The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★★

I, admittedly, have been struggling to write about this for awhile because it’s probably one of Scorsese’s densest films and I needed time to unpack it all. The Irishman has the same re-watchability as Goodfellas, but it carries into its third half one of the darkest conclusions of any film produced this year. There’s a brilliance just in the fact that it manages to explore a catalogue of so many themes, ideas, and politics and still make it palatable.

At the heart of the film is essentially a portrait of Frank Sheeran played by Robert DeNiro, a character torn by the commitments to his work and his life. They seem inseparable. Labour becomes a motif throughout, one which extends beyond the pale of simply an occupation and enters into the realm of a calling. That idea isn’t foreign to Scorsese, a man whose work is so intertwined with his life that the notion of calling his movies mere “labours of love” seem to almost ridicule. Film is his life, it’s the air he breathes.

Frank Sheeran sheepishly takes orders with an emotional indifference, but nonetheless a quiet devotion. DeNiro, with his perfectly coiffed hair and still face, channels Jean Gabin in Jacques Becker’s bleak Touchez Pas au Grisbi where an older gangster must confront his mortality. In fact, in an early scene when Russell and Sheeran talk over wine and bread, Raymond Bosserie’s Le Grisbi, the title song from the Becker film, plays in the background. At times DeNiro’s cool exterior is admirable, at other times it's downright terrifying. But there’s something about Sheeran’s character that seems deeply relatable to Scorsese in his insatiable desire to serve a higher power.

Higher powers are an immovable property within Scorsese’s oeuvre and they exist in the forefront of The Irishman, a film that centres around a kind of un-Holy Trinity of sycophants, sociopaths and narcissists. Frank Sheeran is caught somewhere in the middle as ever-absent Father serving the Second coming that is Jimmy Hoffa and the nearly silent Russell Bufalino whom Sheeran owes his life to. The indebted Sheeran is tactless in his service.

Enter Martin Scorsese, historically uncompromising in his approach, someone who has had to exploit the financial circles in order to maintain his whole vision, even if that means going to Netflix to make his next Shakespearean historical epic. In that sense, The Irishman is in a larger conversation about the uncompromising nature of America and its violent ascent into power during WWII, the time in which The Irishman s set.

When Sheeran and Bufalino first meet at the Texaco gas station next to the Stuckey’s on the side of the highway, we’re offered a historical-political crossroads (it’s important to note that in the book, their first meeting was simply located at a nondescript truck stop). How did industrialization fix its talons into the shoulders of the everyman after WWII? Well, chiefly through the Big Oil sector, more specifically the automotive industry. Convenient then that the place in which the war veteran meets Russell, a Faustian lord of the underworld, happens to be between a shop with the word “stuck” in it and a venue for Big Oil. More fitting that Scorsese uses Texaco as the gas station, their logo of which happens to be a big red Star emblematic of the Communist villains that defined and threatened Capitalism and the Mob throughout the 1950s and 60s in America.

In continuing the thread of the oil industry’s involvement in criminality, the first job Sheeran catastrophically embarks upon as an autonomous criminal is the bombing of a Cadillac linen service and the first job Sheeran takes as a hired man for Jimmy Hoffa is dumping non- union cabs into Lake Michigan, both of which have a connection to the automotive industry, even if by name.

During the sweeping crane shot of the cabs getting pushed off the docks, I’m reminded of the cab that Travis Bickle drove through the grimy streets of New York in Taxi Driver. There’s a twofold conversation that takes place in this scene. Scorsese creates a modern metaphor for the political philosophies that romanticize the destruction of the archaic automotive industry, but it also acts as metaphor for Scorsese's rebuke to his own history: the cabs’ timed explosions as a means to destroy remnants of the nihilistic politics that were guided by Taxi Driver.

The philosophical backbone of Taxi Driver and its notions of the consummate individual or “God’s Lonely Man” has a longing impact in modern cinema with films like Joker, stories that pride themselves in spotlighting the tortured loners. Whereas in The Irishman those ideas are essentially besmirched. Solidarity is the driving sentiment that takes its place, even if it’s not fully enacted. It’s perhaps by sheer coincidence that this story takes place chiefly in the decades leading up to the release of Taxi Driver (Hoffa disappeared in 1975) in that it speaks to a camaraderie that got decimated by the nihilism of the 1970s and practically liquidated and sold out by the Ayn Randian Individualism that Reagan and Thatcher ushered in throughout the 1980s.

I say this because The Irishman really is a love triangle between three men, a beacon of fraternity, told in the romantic roadside narrative style of the seminal Two For the Road or the homoerotic Il Sorpasso. It is a celebration of the whole. Frank Sheeran falls in love with Russell because he represents the untouchable safety and security that justifies all of his own heinousness, while Hoffa represents a kind of unreliable but completely human embodiment of platonic friendship and trust.

The identities of these men couldn’t be more different. Where Bufalino is deadly silent and slow, Hoffa is fast moving and talking like a locomotive. It’s in this schism of personalities where the collapse of Hoffa’s empire lies. But more importantly, it’s the hypercognition of identity which fractures the wholeness that exists between the mafia and the unions.
The central idea that inevitably leads to the downfall of Hoffa are the identity politics that get adopted by the next generation of union leaders and mobsters. Enter Pro, a union leader from Jersey who embodies the cult of personality, one built on good looks, charm, casualness, and golf. When Pro meets with Hoffa in prison looking for his misplaced money, Hoffa runs his mouth off about Italians. The second time they meet, Hoffa wants to ask Pro to endorse him but pride derails the conversation and Hoffa ends up referring to Pro as “you people.” Shortly after that Joe Gallo enters the picture and eliminates the idea of the mob being loyal to any nationality at all, hiring killers of any background. Something unheard of at the time which causes a major rift amongst the Italian-Americans.

This is the genius of this screenplay. Scorsese and Zallian reprieve identity politics twofold by first presenting the conflict between Pro and Hoffa as one that is rooted solely on the racist epithets barked by Hoffa. The racist rhetoric contradicts Hoffa’s own campaign philosophies that are built on solidarity. But simultaneously crazy Joe Gallo threatens the nationalism of the mob by not adhering to any ethnic identities whatsoever. In fact, he threatens Russell when he notices he’s wearing an Italian-American League pin. Both of these moments speak to how both the unions and the mafia were ultimately betrayed by the rabid identity politics which have now become terminal.

The Irishman’s title itself is a national identifier. That Russell could trust Sheeran, despite his Irish ethnicity and his history of killing Italian soldiers, speaks to an inherent trust that seems to be at the dark heart of Frank and Russell’s relationship. Theirs is one that goes beyond unions and cultures. Ethnic and cultural rifts checker many of Scorsese’s films (Gangs, Goodfellas, Casino). But here I think Scorsese is at his best because he boldly critiques his own lineage. Goodfellas somewhat glorified Italian-American mobsterism but put Scorsese on the outs with many Italian-Americans throughout the United States (famous Italian restaurants in NYC barred him from entering after its release). In The Irishman, Italy becomes a character onto itself. Sheeran was deployed under General Patton into Italy to fight fascism. After serving his time, he returns to America only to find himself working under the same murderous ideologies that he was fighting against in Mussolini’s fascist Italy.

Futhermore, the story criticizes Italian-Americans involvement in the collapse of the unions across the United States. The mafia’s relationship with Hoffa was both key to his success but also his demise. The first time Scorsese shows Jimmy Hoffa, he wears a blood-red Ushanka holding the hands of the workers. Communism and its American figurehead Jimmy Hoffa become a threat to the old-world Fascism of Italian-Americans, just as Communism threatened America in the 1950s and just as the Communist Party was outlawed by Mussolini throughout Italy. Bufalino and the mob wanted Kennedy because he would invade Cuba and allow the Mafia to build Casinos. Foreign policy as instructed by greed in Zallian’s superb script.

American foreign policy becomes chaptered by Scorsese’s use of television. Frank’s daughter watches as Sheeran’s hits outside Umberto’s get broadcast right alongside the Bay of Pigs. The murder of the individual and the bombing of a group become almost indistinguishable. Television as a window into America’s hegemonic past, this strangely inert messenger of death. After the news of Kennedy's assassination in the diner, the broadcast quietly cuts to a commercial break to sell coffee. Business as usual. When Sheeran sits alone in the retirement home, the news broadcast is that of America’s tactical involvement in the Kosovo war. Shortly after we get a scene with Action Bronson, Albanian in nationality, selling a casket to a haggling American vet.

Given this is Scorsese's first "television" debut, of course the television and the modalities in which the original medium existed plays a vital role. Scorsese's self-awareness with the medium can be found in the very first frame of the film. Notice as we float down the hallway of the retirement home, the frame is naturally vignetted, so masterfully by Rodrigo Prieto, that it creates a square aspect ratio to the otherwise standard cinema 1.85:1 frame.

The shadows limit the frame, constrict it until the camera floats into the brighter part of the corridor, only to reveal the seniors that sit patiently in perpetual waiting.

Which brings me to my theory of who Russell represents as a subtextual figure in this discourse about media. Russell is like a Bergman-esque figure of death who brings upon not only the end of Hoffa but the end of cinema as we know it. Consider Al Pacino's performance. It's so polar opposite of Pesci's that seeing it again, I was almost surprised they were in the same film. Pacino's role is that which embodies the bygone theatricality of Cinema. After theatre died (arguable, I’m sorry theatre friends!) in the 1930s to make way for movies, it carried with it that model of performance, especially in the Silent era where the manic expressiveness made up for the lack of sound. Al Pacino built his career in theatre and he brought that dynamic style to his roles in Serpico and Scarface. So when Russell and Hoffa have the exchange at Frank's celebration, it brings me chills. Hoffa and Sheeran sit on the stage with red drapes behind them, as if to perform a play that constitutes brotherly love. But at the back of the hall, the coldness in Russell's warning represents all that is the new modality of expression to the old: Cinema as anthropomorphized by Russell warning the theatrical Pacino that his time is up.

There's another scene that I think hints at this theoretical framework. And it's a strange one. The morning after Frank hears the mafia is going to take out Hoffa, Russell and Frank have a conversation at the Howard Johnson over breakfast. As Russell asks him to take the plane to Detroit (Motor City), watch DeNiro's performance. This was a turning point for me. DeNiro is framed in a medium shot, looking past Russell's right shoulder, thus making eye contact directly into the camera three times. Frank knowingly breaks the fourth wall. Why? Why does Scorsese - the master of breaking of the fourth wall - do it here? It's because Russell, with his slicked back white hair and thick black glasses, looks almost eerily identical to present-day Scorsese and this is the moment Scorsese (as Russell) convinces his de facto characters/ collaborators (Frank) to venture from cinema to television.

He warmly reassures Sheeran that "you're coming with me. We're going to go together.” So when DeNiro looks at the camera he's looking at the audience member, a singular entity no longer part of the collective experience, a last ditch effort to capture an intimate and direct connection to someone despite the atomization of the experience.

After Hoffa’s hit, Scorsese as complicit member to the murder of the medium announces itself in a harrowing inversion of the infamous wedding ceremony in The Godfather. Where Coppola presented the warmth and liveliness of the Italian-American ritual, Scorsese uses a painfully high frame-rate to almost freeze the ceremony to death. And why not? The wedding is, in fact, a funeral. It becomes a celebration of the death of Hoffa and perhaps, the death of the collective ritual that is cinema. Scorsese not only contradicts the wedding as cause célèbre, but creates a scene that imbues the grotesqueness of Quentin Matsys “Ill Matched Marriage” with similar expressions. The first image we see is that of Bill Bufalino, played by the made-famous-by-television star Ray Romano, walking his daughter down the aisle. When Hoffa’s body is disposed of by a fiery cremation, it’s a distanced and harsh permutation of the careful and poetic final shot of Silence, another film about the confrontation between mortality and faith.

As Hoffa’s disappearance hits the airwaves, we witness the reactions of Sheeran’s family from behind the television. Sheerans’ daughter looks slightly over the audience’s shoulder, her eyeline just to the left of us (a visual inversion of Sheeran’s reaction to the audience having to carry out Hoffa’s hit). She’s left nearly speechless and merely asks her father “Why?” to which Frank struggles to find words. The bumbling, aimless apology to Jo Hoffa that follows is like a painful confessional. Later in the film, when asked by the priest if he felt any remorse for the things he did, he simply replies, “What kind of man makes that call?” a complex confession of either his own guilt for calling Jo after murdering Jimmy or the ask to God why he was called upon to murder him in the first place. Thus the film becomes both an expression of Scorsese’s guilt, but simultaneously his lack of remorse in getting the story told, no matter how much beer is spilled.

It’s impossible to skirt around the Western as a genre when talking about Martin Scorsese. Yes, there’s the swampy Morricone-like soundtrack but there’s also the unrelenting pride which befalls Hoffa that’s not unlike John Wayne’s cavalier stubbornness in Red River, a story of a man refusing to give up his legacy. The Irishman carries the trademark simplicity of the John Ford westerns, particularly Hoffa’s last confrontation with Frank which in lesser hands would be chopped up into a dozen cuts, but here lives in one, maybe two shots. (In a later unbroken take, Sheeran slowly collects the ashes from the cigarette trays throughout his house and the camera lands on a photo of his wife on the dresser next to a horse and cart, a small artifact that symbolizes both Scorsese’s love for the Western and also another device that was eventually outmoded by the Automobile.) The economy of the craft and yet expansive narrative that spans decades is a remarkable feat, especially with a film that’s based on a true story.

But what is true? There was blowback against this film surrounding the “truth” of it all. The Jimmy Hoffa story itself is mired with conspiracies and what-ifs and no concrete evidence could be surmised to verify anything. Given the plasticity of truth these days, Scorsese and Zallian knowingly adapt the Brendt novel based on Sheeran’s testimonies because it gives the whole narrative a sympathetic purview. We aren’t encountering the events as they happened, we’re encountering Sheeran’s guilty confession of those events, even if Frank’s literal confession at the end negates any guilt, there exists a morality in telling the story in the first place and admitting fault.

Or more interestingly, one might consider that Sheeran truly is amoral, lacking conscience, and this “confessional” to the camera is a narcissistic conceit for attention, having no one to talk to anymore and thus hoping to attract any willing ears. And that’s perhaps the sadder interpretation. In Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese brings us to a close with Jordan Belfort selling the pen to the audience as a metaphysical gag that suggests we are all willing victims to a good con-man. But in The Irishman the audience becomes the only visitors to the ghostly retirement home. There is no one in Frank’s life willing to hear his story anymore and that in itself is indicative of Scorsese’s own fear of losing his audience.

There’s a desperately sad and darkly funny scene towards the end when the FBI come to question Sheeran about Hoffa. The interrogators of his criminal past are the only ones willing to visit and speak with him. Sheeran dresses up in all of his union regalia to meet with them and even meets them outside the retirement home. Is it because he’s paranoid of meeting with them in private or is it because he wants to publicly display his lack of aloneness? “Who are you protecting?,” they ask. The final shot of Frank after the Priest leaves him for the Christmas holidays, yes is reminiscent of The Godfather, but it also speaks to the very first shot of the squared off corridor. The aspect ratio becomes a sliver, barely wide enough to view anyone or anything, a perpetual fear that no doubt lingers in Scorsese’s head.

To have the door closed means some kind of finality. To leave it open, even a smidge, suggests something sadder. Will Sheeran’s daughter finally see him? Will the audience keep watching Scorsese’s movies? Will Scorsese suffer the same fate of Hoffa, a beloved man in his day but a nearly forgotten one in the future. Or worse, will he suffer the fate of Sheeran? Burying himself in a beautiful coffin that nobody will see, only to rest in a marble tomb that no one will visit.

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