Scorsese: The Irishman (2019)
Five years in production, and a whole lifetime in the making, The Irishman may be Martin Scorsese’s greatest film – and certainly feels like his most personal film, as well as the summative film of this later stage in his career. Steven Zallian’s superb screenplay is based on I Heard You Paint Houses, Charles Brandt’s account of Frank Sheeran’s life as a Mafia enforcer, and his possible involvement in the assassination of Jimmy Hoffa. The film is clearly entranced with Sheeran’s words, not only because they comprise twenty minutes of opening voiceover, but because Scorsese titles the film I Heard You Paint Houses at the beginning and end of the film, only grudgingly conceding the Netflix-dictated title The Irishman as the credits close after three and a half hours. As with Silence, those three and a half hours pull back from the kinetic energy of Scorsese’s later career, but don’t go quite as minimal as Silence, instead opting for a muted volatility that may be the very best synthesis of Scorsese’s contemplative and action registers that he has ever committed to the screen.
The film opens with a tracking-shot through a nursing home that feels populated with the larger-than-life characters of Scorsese’s earlier films. At the end of this tracking shot we arrive at Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, who starts narrating his life using the words of Brandt’s book. Although the film moves in roughly chronological order, it’s anchored in a secondary framing device that carries on the momentum of this opening tracking-shot, deflecting it into a road trip that Sheeran and Mafia boss Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, take from New York to Detroit in 1975. This car trip starts with Bufalino tracing out the route on a map of the Northeast, paving the way for a film that pays tribute to Italian-Americans who remade this part of the country in their own image. Early in the trip, Bufalino and Sheeran stop to have a cigarette break across the road from the petrol station where they first met, shifting the film back in time once more, to the start of the 50s.
From this point onwards, The Irishman proceeds roughly chronologically, and falls into several acts that would be fairly discrete were the film’s atmosphere not so mercurial and diffuse. The first act takes us through Sheeran’s first encounter with Bufalino, and his early career as a Mafia enforcer. While this section contains many of the tropes and plot points of Scorsese’s earlier gangster films, they’re all subsumed into the texture, decorum and dexterity with which men in the Mafia interact with one another. More than ever before, Scorsese hangs on the small gestures that make meaning in the Mafia world – an arm on a shoulder, breaking bread together – and the subtle modulations of bodies and gazes that allow the Mafia to act with such collectivity and cohesion. Much of this first act simply involves men watching each other watching each other, taking us through one tier of visual and haptic regulation after another – a whole textural code that Scorsese’s camera embodies and exudes as it glides from scene to scene, lubricated by Mafia tact and tactility.
At first, the film seemed to be playing a bit too quietly in the cinema where I watched it, but this quietness is integral to allowing this textural economy to come to the surface, since this is a film that almost demands to be touched – to be caressed – as to be watched or seen. As a result, the events taking place in the film seem intimately connected to Sheeran’s body, to the bodies of Bufalino and Hoffa (later in the film), and, of course, to Scorsese’s body itself. None of Scorsese’s recent films feel embodied in quite the same way as The Irishman, which radiates a hushed awareness of all the memories stored up in his body, and his body of work, along with an acute awareness of the aging body’s fragility as a repository of memory.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Pesci’s performance of Bufalino is positioned at the epicentre of this fleeting, embodied memory. Pesci came out of retirement for the role, and has aged noticeably since his last major appearance in The Good Shepherd – directed by De Niro – but that suits him perfectly for his part here, which consists largely in being a node for all the tact and tactility of the Mafioso haptics that accumulate around him. Apart from a few brief plosive scenes, he spends all of the film caressing, contouring and smoothing over difficult situations, putting in the subtlest performance of his career, and generating enormous amounts of gravity and pathos with the slightest inflections of his face, gaze and voice. Taking its cues from Pesci’s performance, the film also tends to elide the visceral moments typical of Scorsese’s gangster universe, muting the violence in the opening act until we seem to be watching the film unfold from behind a windscreen, bathed in the warm, fuzzy, radio standards that start with the opening rendition of “In the Still of the Night.” While we only occasionally return to the framing device – the drive from New York to Detroit in 1975 – during this opening act, we’re never able to forget that the events that we’re watching are being recalled from behind a windscreen, on a cross-country road trip.
Indeed, so remote does this opening act seem from Scorsese’s earlier gangster films that the action often appears to be unfolding before the myth of the Mafia had become a part of American cinema – or after the myth of the Mafia has passed from American cinema. While the events and tropes are familiar, they float in a strange, notional space that feels as if it is both occurring a long time before, and a long time after, Scorsese’s other gangster films. This strange, fluid space often feels coterminous with the space between men in this Mafia world, which grows more provisional, flexible and surreal as the opening act proceeds. In one of the most ethereal sequences, Sheeran has to drive to Florida, pick up some goods from a “fairy” and then deliver them to a man with “big ears.” In both cases, he has to scrutinize men to make sure that he has the right man, and in both cases he’s somewhat thwarted – not least because he has no real sense of the purpose behind this oblique and elliptical mission. Yet this just clarifies how resilient this Mafioso circumambience is, since it manages to glide and guide Sheeran through this surreal task without ever fully clarifying it.
This fluid space between men peaks in a beautiful sequence in which Sheeran describes one of the main “drop points” for guns in the Northeast – a service canal where every local gangster, regardless of allegiance, throws their weapons after they’ve made a hit. In a sublime sequence, Scorsese tracks us down beneath the surface of the canal, where these competing masculine interests are commingled and caressed by the water flowing over the repository guns, before breaching the surface, which is disrupted by another revolver before we can get a proper sense of the nocturnal landscape that it is reflecting. Instead, this abstracted liquid surface morphs and rearranges itself around the colour palette of the Netflix brand – the same colour palette as the film’s poster – suggesting that the Netflix treatment is, in some ways, responsible for Scorsese’s newer fluidity in this gangster mode.
This fluidity is particularly evident in the performances given by De Niro, Pesco and Pacino, since Scorsese and Zallian somehow manage to distil each actor’s unique screen persona, but in an awry way, allowing them to put in three of the best performances of their entire careers. That’s a considerable achievement, given how shticky De Niro and Pacino have become in recent years – especially De Niro, who has been playing himself since Analyse This onwards. Here, however, De Niro’s performance is much more in keeping with his earlier Scorsese roles, and he’s helped by Pesci’s depiction of Bufalino, his main foil for the first half of the film. From a distance, Bufalino might look like a departure from Pesci’s more extroverted roles, but after a while it becomes clear that Scorsese has merely refined the brooding, watchful, insatiable observation that underlay Pesci’s legendary outbursts, providing him with a part that undercuts but also culminates his more popular screen persona. The final ingredient is Pacino, who marks his first appearance in a Scorsese film with one of the most vulnerable performances of his career. Normally, Pacino’s offers studies in controlled chaos, but here Hoffa’s chaos gets the better of him, as Hoffa is never quite in command of the film’s mise-en-scenes in the way that he doggedly assumes he is.
Part of what makes these performances so original is also that they all work in synergy with each other, meaning that none of the three leading actors are ever able to take centre in stage. The result is an an intensely domestic atmosphere, with most of the action taking place in dimly lit restaurants, moody hotel rooms, and cars travelling through the night – small spaces that work perfectly with the reduced scale of Netflix. This domestic approach culminates with the second act of the film, when Sheeran finds himself working for Hoffa as well as Bufalino – or, more accurately, acting as a go-between between Hoffa and Bufalino, as he tries to broker a better relationship between the Teamsters and the Mafia in their competition for the collective masculine spirit of the American Northeast. The pivotal moment occurs when Hoffa brings Sheeran on one of his important trips, and allows him to sleep on the couch in his hotel room, so that there is no official record of him being at the event. When Hoffa goes to bed, he keeps the door to his room slightly ajar, leaving the gap open for Sheeran to gaze at, and compare to the domesticity of Bufalino and the Mafioso.
This marks the beginning of the second act of The Irishman, which sees Sheeran caught between two types of tactile collectivity: the fraternity of the Mafia, and the fraternity of the Union Movement. While these two social formations are linked historically, Scorsese contrasts them ideologically, presenting the Mafia as capitalism at its most dexterous and charismatic, and the Union Movement as a more progressive and socially restless vision of an alternative future. From Taxi Driver onwards, Scorsese’s career has been driven by this tension between fraternal insularity and social progression – the same tension that made him such a touchstone for Todd Phillips in Joker – and this tension comes to a head here in Sheeran’s impossible position between Hoffa and Bufalino, along with Hoffa’s own inability to ameliorate the Mafioso with respect to how he views his distribution of pension finances.
Yet while Hoffa’s conflict with the Mafia has a financial dimension, Scorsese presents it first and foremost as a cinematic phenomenon, since Hoffa resists every effort that Bufalino makes to fold him back into the seamless decorum and haptic collectivity of the opening act of the film. Pacino’s awry, off-kilter gaze has never worked better than here, as he’s perpetually looking past the person he is supposed to be talking to, or paying tribute to – utterly disinterested in the rigorously regulated and subtly modulated network of gazes that comprises the Mafia hierarchy as Bufalino introduces it to Sheeran. If the Mafia here forms a kind of visual capitalism, a capitalism of the gangster image, then Hoffa is a blot in the frame. This allows Scorsese to provide a really compelling account for why Hoffa had to be “vanished,” since his disruption of this seamless Mafioso tactility is so dramatic that it’s not enough to merely kill him. If we learn anything about Hoffa, it’s that he wouldn’t permit himself to be killed with the efficiency and dexterity that the Bufalino hold most important, meaning that the fact of his death itself has to be erased. The punishment for disobeying the Mafioso regulation of affect is that Hoffa’s body is projected into a notional space where it can be neither said to truly exist or not exist, and is so divested of any disruptive potential.
Hoffa’s body thus hangs over the film as a kind of lost object, reiterating the fragility of embodied memory as one of Scorsese’s main obsessions. All the film’s de-aging feels like a – frustrated – attempt to recover Hoffa’s final bodily sensations and memories, so it’s appropriate that this de-aging is never quite convincing, and never quite produces a seamless sense of the past. Yet this slightly awkward fusion of real and digital imagery never takes us out of the action, or disrupts the atmosphere of the film, as occurred, say, with the rotoscoping boom that culminated with The Adventures of Tintin. Instead, the the frustrated de-aging makes the past feel even more remote, as if Sheeran is trying to imagine himself in the past, but is still textured and tethered by the contingencies of the present. Accordingly, whenever we do shift back to the present, Scorsese emphasises the weathered, leathering surface of Sheeran and Bufalino’s skin, making their airbrushed, de-aged faces feel more hypothetical and notional by comparison. Each time we return to the present, too, their bodies seem more weathered, as if the memories that the film enacts were growing more diffuse and faint with each new physical ailment or setback that Sheeran, especially, suffers.
Of course, the “present” refers to two distinct time periods in The Irishman – the 1975 road trip, which forms the secondary framing device, and the nursing home sequence, which forms the primary framing device. In the third act of the film, we shift back to 1975 as the present, and discover that this is the trip when Bufalino instructs Sheeran how, where and when he will assassinate Hoffa. At this point, Scorsese returns to the hush of the opening act, but in an intensified form, as all the tactility and texturality of the Mafia converges on this one critical hit. These are the most domestic moments of the film, as Bufalino, Sheeran and their wives shack up at a roadside motel, and Bufalino announces the plan to Sheeran while preparing a salad in the kitchen of the motel – he will fly to Detroit the next morning, drive Hoffa to a house, shoot him, and then fly back the same day, so that he can drive with Bufalino to Detroit as originally planned. This fusion of timeframes – the brief flight, and the leisurely drive – lays the foundation for the eerie calm of this scene, as the world seems to recede following Bufalino’s announcement, and nothing of the world remains but Mafioso.
Accordingly, the action grows even quieter and more domestic from this point on, with this most expansive and far-reaching of historical moments playing as the greatest chamber drama in Scorsese’s career. After hearing the plan, Sheeran lies awake in bed all night, watching the static on his television, before having a quiet breakfast with Bufalino the next morning. All they discuss is whether or not to have Total or Cornflakes, before driving to an airfield without seeing a single soul. We don’t see anyone else at the motel, we don’t see anyone else at the airfield, and we don’t see anyone else in Detroit before the hit gets started. Even here, however, the film sinks deeper and deeper into this domestic mode, as Sheeran arrives at the hit house to find a collection of Mafia affiliates calmly laying down tarp, smoking and playing poker in the kitchen, waiting for Hoffa to make his last entrance.
This critical scene is not unlike the end of The Godfather II, as Scorsese takes one of the most iconic moments in gangster cinema, and uses it to instead evoke the finitude of the gangster genre. As the silence deepens and intensifies, it bleeds into the aporia, the blank space, surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance, producing one of the greatest sequences in Scorsese’s career. The final step sees Sheeran picking up Hoffa, and taking him to the house, in a car journey that feels like an anechoic chamber drama, muffling us behind an even deeper windscreen than anything we have seen so far. So glacially does this scene play out – we see the same intersection three or four times – that Sheeran, Hoffa and the bit players seem to have been here forever, suffusing every shot with a suffocating sadness that starts to percolate over the entire film. Similarly, so dramatic is Hoffa’s disregard for the collective body of the Mafia – and so jarring the collectivity he suggests in its place – that the surface of his body has to be entirely subsumed into this silence. As a results, the hit on Hoffa de-ages him, forces him into a hypothetical, digital-generated space, that means that death still feels like a vanishing even though we (supposedly) discover what actually happened to him.
The vanishing of Hoffa’s collective vision in the name of Mafioso fraternity shifts us forward to the last part of the film, which takes place in the early 2000s. This final act is contoured by two moments of silence that occur in the immediate wake of Hoffa’s death. First, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, played by Anna Paquin, realises, after watching the news, that her father was responsible for Hoffa’s death. Since Hoffa was the only associate of Sheeran’s she loved and trusted, she stops speaking to Sheeran, and remains alienated from him until his death. Second, Sheeran takes a phone call from Hoffa’s wife, played by Welker White, and stumbles for two minutes to get out a coherent response as she asks him to ensure that everything will be alright. In these agonising two minutes, Sheeran’s inability to properly articulate a single word is the film’s most poignant vision of the utterly notional space that Hoffa now inhabits – and was intended to inhabit – as a result of his vanishing. These two moments of silence are intensified by a few interludes that capture the broader collateral damage of Hoffa’s vanishing, all of which suggest that the vanishing exhausted the collective tactility of the Mafia, rather than reinforcing it – and thereby marked the end of the Mafia’s command of mise-en-scene in American culture and in Scorsese’s own oeuvre.
This turns the final act of The Irishman into a post-gangster film – a vision of the world, and of Scorsese’s body of work, now that this last gangster film is complete. As Bufalino dies, and Sheeran moves from prison into aged care, Scorsese’s silence is completed – and contoured by the first real dialogue we’ve heard from any women in three hours. The absence of women has never felt more complete in Scorsese’s universe than in these three hours, and yet by the end it has never felt more like a symptom that Scorsese needs and wants to shake. As a result, the end of The Irishman is largely driven by women, from Sheeran’s final reckoning with his two daughters – never resolved – to the woman who helps him choose his funeral plot, to the nurse who helps him in the aged care home, politely asking him to stop an anecdote so that she can properly attend to his medical care.
Conversely, the collective fraternity of the Mafia, and the mise-en-scenes it produced, is completely absent, leading an FBI agent to observe to Sheeran that “Everybody’s dead. It’s over. They’re gone. Who are you protecting?” All Sheeran has left is his family and Hoffa’s family, but his own family don’t care about him, and he can’t bring himself to provide Hoffa’s family with any real peace by offering further details about how and when the assassination and vanishing took place. Precisely because his body is the final repository of Mafioso memory, Sheeran can’t give it up to the state, or in confession, staying loyal to the haptic and visual code of the Mafia until the very end, even though there us nobody to touch or see with it anymore. In a kind of twist, even the 1975 scenes now feel de-aged, creating a false present that finally reveals, in this shift to the 2000s, that the gangster, and the entire gangster genre, is much older, and much more geriatric, than we initially realised.
The final moments of The Irishman thus draw from the final scenes of both Raging Bull and The Godfather Part III, as Scorsese recaptures the domesticity and warmth of the opening scenes, but as a “comfort effect” of Sheeran’s nursing home. In the final shot, Sheeran’s priest leaves him alone on Christmas night, in a “cosy” single room that represents the end point of his journey, the end point of Scorsese’s gangster trajectory, and the end point of Scorsese’s twentieth-century. Sheeran’s last request is that the door be kept slightly open, recalling the earlier scene when he roomed with Hoffa – the moment where gangster and union collectivity had yet to converge, and when his future with Hoffa still remained open. Yet rather than linger on this final image of Sheeran gazing at the door, and allowing it to coalesce into a stately summative tableau, Scorsese cuts abruptly, making it feel as if the credits have rolled prematurely, just a little too soon. Rather than gesture grandly towards the past, the gangster mode, finally, produces only a foreclosed future – and it is that foreclosed and forgotten futurity that is the very last note of The Irishman, which seems to close a major part of Scorsese’s career, with very little clear sense of what might come next.
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