany a beating, just an uneasy silence. When the climatic act of violence in the film occurs, it's brutal and heartbreaking. But what follows in the last act is a chilling denouement, chilling for its banality.

The Irishman is also a meditation on how violence has driven American history, most often carried out by white men who believed they were doing their duty. The question hangs - for what? Whatever the justifications - for the country, an organization, family, friends - all that's left is unspoken pain and regret. Yeah, The Irishmen is a downer movie, but a necessary one. There's no redemption. There's no repentance.

Primarily a story about aging men, many have pointed out the lack of women in the story, limited to wives and daughters who are oblivious to the lives their fathers and husbands lead. Anna Paquin appears as Frank's daughter throughout, but has little dialogue. The male dominated climate of film makes it colder and begs more questions about the past and today. 

An apt comparison would be Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, another film about a man who lived in high places but died forgotten. Many have called The Irishman the "anti-Goodfellas" in that it seeks to deconstruct the mythos of such films. Goodfellas is celebrated despite its critique of the lifestyle. The Wolf of Wall Street the same, but it also anticipated the Trump era with its portrayal of thuggish capitalism. The Irishmen explores power and corruption as interwoven into a fable of high tragedy - wintry and methodical.

With a 3 1/2 hour running time, Scorsese forces the audience to slow down and take in the story. We spend an awful lot of time with these characters and the movie sticks with you after watching it. 

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