' ' Cinema Romantico: The Irishman

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Irishman

“The Irishman”, you might have heard, is long, running three hours and thirty minutes. That’s because of its scope, certainly, encompassing decades by telling a story within a story within a story – beginning in the present, flashing back to the past, and then flashing back to a deeper past – while providing a dramatized history lesson of how the mob and labor unions went hand in hand. The length, though, is also how director Martin Scorsese plays his most brilliant trick. Throughout, he will freeze-frame some mafia so and so, throwing up a title card denoting the stiff’s future date and cause of death. It’s a funny recurring joke but it’s also Grandmaster Marty foreshadowing what’s to come. He’s using not just the passage of time but passage of the movie’s time against us. That’s not to suggest “The Irishman” is ponderous, merely deliberate, as rather than gathering steam Scorsese stresses the length in the assorted characters and details and events so that just as it begins to feel like it – the movie and, more to the point, life itself – might be a drag, poof…it’s all gone and there’s no getting it back.

Scorsese opens with a trademark Steadicam shot winding not through the hallways of the Copacabana but down the corridors of an old folks’ home, giving the accompanying Five Satins version of “In the Still of the Night” a morbid spin, the camera eventually finding Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), ex-mafia hitman and Teamster higher-up, confined to a wheelchair. At first, we hear him in voiceover until, a few sentences in, suddenly, he starts talking out loud. Not to us, necessarily, and certainly not to anyone around him. No, “The Irishman” is based on a 2004 book by Charles Brandt, “I Heard You Paint Houses”, in which the real-life Sheeran claimed to have been responsible for the legendary, unsolved demise of eminent Union man Jimmy Hoffa. Scorsese’s film presents that demise in stone-cold clarity, but this beginning calls that presentation into question, casting Frank as an unreliable narrator than in the form of an old guy babbling on and on.

Indeed, Frank is telling us his story, but very much in the vein of an Aged Fella with a wandering mind, which is why “The Irishman” jumps around so much, accentuated by how rather than casting younger actors for passages taking place as far back as the 1950s and 60s, Scorsese employs digital de-aging for his older cast. This has the eerie effect, intentional or not, of making it seem like a hazy, half-remembered dream, one where you can’t quite see yourself the way you really were. If occasionally entire past events are glossed over in just a few words, at other points “The Irishman” lingers, like Frank pouring over a road map, narrating the precise route he plans to take on a crucial car trip to Detroit, exactly the sort of impertinent but oddly precise details a senile narrator would ensure to include, all of which evoke how some memories evaporate and others remain crystal clear.

Though Frank begins as a simple delivery driver, he makes fast friends with a Philadelphia crime boss, Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci like, all these years later, he’s graduated to Paul Sorvino’s level, not having to move for anybody, merely sitting still and twisting his lips into a variety of smiles illuminating each thought, good, bad, or in-between. And Russell puts in a word for him with none other than Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), labor leader extraordinaire, an incredible contradiction of a character who stands up for his charges even as he indulges in petty slights and turns a blind eye toward violence, all embodied in Pacino’s bravado and bluster, a guy who can’t help but inexorably move toward pulling the whole kingdom down on his head. And so Frank exists in this world as a gangland Zelig, played by DeNiro with a poker-faced expression suggesting a guy just punching a clock, which gets us to the movie’s truth.

If there is a faded glamour to these middle passages, especially like Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night, a banquet honoring all his work for the Union, a virtual mini-movie, demonstrating the mob’s penchant for simultaneous business and pleasure, where the wheeling and dealing ostensibly going on behind your back is happening right in front of you, this is all a far cry from the doomed romanticism of Henry Hill’s voiceover in “Goodfellas” or Sam “Ace” Rothstein fondly remembering How It All Worked in “Casino.” No, Frank is just a cog in the Teamster machine, going about his work like a blue-collar laborer. In one extended sequence we see this hitman’s myriad guns laid out on the screen before us as he explains the effectiveness and purpose of each one, like a salesman briefing you on lawn mower varieties. Eventually he is called upon to use those tools on Hoffa, a sequence befitting this workingman vibe, noticeably stripped of any thrills, just a business trip charting every component, no different than him examining that road map.

Frank learns of Hoffa’s impending fate over breakfast, a scene where Russell pours him cereal, portraying them as akin to a married couple. That is just as true of an earlier scene, one where Frank and Hoffa share a hotel room, two men in fabulous pajamas discussing important things before bed, explicitly rendering work as family and vice-versa, as if re-editing Karen Hill’s observation in “Goodfellas” about how they “did everything together” to remove the wives. The children too, which brings us to Frank’s daughter Peggy, played as a little girl by Lucy Gallina and as an adult by Ann Paquin. Here Scorsese sort of metaphorically re-edits the scene in which Karen watches Henry brutalize the country club dufus who assaults her by having the young Peggy witness her father violently attack a shopkeeper. In “The Irishman” this moment is not intoxicating but ruining, cementing Lucy’s attitude toward her father as she essentially closes down around him forevermore, transforming Paquin into something akin to Jodhi May in “Last of the Mohicans”, visually recording everything she sees for posterity and withholding until she coolly erupts.

Peggy is pointedly not a reflective character, providing a means for Frank to see himself as he really is. Rather she’s more like a one-way mirror, evoked in shot where she looks down on him from above through her window, seeing him for who he really is, something he himself cannot process. And that’s the neatest trick of DeNiro’s turn, how its deep ignorance creeps up on you, brought home in the majestic, mind-numbing moment when he fields a call from Jo Hoffa (Welker White), Jimmy’s wife, at a moment I probably don’t need to spell out for you, and verbally bumbles his way through it, struggling to find not the right words, really, but any words, just uttering this heartbreaking mush. For all the notions of unorthodox family “The Irishman” exudes, the movie’s slow denouncement unmasks that as drivel, just machinations for power among important men and less important men who do the dirty work. This is not a “Benjamin Button” situation, exactly, but that’s sort of what “The Irishman”, in its own way, suggests as emotionally Frank gets smaller and smaller as the movie goes longer and longer.

In the closing moments, we see him from afar and then, for a flicker, in a shot looking up from directly below, as if wickedly teasing his own false sense of power. Then we see him from far away again, through a crack in the door. You can hardly see him at all.

No comments: