Sunday, December 8, 2019

Movie Review: Martin Scorsese's The Irishman is Brilliant, Reflective and full of Good Old-Fashioned Mob Fun

by Ashton Samson

Once upon a time there was an old man, on the verge of death, lacking in remorse for his past deeds, but sorrowful for his failures and the loss of his family. What started out as running miniscule criminal errands in an attempt to gain money for his family soon transformed into a lifestyle of crime, leading to rivalries and the destruction of many men, including the character himself. Now in a nursing home, the errors of his ways are clear to him, but it's all too late. He might as well confess anyway and that's mostly what the “Irishman,” Frank Sheeran does while telling the audience his life story. Brilliant director, Martin Scorsese looks back on a behemoth career, finally writing an unofficial ending of sorts for similarly related characters he's written about since his debut, Mean Streets (1973). Welcome to The Irishman, one of 2019’s best films that is equal parts reflective, solemn and good old-fashioned mob fun.

When Scorsese commenced his career, he probably wasn’t thinking that he would still be telling stories about mobsters forty-six years later. Sure enough, that's exactly what he ended up doing. Now remember, the characters in this film are not the same exact characters as those in Scorsese's previous films (these characters are real people), but they are certainly related. So you might be asking yourself, how is The Irishman any different from Goodfellas, Casino, Mean Streets or The Departed?

The biggest distinguishing factors are really related to the depiction of the passage of time throughout the lives of the characters in the movie and the aging of those characters, as well as Scorsese himself. And of course, one cannot ignore the cast themselves because in gathering his notorious crew together the party that has been going on for decades settles into its own final chapter.

Often, as time passes and one grows older, they look back on their past experiences with feelings of nostalgia. Since Scorsese has been crafting characters who are “wiseguys” for so long, it would only make sense that now, as he looks back on the beginning of his career, he would also look back on his myriad of fictional characters and give them a proper send-off, through the very well developed non-fictional characters here.

(This review contains spoilers.)

How exactly did Scorsese make a special coda to these characters? Well for one, he brought back some of the most legendary actors and friends of his time such as Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and (working with him for the first time), in a fully committed performance as Jimmy Hoffa, Al Pacino. It is as if Scorsese made it his goal to get these guys back as a sort of gift to the audience, to make the film and summing up of his mobster greats even more special. Seeing them all together in one room again fills me with giddiness. Just watching them stare at each other blankly for three and a half hours would have been enough for me, but they all genuinely give some of the best performances of their careers, even surpassing some of their earlier work with this film.

Just as Scorese’s years of experience have given us characters with a deeper insight into their actions, the actors themselves portray the moral decay of the mobster character with the benefits that their own aging process has given them.

The benefit of aging for Joe Pesci as an actor was an opportunity not to bloody his hands in his portrayal of mob boss. Russell Buffallino, who sits patiently and meticulously directing the criminal activities of others, primarily Sheeran. In past films such as Goodfellas and Casino, Pesci is vehement in his F-bombs and merciless killing, something which he is well-known for within the mob universe. The Irishman gives Pesci the chance to be more quiet and reflective, he has risen to the “Don”, but that doesn't mean his performance is any less fantastic. Pesci portrays Russell Buffallino during the early years, as the supreme power, calmly directing activities of organized crime and ordering hit after hit on those who disrespect him as easily as ordering his sausage bread. At the end of his reign, while looking the part of a sweet old Italian grandpa, instead of getting shot in the head or beaten to death, as he does in other roles, Pesci becomes a near-senile old Buffallino who is arrested and forced to reflect on the choices he has made in prison. Pesci is perfect in these scenes as he slumps forward in his wheelchair, conveying the hopelessness of his final years.

In his role as Jimmy Hoffa, Pacino shines for me. All we've seen him do in recent years is scream at the top of his lungs, rarely having the benefit of watching him in more serious, deeper roles. In  The Irishman, he gets to do both with perfect balance. I love how Pacino depicts Hoffa as a friendly, perfectly respectable guy to most of the public on the one hand and meanwhile, behind the scenes, he really is nothing but a greedy, power grubbing villain, who connives and plots to stay on top. He’s the final catalyst for Sheeran’s moral collapse. Hoffa brings Sheeran closer and closer to the Teamsters and soon enough, his personal life, until he’s gone too far in.

Photo Courtesy Facebook/The Irishman
This allows for some great acting by De Niro, because just like Pesci and Pacino, his role in The Irishman serves a greater purpose. De Niro does a fabulous job throughout the entirety of the film as he plays an expressionless, ruthless young man, rising to power as a part of the Teamsters Union. In the second half of the movie, an aging Sheeran has lost most of his mob pals because they have died or are in prison. He also has completely lost any love or respect that his family members might have had for him. In fact, they did not want anything to do with him.

Although he seems to be conscious that the body count he has accumulated as a hitman for the mob is problematic from a moral standpoint and appears to be seeking forgiveness, Sheeran still has no remorse for what he’s done. De Niro gets to revisit his signature facial expressions as Sheeran because the role pretty much requires the same facial expressions as he has used in the past. He stares blankly, out into the distance, unreadable, perhaps even empty, as we settle into the final, elegiac act.

The last forty minutes are particularly mesmerizing and fast-paced, because it is during these moments that the three stars and Scorsese get to show how the passage of time and aging emotionally affect the story that they are telling. This is what helps to make The Irishman so great, so how do these elements ultimately make the film more successful? Unlike the majority of Goodfellas or Casino, the mob world isn’t glamorized at all; the color pallette is dark and grey the whole film. When we finally get to the wonderfully dark ending, where Sheeran has finished his story and tries to reach out to his family, we know it’s too late for him.

Ashton Samson is the newest film critic for 
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In other mob films, there was at least a glimmer of hope after the segment where all of the gangsters’ lives collapsed. Maybe they would get themselves help or try to confess to what they’ve done. From the very beginning, Scorsese's mob world spelled danger and corruption for the main characters, and by the final act, Scorsese ensures the audience that Sheeran is truly condemned, there is no way out. In fully displaying the disappointing and hopeless aftermath of these mobsters lives, we can also reflect upon how each of the actors has matured in their portrayal of the mobster character over their careers. The audience can clearly see how much more sensible these actors are as they convey the message that nothing good will come out of the “life,” which is something I can’t say they’ve done before in such a detailed, lingering manner.

As if leaving Scorsese’s viewers with that momentous finale wasn’t enough, in a meditative final shot, the masterful Robert De Niro, playing Sheeran, slumps in his chair, asking the nurse to keep the door slightly ajar. This is both to see if anyone was going to come in and “whack” him, but also, perhaps to remind him of Hoffa, who himself preferred to keep his bedroom door slightly open. This reminded me of two things, both to confirm that Sheeran hadn’t changed at all and was still thinking like a good ole mobster, but also it could be a message from Scorsese to us. He’s leaving the door open, as if to say, maybe, one day, he and the guys will all come around for the party again.

Until then, goodbye my friends.