Richard Lutz takes in a long eulogy to the Mafia life.
If you like mafia films, The Irishman is for you. If you don’t, save yourself time and money.
This is, simply, Martin Scorsese’s tour de force, maybe at age 77, a type of farewell. It’s firmly set in the bleached picaresque 1970’s and the star-filled cast is getting as bit crickety: de Niro (76), Pacino (79), Keitel (80) and Pesci (79). The film editor, much-acclaimed Thelma Schoonmaker, whose CV goes back to chopping negs for the 1970 Woodstock rock and roll film, is 79.
It’s fair to say one or two of these big names will put their feet up soon. So, in a way, this is it. If you want to see a five star cast, a 209 minute five star production about a lowlife slice of life from forty years ago, where there is time-honoured honour, time-honoured violence and a time-honoured twisted work ethic about right and wrong, go see The Irishman. Or simply wait until 27th November, when Netflix feeds it to you online.
As for the movie, it can’t be faulted. Three and a half hours is a long time (especially when you need comfort breaks). But the director knows how to tell a story.
It sucks you right in from the opening narrative of aged Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert de Niro) contemplating his rumpled bloody life from a wheelchair in a nursing home. It is his story of how he went from a truck driver to the man who allegedly assassinated crooked union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) when he got out of hand.
You get the idea – a look back about the good and bad times of killing, blowing things up and threatening people to protect not only family but also territory and power in New York, Detroit and Philadelphia.
It’s also an astute portrait of advanced ageing. Joe Pesci, who had to be seduced out of retirement to create a Mafia don’s role, is a forceful but quiet presence, not as a crazy guy you usually see in his former roles, but as a contemplative, shrewd gangland leader who’d rather compromise than tear chunks out of the opposition. He tries to intervene when carpet chewing Hoffa wants blood in a mob boss feud. Why have violence when things can be worked out?
It is Pesci’s character that is the moral centre of The Irishman. It is his role that sets the tone. de Niro is simply the gunman who Pesci uses when things go wrong.
The film, of course, is gorgeous to view. Scorsese has the record and skills to use complicated techniques. Just the opening shot, of one long tracking take (reminiscent of Orson Welles’ work) is enough to draw you in, seduce you.
The camera lures you via this long sinuous shot to enter the sterile world of the nursing home where de Niro’s wheelchair-bound character is ready to tell his story. You follow the director and his camera from dining room, to quiet hallway, to the soulless TV room where you slowly approach the back of the disabled pensioner contemplating the watery sunlight in his empty retirement. From there the baleful jagged tale unfolds.
Schoonmaker (above), as the overarching editor, is a major figure in this movie’s success. Her cutting techniques, from freeze frames to graphics to chopping up the timeline makes for a gripping and many times wry portrait of the times.
The dialogue sometimes is sharp as a knife, to be followed by a meandering funny tit for tat about the smell of fish in someone’s car. The lines go nowhere as the story crashes forward. Other times simple sentences demand the action that will end in blood, a bullet in the face.
To help with the slippage of time, advanced tricks are used to good effect. de Niro, for instance, using CGI magic, goes from a young World War 2 soldier in Italy to a middle-aged hired gunman to the 80 year old in the last crippled days of his pensioner confinement. Pesci and Pacino undergo the same transformations.
Maybe the idea is to paint a picture of an aged person’s troubled memory that jumps all over the place to paste together a past. Whatever the motive, it works. Scorsese and Schoonmaker chuck all the pieces of a story into the air to see them settle into a jigsaw that works.
The big stars will draw the crowds for this $160 million film. But there are minor roles well filled: Jake Hoffman (Dustin’s kid) is an out of depth crook accountant, Steve van Zandt (Springsteen, The Sopranos) a clubland crooner and Ray Romano (from the twee sitcom Everyone Loves Raymond) has a meaty role as an oleomarginous mob lawyer.
And one final note to suck you in: Schoonmaker, with that great editing track record (Raging Bull, The Departed, Goodfellas, and many more), is now editing a soon to be finished bio of Frank Sinatra. We’ll have to wait for that one.