You may find it hard to believe, but Martin Scorsese has been in the news recently. On a cynical level, it’s arguably a bit convenient that Scorsese’s fully thought-out and reasonably critical opinions of both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and blockbuster cinema as a whole have become such a flashpoint of critical discourse over the last few weeks. His latest feature, The Irishman, has arrived in a handful of theaters around the country before landing in its streaming home, Netflix, on November 27. The new film wades in some familiar waters, specifically the Mafia, and features some of the director’s longtime acting collaborators. Yet most importantly, The Irishman is a firm, conclusive counterargument to one of the criticisms that has always hounded Scorsese: that he endorses the violence he depicts.
I Heard You Paint Houses
Really, that nonsensical argument extends to the presumption that many of Scorsese’s films glorify what they depict, violent or not. In 2013, when his delirious, thrilling and furious 3-hour epic The Wolf of Wall Street arrived in theaters, rebukes were swift. The implication was that Scorsese was glorifying the horrendously bad behavior of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), simply by presenting it on screen. Belfort, a slick con artist, had humble, non-criminal beginnings, but soon got a taste for the dark and wild side of life, and never really let up. The Wolf of Wall Street has a perverse sense of fun, and features some of the bleakest, funniest segments of Scorsese’s career. (When Jordan suffers a very bad hallucinogenic trip, it results in perhaps the goofiest scene of the director’s filmography, allowing DiCaprio to prove his slapstick bona fides.)
And The Wolf of Wall Street absolutely was not endorsing what it depicted. The perception that what a filmmaker presents is meant as tacit endorsement can be true, but it’s not always true. Within the work of Martin Scorsese, it’s rarely ever the case. Maybe it’s just easier to presume that showing the bad behavior, the rank misogyny, and the wanton cruelty means that the filmmaker agrees with it. These kinds of reductive arguments, and generally reductive takes on Scorsese in general, have arrived unabated in the last few weeks after the director doubled down on his — again — fully understandable reactions to the MCU.
On the surface, The Irishman might not help matters in terms of how people perceive Scorsese as a filmmaker who tells stories about white men (although he’s made some notable, if not wildly financially successful, films about non-white culture such as Kundun and Silence), or as a champion of world cinema. (As critic Bilge Ebiri pointed out in a sarcastic tweet, Scorsese spearheaded an initiative literally called the World Cinema Project, intended to champion low-budget films from directors outside of the mainstream Western world.) The 210-minute opus is a retelling of the life of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the hitman who claims to be the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa (played here by Al Pacino). Sheeran’s friendship with Hoffa, his connection with the Bufalino crime family of Pennsylvania, and his life of crime serves as the backbone for The Irishman, which is one of the year’s best films. Aside from being an incredible, searing depiction of a life gone to seed, the film is also a final counter to the notion that Martin Scorsese glorifies Mob violence.
Always Charge a Guy With a Gun
Of course, the notion that Scorsese exclusively makes movies about the Mafia is, and has always been, nonsense. Among the films Scorsese has directed in the last decade alone are a family-friendly celebration of cinema through a 3D filter, the aforementioned manically paced epic about a Wall Street raider, and a lengthy dissertation on the meaning of Christ in an oppressive world designed to punish those who would go against imperialist dogma. You don’t have to like Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, or Silence. And you don’t have to enjoy films like Kundun or The Color of Money or The Age of Innocence or The Aviator. But they do exist, and they are all part of the fabric of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. He zigs when you presume he will zag.
That confidence in doing the unexpected is on display in The Irishman. On the surface, this new film, written by Steven Zaillian and based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses (a title that appears both at the beginning and end of the film, implying that Scorsese maybe didn’t want to call this The Irishman), seems to fit within Scorsese’s wheelhouse, to anyone who thinks that his wheelhouse is Mafia movies. The stars are De Niro, Pacino (appearing for the first time in a Scorsese picture), and Joe Pesci, the latter coming out of retirement to play Russell Bufalino, Frank’s boss and the boss of the powerful Bufalino crime family. Mob-style tactics, crime, and tough-guy behavior is ostensibly the focus of the film, filtered through how the Bufalino family and Jimmy Hoffa first worked together before going up against each other. Hoffa’s disappearance and death were a major discussion point in pop culture in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and a film documenting his rise with the Teamsters and the way the Mob purports to have taken him down would feel right in line with GoodFellas and Casino.
The signs that The Irishman won’t take the path of those films become apparent in the opening moments, as Scorsese’s camera slowly tracks through a retirement home before eventually landing upon the very elderly Frank Sheeran. Sheeran instantly begins telling his story, in a mix of voiceover and direct address to the camera (with the implication that he might just a doddering old man talking about his life to no one in particular). His story goes as far back as World War II, in which we see him first get a taste (or at least a skill) at brutal, mercy-free killings, and extends to the 1990s when he winds up in that convalescent home to live out his final days. In between, we see how Frank approaches life with a head-down mentality, getting his work done without asking a lot of questions, even though that work is cold-blooded murder.
Look Back in Anger
There will no doubt be a good deal of criticism reserved for how The Irishman is an almost entirely male-driven affair. None of the major cast members are played by women; the most notable exception is Anna Paquin, who plays an adult version of Frank’s daughter, Peggy, with the important caveat that Peggy barely speaks in the film. The choice to limit Peggy’s dialogue, though, is hardly an accident. Peggy is the sole exception in The Irishman, the character who unmistakably understands her father’s work as more than just “painting houses”. When she’s discussed as a child, it’s clear that Russell can tell that Peggy treats her “uncle” warily, because she seems to innately grasp what he does for a living. (Notably, Peggy does bond instantly with the gregarious Hoffa.)
Paquin’s performance, thus, is largely visual, with her eyes doing a lot of the talking, as a signpost or reminder that Frank Sheeran may consider himself the hero of his own story, but he’s a cutthroat of a unique and horrific sort. Peggy doesn’t speak, because she doesn’t have to. She is, to reference the work of a director inspired by Scorsese, quietly judging him. Also, we only ever get flashes of humanity peek through Frank’s stolid, stoic exterior. Though the character is involved in a number of killings, it’s only after the dread-soaked prolonged sequence wherein he kills Hoffa that we get a sense of Frank reacting to the atrocities he commits. A phone call he has with Hoffa’s widow, ostensibly meant as an innocent check-in on a grieving friend, is as close as De Niro gets to an emotional breakdown in The Irishman. Frank is, for the first time, confused and thrown off, stuttering his way through well wishes and staggering to align himself once again.
But that’s it for Frank’s humanity. Even late in the film, once we see Frank as an elderly man who’s lost all of his compatriots, he shows almost no contrition. In a makeshift confessional with a visiting priest, who knows Frank’s past and asks him if he feels guilt for the crimes he committed, our protagonist struggles to do so. He can only say that he didn’t know the people he killed, so he’s fine with what he did under the guise of assuming they got what was coming to them. Frank Sheeran, as represented in The Irishman, is not as outlandish and over-the-top a bad guy as De Niro played in Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear. But he’s just as ruthless and cruel, all the more so because in his waning days, Frank cannot grasp the depth of his horrendous acts.
Like a Schnook
This is, in essence, the point of The Irishman: to make clear that Martin Scorsese was never endorsing the Mob violence in GoodFellas or Casino, or the vigilante justice meted out in Taxi Driver. By presenting these conflicted, often De Niro-portrayed figures of American masculinity, Scorsese isn’t sitting behind the camera, giving a big thumbs-up; he’s communicating his frustration and fury that such characters can be lifted up by a certain kind of viewer. Think of the conclusion of The Wolf of Wall Street, as the camera looks at the faces of a throng of people listening to a reformed Jordan Belfort describe his get-rich-quick schemes, soaking it in so they can try it themselves. Think of how GoodFellas ends with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) bemoaning his fate as a “schnook” in the suburbs. These are not celebrations of bad behavior; we are meant to wallow in such acts so that Scorsese’s condemnations feel all the more forceful.
And there is no more forceful condemnation than the final moments of The Irishman. At Frank Sheeran’s peak, he lived a comfortable life with a family that either looked the other way or looked on with disdain. When the film concludes, Frank has lost everyone in his life — Peggy is still alive, but refuses to interact with her father even under the guise of her job as a bank teller; all others have passed away. All that Frank has left are his memories, memories that he can’t even build up so much to truly valorize himself. (The digital de-aging technology used to show De Niro and Pesci as younger-looking men is always a bit unnerving, but arguably exists as our portal through Frank’s memories, where he’s trying to make himself look better in every possible way.) We last see Frank, lost in thought and pathetically asking the priest to leave his door partially open, alone and abandoned.
Reductive though it may be to argue that the majority of Martin Scorsese’s films about criminals amount to a moral of “In the end, crime doesn’t pay”, sometimes the reductive method is accurate. Frank Sheeran led a fascinating life, and the character’s lengthy journey through Mafia power and his failed attempts to save the life of the proud and stubborn Jimmy Hoffa from being on the receiving end of his weapon make for utterly compelling cinema. But Scorsese, here and in so many other films he’s directed, is not thrilling at the behavior of criminal malcontents. He’s coldly documenting a strain of toxic masculine behavior to rip it to shreds. Let The Irishman be the last word on the matter.
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