The Irishman Movie Review: Meditative, melancholic, masterful
This gangland saga is Scorsese’s most sinful and oxymoronically the most peaceful one too
Seneca once said, “Every sin is the result of collaboration.” The Irishman is Martin Scorcese’s ninth collaboration with Robert DeNiro, his first-ever with Al Pacino (can you believe that?) and fourth with that genius of a showman called Joe Pesci. This gangland saga is Scorsese’s most sinful, and oxymoronically, the most peaceful one too.
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino
Director: Martin Scorsese
The Irishman, aka Frank Sheeran (DeNiro), is not a greedy soul. It is what makes him the perfect middleman in a world that rewards such individuals. His greed, or the manifestation of it, comes from need. The need to feed his ever-increasing family populated by only daughters. Such men are valuable in a sinful world which is motivated by greed and he is quickly taken in by the northern Pennsylvania gang leader, Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) to help “concerned men.” While Russell’s greed is significantly self-motivated and self-serving - “All roads lead back to me” - Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa’s greed is more on the lines of the greater good, for the thousands of workers who are part of his Teamsters union.
Where greed resides, gluttony soon follows, both literally and metaphorically. Be it the cigarette breaks of the women of the household who drive around with Russell and Frank, or the terrific fish scene involving Sally Bugs (Louis Cancelmi) and Chuckie (Jessie Plemons), or the introduction of Bobby Cannavale Joe Gallo’s steak indulgence, or Hoffa’s abhorrence of watermelon, the hilariously constructed dark humour scenes are some of Scorcese’s best over-indulgences. Do they absolutely need to be there? No. But it is Marty pushing the so-called Tarantino mould into his characters that makes the picture consistently just... breathe.
But it begs the question — is this Scorcese tipping his hat to his peers and his influences or is it him lusting after that recognition that the modern audience has bestowed upon these creators? Here’s his Frank, without any longing for power or money. But look at how the same character is looked at by his two big-time friends/confidantes — Hoffa is puzzled while Russell is tranquil about it. Here’s where the genius of Scorcese whips in. Frank, old, wheelchair-bound, white-haired and wrinkled forehead tells this story to someone but we do not know who. Is he breaking the fourth wall and narrating it to us? Maybe. But it is this unreliability of his narrative and his constant claim of being in the right place at the right time, that makes us all wonder if this man never really lusted.
What happens if what you lusted after doesn’t truly come by and it reaches someone who you think deserves it far less? A masterful Scorcese uses the background story of John and Robert Kennedy’s rise as well as The Bay of Pigs incident to put Russell and Hoffa at two different ends of the spectrum and exploit their relationship with Frank. This gives us two delightful acting masterclass scenes in the film. The first comes when Pacino channels the wrath of Hoffa at his executives and their inability to deliver when it matters most. DeNiro, taking exception, storms out of the scene only for Pacino to comfort him and change the mood at the drop of a coin. The second comes at a felicitation ceremony of Frank when Pacino once again channels the pride of Hoffa and talks about what is truly his and how no one can ever truly take that away from him. The framing, editing and blocking of that entire scene, in addition to two full minutes each of Pacino, Pesci and DeNiro’s glares (for completely different reasons), is why this will always be one of the greatest collections of cinematic talents ever.
Yet, as much as DeNiro and Pacino ace scenes which they have done a million variations of before, it is Pesci who stands tall (pun intended). A pocket dynamite of an actor, he had to be convinced over a period of four years to accept the role of Russell Buffalino. It is not the brash arrogant devil-may-care low-finesse type of character the man aces in his sleep. It is the genre’s most difficult character to play — an aged, quiet, scheming don whose mere presence exudes charisma and fear in equal parts. His actions are deliberate and to him, time isn’t as much a function as it is for Hoffa. The latter can’t bear if you are late for 10 minutes, but Russell? He plays time to his perfection. And when he says, quietly, almost in a deathly whisper, “It is what it is,” you know that is a denouement that can’t be challenged.
When Scorcese made Goodfellas, it was THE perfect gangster movie ever created. As we near the 30th anniversary, here is Marty running us through all the greatest hits of his filmy career (there are so many Easter eggs, that I wondered if it was him being his cheeky self in referencing the MCU in his own inimitable way) yet never giving us an ending, a moral absolution or a compass, or even a direction. This is Scorcese taking up all the questions he asked of us (and himself) in The Silence and making the gangsters of his lore ask of themselves. He even writes a terrific character in Peggy, Frank’s eldest daughter, and makes her as the all-seeing God’s eye of the story.
Is this Scorcese’s own melancholic ode to his legacy? As Jean Wetzel’s wistful Le Grisbi played, I could only think of two things. The final image of film — a door held half-open (or half-closed as the character says). And an inscription on Hieronymus Bosch’s The Seven Deadly Sins and The Four Last Things painting — “For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them; O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter’s end.” Is this the end?