Comfortable and Furious

The Irishman: (2019) Netflix

3 hours 29 minutes, Rated R for point-blank executions,

Fair Value of The Irishman: $10.00. It’s a middling film for Scorcese, but even his lesser works tend to be better than most other things out right now.

Is this film worth my time? Well, it certainly takes a lot of time, that’s for sure. I’d say it’s a good movie for killing time-whether you’re doing Netflix & chill, or just want to veg out with some old-time mobsters.

Who is this film perfect for? Baby boomers who didn’t spend enough time with their abusive fathers, and who now feel vaguely nostalgic for them.

Who will not like this film? Anybody who doesn’t want to spend three hours with old men griping and sniping at each other.

What is the summary of this film’s concept? The rise and fade of a Mafia hit man, as intertwined with the glory and the decline of American labor unions.

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How does this film compare to others like it? It’s a more solemn and less glamorous swan song to Goodfellas and Casino. Here, the focus is not on the young hoods or the ambitious capos, but upon aging men, union leaders and mob bosses.

The film is the dubious biopic of Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), who was the head of the Philadelphia teamsters union, and a hitman for the Buffalino crime family. Digitally de-aged (but still bulky), he starts working as a leg-breaker for Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci).

The linchpin of this story is Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), here portrayed as a stubborn working class Irish-American man who refuses to cede power. He becomes a second mentor figure for Sheeran, promoting Sheeran through the Teamsters.

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What works in this film? A deep and abiding devotion to capturing the look and the sound and the style of the era. You can practically feel the leatherette and smell the second-hand smoke. It really conveys the tackiness of the rust belt during the early 1970s.  

The Irishman is comparable to Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in that both films have long stretches of the characters just socializing with each other. The march of history goes on, with characters reacting to the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy Assassination, and the Nixon impeachment. As the film creeps on, so does Sheeran’s friendship with Hoffa. But at the same time, Sheeran is ultimately a button pusher, someone who kills who he’s told to kill. Sheeran’s brutality is neither bloodthirst nor sadism, but a weary conformity to a chain of command. The film makes the point that Sheeran’s wartime experience set him up to become a hitman- he just changed one commanding officer for another.

It is an autumnal film, kicking off in a retirement home, and ending with an old man, alone, staring into the darkness. Every character is introduced with an obituary, letting us know that their deaths are a foregone conclusion. The tough guys and wise guys are past their prime, and serially unable to apologize, every animosity slowly building up into a cascade of betrayal and blood. Only Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons) and Bugs Briguglio (Louis Cancelmi) are even arguably young.

The climax of this film then becomes the long build up to an assassination. Nearly a half an hour of footage goes into the agonizing windup, spending an entire day with the characters as things proceed to an inevitable murder. This moment is the reverse catharsis of this film- the moment that shows that Sheeran doesn’t even have the courage or the clarity to pull out of what he’s doing. It’s a long, unblinking stare into a complete moral bankruptcy.

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What fails in this film? There are stretches of the dialogue which meander from conversation into mere confusion, where it just becomes two men arguing about fishing.

Also, it’s a film about toxic men, and so there’s very little outside of the worn-out machismo and posturing. Actresses like Anna Paquin barely get more than a handful of lines, standing remotely as ignored and dismissed moral conscience of the film. The anti-charismatic approaches that De Niro and Pacino take can make it bracing. At moments, you really do get a sense of the power and charisma that these bosses held. At others, you’re stuck

A lot of the flourishes of the film come off as retreads of Scorcese’s work- a lot of Steadicam shots, montages of car bombings and executions. It’s good, but it’s not anything we haven’t seen before.

Conclusion: It’s a swan song for a genre. The Cosa Nostra is teetering on the edge of irrelevance in the modern world, and The Irishman, like 2013’s The Iceman, does a lot to undo the spell of glamour that Scorcese once cast with Goodfellas. Here is the ultimate fate of the mobster- not to be rich and powerful, or even imprisoned and feared, but to be forgotten, and alone.



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