Directed by Martin Scorsese
I'm not going to fall down the rabbit hole of what is true and what isn't true in the tales of Frank Sheeran, whether it's Charles Brandt's 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses or Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. Just think of this when you watch The Irishman: Mr. Scorsese's biographical work, films like Casino or Goodfellas or The Aviator or The Wolf of Wall Street, are more about the emotional truth of the story he wants to tell than they are the factual truth. Even his most recent documentary Rolling Thunder Revue took great liberties with facts in order to get to the core of the Rashomon aspects of Bob Dylan's life and art. So, yeah, I'm not going to go down that rabbit hole. Nope. No matter how tempting it is.
Anyway. The Irishman. Maybe it was when some aspects of our culture accused Mr. Scorsese of glamourizing pond scum humans that drew him to this script. Especially after The Wolf of Wall Street. I mean, the controversy over Goodfellas was bad enough. But The Wolf of Wall Street was a whole other thing. But then, he did give a cameo to pond scum human Jordan Belfort. So, yeah. Anyway, I don't see any of the various characters in this movie decorating any dorm rooms in the near future. Nothing is glamourized, everyone gets their karmic due. The few that do live into old age are physically broken, their bodies trapping their minds, loneliness eating at their souls. Even when they try to reach out to family or strangers, they end up looking pathetic. Maybe that's what The Irishman is about, the banality of evil.
In the past, Mr. Scorsese has been criticized for the way women are portrayed in his films. And I have to admit, there are a lot of virgin Marys and a lot of Magdalenes in Scorsese's canon, a lot of Betsys and Irises. The women in The Irishman are invisible for the most part. They complain about not being able to smoke in the car, they encourage their men. But, generally, they have sacrificed any agency. The exception is Frank Sheeran's daughter Peggy. After witnessing the violence that is wrought by her father on a grocery store owner who pushed her, she silently watches and judges him and the men in his life. Peggy is like a reminder of the lack of moral compass in these men's life. And maybe that's what The Irishman is about, the violence and destruction and narcissism that occurs in a world when women have no agency.
I have a lot of complicated feelings about The Irishman. There are some amazing moments in the film. Yellow cabs being dumped into Lake Michigan. A steadicam shot through the halls of a nursing home. A union celebration that becomes a neutral ground for mob negations. Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa working himself into spitting madness, chewing all of the scenery, props, and catering, finally taking a breath and defeatedly admitting "I'm going to jail". Joe Pesci. A methodical explanation of why some guns are better for some murders than others.
There is much to admire here. The performances, the cinematography, the music, the attention to detail. The pacing is admirable, the patience it takes to construct something like this. It's a slow burn of a film, becoming more and more intense until Frank is asked to do something he honestly doesn't want to do and it suddenly slows to a glacier. The dialogue becomes almost insipid, trite, vapid. It feels almost like it is taking place in real time until the deed is done and then the film picks back up. It's like the film drops us into the head of Frank as he tries to draw this out as long as possible, as he tries to avoid the inevitable. And Robert De Niro's performance during this is one for the ages, we can see the angst that this is causing him but it's never anything you can point at. Maybe that is what The Irishman is about, the growing dread of the inevitable.
The Irishman features the best performance in years from Robert De Niro. And Joe Pesci came out of retirement to play the polar opposite of the rabid Jack Russells he has portrayed in his previous Scorsese films. He is all calm and ice.
But what doesn't work, well, some of it really doesn't work. The computer generated young faces of its cast, some of whom are on the back half of their 70s, becomes distracting. It almost looks cartoonish at times. More Christopher Lee and Carrie Fisher in Rogue One than Michael Douglas and Michelle Pfeiffer in the Ant Man movies. And there is no disguising the movements of a man in his 70s no matter how much you make his face look like he did in his 30s or 40s. Where it works well is when the de-aging becomes aging, adding wrinkles and lines and spots and grey. That is kind of impressive. But, really, the CGI faces is just a gimmick. A really, really expensive gimmick. And it's all kind of unnecessary. There are younger actors that could have played these roles and they could have been aged through the film or replaced by the older actors. Make-up artists have done amazing things going back decades, long before CGI. Max von Sydow was only 44 when he was in The Exorcist and he looks almost exactly as he does in Minority Report, nearly 30 years later. But, maybe that's what The Irishman is about, we can do a thing so we're going to do it no matter how dumb it is.
What else doesn't work? Well, objectively, the film is kind of boring. Me, personally, I like a good deep dive into whatever is troubling Mr. Scorsese and his view of America and late-stage capitalism. But The Irishman is missing some of that Scorsese energy. Some of the shots are, well, bland. It's missing that Scorsese energy, the energy that is so contagious and is never, ever duplicated by any of his students or imitators.
There is much to admire in The Irishman. And it is flawed. But, like Roger Ebert once said, "a bad Scorsese film is still better than most director's best films".