Martin Scorsese doesn’t make mistakes. He has been doing this job too long and developed his craft too well. Every detail in every movie is there for a reason.
And so I smiled a bit in the last hour of Scorsese’s latest “The Irishman” after Russell Bufalino (the incomparable Joe Pesci, giving an Academy Award-worthy performance) was arrested and walked to a cop car. The film advertised on the movie marquee across the street? “The Shootist.”
“The Irishman” owes even more to that John Wayne western (the Duke’s last) than it does to Scorsese’s own mobster films – “Goodfellas”, “Casino” and the like- that he is clearly paying homage to.
Both films are eulogies for a historical era, a genre of films and the actors who brought both to life. “The Shootist” eulogized the Western with the help of such genre stalwarts as Wayne, James Stewart and Harry Morgan. “The Irishman” honors the legacy of gangster films with the help of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Pesci.
In both films, you feel that the directors are attempting to make reparations for years of glamorizing death in their respective genres. Both Wayne’s John Bernard Books and De Niro’s Frank Sheeran have blood on their hands. We’re told that Brooks killed over 30 men. For Sheeran, 30 is just the tip of the iceberg.
Sheeran, it should be noted, is a real person – a labor union official with ties to the Bufalino crime family, labor activist Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, very good), the Kennedys and other key figures from the second half of the twentieth century. Scorsese’s recounting of his life is a sort of blood-spattered “Forrest Gump” or “The Butler”- a look at America’s history and sins through the eyes of one man.
That history is consistently fascinating – especially for audience members who can’t tell Jimmy Hoffa from Jimmy Carter. I came out of the film wanting to do more research on this story and its key players. Steven Zaillian’s script is an adaptation of Charles Brandt’s nonfiction book on Sheeran, “I Hear You Paint Houses”, which would be a good place to start.
The compelling story is brought to a life by a committed cast of veteran actors. De Niro, who too frequently slums it in crass comedies, reminds us what a strong actor he can be. Pacino makes Hoffa a man of contradictions – someone fighting for the underdog but not above taking a cut for himself. Pesci reminds us why it is such a shame that he has only been in four films in the past two decades. The deep bench of supporting actors – Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Jesse Plemons – make the most of their limited screen time.
Several of these actors appear in the film’s early segments through digital de-aging technology that makes them look decades younger. I’ll admit that I was a little unnerved the first time I saw De Niro’s digital face, but quickly got absorbed enough in the story that it no longer bothered me.
However, those digital effects- which reportedly cost millions of dollars- are a symptom of a larger problem with the movie: Scorsese’s over-the-top self-indulgence. I can understand casting your friends and even spending top dollar on special effects. But there is no way in hell that this thing needed to be three-and-a-half hours long. Scorsese could have easily trimmed an hour – maybe even two- and made this a stronger and more accessible film. “The Shootist” eulogized an era more effectively in under half the running time.
Scorsese’s eulogy falters in other places too. “The Irishman” is perhaps the most violent parable about the importance of nonviolence I’ve ever seen. By the time Sheeran knocks off his 10th victim or so, Scorsese’s apology starts to ring a little false. And there are still hours to go.
At the very least, Scorsese sticks the landing with a somber and touching final half hour. He also provides a fine acting showcase and an intriguing history lesson. “The Irishman” (rated R for pervasive language and strong violence) is a solid film that is worth watching on Netflix where you can pause it frequently for bathroom breaks and maybe watch it at a faster playback speed.
But is this Scorsese’s best? Or the best film of 2019?
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.