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‘The Irishman’ is an elegy for a genre

| Thursday, December 5, 2019

Diane Park | The Observer

“I heard you paint houses.” As far as introductions go, the way audiences meet Frank Sheeran in “The Irishman” doesn’t have the same ring as the opening line of “Goodfellas”: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece stands as the peak of the gangster genre because of the totality of its vision: it is the story of how the Mafia life can control the identity of not only one man, but his entire family. Scorsese’s latest film, the three-hour-plus “The Irishman,” skillfully repudiates the myth propagated by “Goodfellas.” Where the latter movie remains thrilling even as police helicopters buzz overhead, “The Irishman” adopts a funereal tone that seems to suggest the end of an era not only for Scorcese and his venerated stars, but for the gangster film as a whole.

Using CGI de-aging effects that are the only blemish on the film’s impact, “The Irishman” follows Robert De Niro’s Sheeran through a half-century of life as a real-world Mafia hitman involved with the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. Like Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” Sheeran’s rise to some sort of Mafia prominence is presented in vintage Scorsese style, all rollicking mid-century music and a constantly moving camera introducing a revolving door of colorful characters. By the time Bobby Canavale is shown in a slaughterhouse while “I Hear You Knocking” blares in the background, the audience feels as though Scorsese has returned to his comfort zone. However, this sense of narrative security is short-lived; as soon as Al Pacino enters the film as a larger-than-life Hoffa, “The Irishman” shifts into a lower, more thoughtful gear.

Pacino’s presence in the movie is nothing short of baffling at first, as his tic-addled, constantly yelling Hoffa stands in sharp contrast to the reserved performances of the rest of the cast. As the movie progresses, though, Pacino’s surprisingly funny turn reveals itself as the film’s greatest strength: the audience learns to trust and care for Hoffa at the same time Sheeran does, which makes his eventual demise all the more impactful. He and De Niro form a classic odd-couple pairing, with Hoffa’s almost child-like bluster offsetting Sheeran’s seething competence. At other points, De Niro is paired with a freshly unretired Joe Pesci, who is absolutely fantastic as an aged Mafia boss, and a severely underutilized Anna Paquin, who makes the most of her limited screen time as Sheeran’s shame-filled daughter Peggy. It is in her scenes that Scorsese’s ultimate goal is most apparent. When she silently judges Sheeran for his life of violence, she also interrogates the director’s own complicity in the gangster genre’s glorification of that same bloodshed.

In some respects, “The Irishman’s” closest antecedent in Scorsese’s filmography isn’t a gangster film like “Goodfellas” or “Casino,” but rather one of his religion pictures — “The Last Temptation of Christ” in particular. Scorsese’s latest film, then, serves as a perfect synthesis of the director’s two career-long obsessions: crime and Catholicism.

This is not to say that “The Irishman” is all serious business. It is shockingly well-paced for such a long film, buoyed by great performances across the board and typically shrewd soundtrack work by longtime Scorsese music supervisor Robbie Robertson, who finds melancholy new life in the Five Satins’ doo-wop classic “In The Still of the Night.” Scorsese is still an absurdly gifted shot compositor, to a point where a single set of frames within the film perfectly encapsulates his aim. When a murder weapon sinks to a riverbed chock-full of similarly discarded guns, it is but the most useful example of the film’s — and Scorsese’s — understanding of the futile, cyclical nature of the world of crime.

Movie: “The Irishman”

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci

If You Like: “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Once Upon A Time In America”

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

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