The Irishman Review: Martin Scorsese’s Poignant Mob Drama is Nothing Short of a Miracle

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The Irishman Review: Martin Scorsese’s Poignant Mob Drama is Nothing Short of a Miracle

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In the first half of Martin Scorsese’s Netflix film The Irishman, a loud and abundantly confident James “Jimmy” Hoffa (Al Pacino) asks Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) a cheeky question: “Would you like to be a part of this history?” One can’t escape, in that moment from feeling overawed by the screen-breaking relevance of Pacino’s question. The Irishman has, after all, been one of Netflix’s most expensive, widely anticipated projects and is clearly a wholesome dab at what most consider the ultimate validation in cinema – an Oscar. In a way, the film is as much a corporate project as it is a Scorsese indulgence (the streaming platform released it in select theatres a week prior). Is it perfect for streaming? I’m not sure. Could any other three and a half hour film sustain the streaming era’s diminishing spans were it not for the assembly of some of the greatest artists of our time? I don’t need to spell this out for you. Perhaps, this might be the most accurate way of looking at the film: The Irishman is nothing, but a slow, dimming of the lights on the Scorsese mob oeuvre that bows out of the ring, having built for itself a legacy akin to a museum that future filmmakers will visit to worship.

Based on former defense attorney Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, a memoir that details the crimes of Sheeran, The Irishman speculates on the fate of alleged crime lord Jimmy Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975. The natural suspect was Sheeran, who eventually confessed to the accusation in the book. Scorsese runs with the premise of the book, suggesting what might have happened to Hoffa, spinning that yarn with such melancholic, staid precision that by the end, the film accrues the weight of a certain truth. 

The Irishman tells the story of Sheeran, a World War II veteran-turned-hitman who rises from the ranks of being a truck-driver to a prestigious bodyguard. Told through De Niro’s dialled-down voiceover and a plethora of flashbacks – often within existing flashbacks – the film paces itself to a near-novelistic crawl, except it rarely stops to ruminate morally on the events Sheeran narrates reliably. Played by a craggly De Niro in top form, Sheeran’s experience of surviving war makes him a little understated, if slightly more desperate to get somewhere. He wants to rise, but doesn’t know how to ask or hunt for it. As luck would have it, Sheeran finds his answer in local crime boss Russell Bufalino (a suave Joe Pesci).

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For a film, devoid of overbearing, shouty characters, Scorsese seems to be reinventing his own palate to an extent.

Netflix

Compared to Scorsese’s previous mob films, the men in The Irishman are rather hesitant and layered with self-doubt. The sexiness has waned off, almost as if the director has internalised his work to reflect a poignant disenchantment with what was once erotic, both in a mental and bodily sense. If Goodfellas opened with the line “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” then The Irishman’s opening monologue ends with an almost self-defeating “What did I know?” Yet among these gently gents however, there is the screaming, buffoonish presence of Hoffa (played with aplomb by Al Pacino).

Over time, Scorsese has become obsessed with the passage of time, but hasn’t lost his touch for humour. In the film, he introduces various characters by pausing frames and informing us about their eventual deaths – mostly murders. One label reads “Well liked by All/Died of natural causes,” a way of saying that the antagonists in this world rarely live beyond their time. Your peak is also, inadvertently, the signal of your eventual, deserving descent. Then there is the scene where both Pacino and De Niro discuss serious mob issues, dressed in pyjamas in a hotel room they are set to share. For two careers that have over the last two decades, threatened to despairingly fold under the burden of odd and baffling choices, this seemingly childish moment is a brilliantly executed albeit indirect repartee. It’s this hilarity, eloquently enunciated by Pacino’s Hoffa, who carries the confidence of a disorganised monarch in a world otherwise populated by men too steely to possess a sense of humour, that underlines Scorses’s saddest mob outing with genuine joy.

Scorsese draws from both De Niro and Pacino the kind of performances that had for some time felt unlikely to witness from them again.

Although, it goes without saying that at over three hours, The Irishman takes its time. For a film, devoid of overbearing, shouty characters, Scorsese seems to be reinventing his own palate to an extent. In Sheeran’s daughter and her quiet disapproval of her father and his friends, the director establishes a moral core that also rejects the rather wilder distillations of the Scorsese oeuvre, especially its cheaper, sexualised imitations. There is, however, still little place in Scorsese’s universe for women, a flaw that he has unfortunately failed to address in this outing as well. But the extent of the filmmaker’s ambition remains intact: For instance, the film is set around the years of Kennedy and runs past decades until the years of Nixon. It uses this timeline to even tempt the audience to connect JFK’s assassination to the American mob, if only subversively. After JFK’s death is declared, Hoffa, who has long been squeezed by him, asks for the American flag to be raised to its original high mast. It’s as delicious as a Scorsese scene can get.

In that sense, it is near impossible to criticise the wealth of acting prowess on display. Scorsese draws from both De Niro and Pacino the kind of performances that had for some time felt unlikely to witness from them again. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to think of The Irishman as a miracle. Perhaps, it makes sense that such projects have long gestation periods, million-dollar investments, and require de-aging technology to be put together. Because how else does cinema draw from the talents of these people anything more epic than what they already mean to it?

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