Going away

Scorsese's The Irishman is good but a massive downer

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The Irishman
has elements you’ll recall from Martin Scorsese’s previous, justly celebrated mob pictures, including impeccable place-and-period detail, sudden violence, and absurd humor, not to mention the pleasure that comes from craftsmanship at the level that Scorsese, 60 films in, can deliver (with Thelma Schoonmaker at the editing desk!). But you may not get the lift from it you were expecting.

There are obvious echoes of the earlier movies. Like Henry Hill in GoodFellas and Rothstein and Santoro in Casino, The Irishman’s title character, Frank Sheeran, serves as narrator. As with those earlier films, we never know who he’s talking to when he narrates. (They warn you about this in writing classes. Shows what they know!) We first see Sheeran telling his story in an old-age home. He doesn’t have any of the enthusiasm of Hill, who always wanted to be a gangster, nor the confident pride of Rothstein, who’ll have you know he was once a hell of a handicapper; Sheeran, a little soft in the head, seems just to be talking, maybe getting something off his chest.

We start to move around in time. The younger Sheeran (not all that young, despite the tender ministrations of de-aging technology, which adds pathos to later references to him as a “kid”) isn’t an impressive specimen. He’s a truck driver, neither very bright nor very honest — he has enough smarts to make a side of beef disappear from his delivery truck and into a local mob underboss’ restaurant for a profit, but not enough to realize that the same trick won’t work with a whole truckload of beef. But the mob, via a crooked union lawyer, pulls his ass out of trouble — and puts him in with the lawyer’s cousin, mob boss Russell Bufalino, who sizes Sheeran up, very cannily sounding the depths of his amorality in a discussion of Sheeran’s wartime experiences.

Russell puts him to work and before you can say boo, Sheeran’s “doing favors” — including muscling and then killing people on Russell’s implicit orders. He doesn’t seem to have much feeling about the jobs — certainly less than his daughters, who silently observe his irregular comings and goings. But he shows an aptitude, picking up tricks of the trade — like what kind of guns to bring to a hit, and why it’s a good idea to visit the bathroom first. He also adopts from Russell the one absolutely vital attribute of a mobster: an allergy to ever saying anything that might tend to incriminate himself or anyone else. In fact, Sheeran gets that so well he often seems tongue-tied — as if, after all that practice saying nothing, he gets so he can’t say anything, even when it counts.

Sheeran impresses another powerful man in the mob network: Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters union president. Where Russell is oblique in his dealings with Sheeran, Hoffa is effusive; they lounge around Hoffa’s hotel suite, the great man in his pajamas talking smack about the goombahs he tolerates to keep his position, and showing Sheeran something much more like affection than what he gets from the tight-lipped Russell. Hoffa practically adopts Sheeran, even makes him president of a local, and everything is roses until Hoffa starts to run afoul of the mobsters and Sheeran has to decide where his interest lies.

This sounds like bad news of a familiar sort already, and it certainly is — there are threads of betrayal and loss familiar from other examples of the genre going back to Ben Hecht. But there’s something else going on here, too. The movie is three and a half hours long — don’t worry, it moves, but as with music, time is a filmmaker’s canvas, and Scorsese doesn't just fill up all those extra minutes with blood-squibs and bocce-ball-busting.

There are, for example, the typically absurd mobster dialogues, and they’re very funny — but in the extended time of the movie their humor wanes, leaving us with the absurdity, which becomes disturbing. It’s hilarious when Hoffa and Tony Provenzano get together, ostensibly to work out some problems, and come to blows — it’s funny the second time, too. But eventually you realize that what keeps leading to these fights is beyond the reach of reason, and that Hoffa can’t stop pushing it to the limit to save his life — literally. The sense of time passing in the characters’ lives, too, gets heavier; the intrinsic excitement of blood and guts palls. There is a late section in which Sheeran does a vitally important job that plays like a dream sequence: repeated vistas and actions, endless meaningless chat, a seemingly deserted suburb, the key incident half-hidden; like something out of David Lynch.

The last movement of the film is Sheeran in his old age, outliving, then having outlived, all the other principals. He picks out a casket for himself, as well as a nice shelf in a crypt (“you’re still dead,” he reasons, but if you’re not buried in the ground “it’s not so final”). He tries to talk to his daughters, who either can’t tell him what he wants to hear or won’t even let him try. He talks to a priest and can’t really admit to feeling remorse. Is it because he doesn’t feel it? Or is he pleading the Fifth?

I’m a big Scorsese fan who has had problems with his gangland pictures. Though I understood the picaresque logic of it, GoodFellas left me feeling uneasy, like it all looked a little too enjoyable; Casino left me cold and repelled. But The Irishman left me profoundly depressed. It was like what The Sopranos came to at the end of all those seasons: A feeling of waste and disgust; and, because this is artistry, an invitation to hold it up to the America we live in now and maybe our own lives, as we were invited to do when Agent Denham rode the subway back home near the end of The Wolf of Wall Street.

All the acting, expectedly, is world-class. DeNiro’s Sheehan reminded me of Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and if you’ve seen it you’ll know what a compliment I mean: baffled, self-betrayed, finally pitiful. Joe Pesci is so convincing, to us and to Sheehan and the others, that it’s only in retrospect you realize he’s demonic. It doesn’t matter whether he loves Sheeran or not. Pacino chews Hoffa up good; I’d watch him do a one-man show. I commend them to you, but be prepared.