Martin Scorsese’s exceptional The Irishman asks what happens when the guns go down, and the bodies are buried.
Martin Scorsese’s new film, The Irishman, is about a lot of things. Principally, it’s the story of union-man and mafia assassin, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who was a key figure in the legendary Buffalino crime family, and the right-hand man of the notorious union boss, Jimmy Hoffa. It is also a story of the comedically bureaucratic and corrupt Italian mafia, whose hierarchy is decided by indiscriminate murder, and who wears the most rings.
“Running through all this however, is a story of growing old, and the guilt and helplessness that comes with it”
Running through all this however, is a story of growing old, and the guilt and helplessness that comes with it. This isn’t new ground for Scorsese, having previously explored similar sentiments in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and even The Wolf of Wall Street. Here though, these themes become fully realised, in a way that only a man with the professional and personal experience of Martin Scorsese could.
Frank Sheeran has four daughters from two wives and in real life, Scorsese has three daughters from his five marriages. Frank turns to religion in the closing stages of his life as a means of redemption, while Scorsese describes himself as a “lapsed Catholic”. As a young director in the 1970s, Scorsese famously almost killed himself with a cocaine habit, while Frank is very nearly killed early in his career, doing side jobs for the wrong people.
“Delivering an incredibly captivating performance, De Niro is as blasé about his work “painting houses” (read: murder), as a teamster would be about driving a truck”
Delivering an incredibly captivating performance, De Niro is as blasé about his work “painting houses” (read: murder), as a teamster would be about driving a truck. Asked throughout his life to confront the terrible things he’s done, which manifest in the cold relationship he has with his children, Frank merely sees his work as, well… work. He’s providing for his family as he believes any man should.
The other two leads of the film are excellent, especially Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, who gives his most engaged performance since 1995’s Heat, while Joe Pesci gives an expectedly on-brand performance, which peaks as he becomes more Machiavellian as an old man.
“In the final thirty minutes however, De Niro’s performance and Scorsese’s direction elevate to an even higher level”
In the final thirty minutes however, De Niro’s performance and Scorsese’s direction elevate to an even higher level. We see Frank in his old age, reliant on a carer to live, as he finally begins to reflect on the terrible acts he has committed. Estranged from his children, his wife and with his friends dead, Frank’s focus becomes his own death and whatever legacy he can leave behind. It is these final thirty minutes that make this Scorsese and De Niro’s Magnum Opus.
While the first two and a half hours feel like vintage Scorsese, reliving his glory days and using as many of his classic camera movements he can, the closing act becomes an emotional tour-de-force, that seems not only to reflect on the actions of Frank Sheeran, but on all of the directors anti-heroes.
“It meditates on the life of Scorsese and De Niro themselves”
Most significantly, however, it meditates on the life of Scorsese and De Niro themselves. We forget how much of a celebrity these two were in the heady days of the ‘New Hollywood’, where all of their missteps, especially Scorsese’s, were clear for the world to see. Much like Jimmy Hoffa, he believed so much in the work he was doing, he had no awareness of the collateral damage it caused. The films last act is so emotional, because it feels immensely personal.
In the film, Sheeran bemoans the fact that young people don’t know Jimmy Hoffa, a legendary figure in 1960s US politics. This suggests that Scorsese perhaps feels some sort of affinity to Hoffa, remembered as the “legendary director” of the 70s, rather than the great working director of today. The Irishman asks what happens when the guns go down, the bodies are buried, and whether your legacy will live on.
“Like all of Scorsese’s best work, there is a beautiful comedy weaved into these heavy themes”
Like all of Scorsese’s best work, there is a beautiful comedy weaved into these heavy themes. Stephen Graham’s exceptional supporting performance as Anthony ‘Pro’ Provenzano provides levity, mostly in the form of arguments with rival union boss, Hoffa. Also, an unexpected Action Bronson cameo as a coffin salesman in the last ten minutes is either the most incredible casting decision ever made, or the rapper just has the best agent in Hollywood.
“It is undoubtedly, however, an incredible feat of storytelling and exploration of self, from one of our greatest working filmmakers”
Many are calling this Scorsese’s best work in decades, which harshly overlooks 2016’s brilliant Silence. It is undoubtedly, however, an incredible feat of storytelling and exploration of self, from one of our greatest working filmmakers. If he or De Niro never worked again, this would be a perfect send off to two of Hollywood’s most revered icons. But given they’re clearly capable of so much, why not keep going?
The Irishman is out now in select cinemas and releases on Netflix on the 27th of November.
Featured Image courtesy of Fábrica de Cine, STX Entertainment, Sikelia Productions and Tribeca Productions via IMDb.
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