2010s, Auteurs, Biopic, Crime/Detective, Historical, Thriller

The Irishman (2019)

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aka I Heard You Paint Houses

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian

By Roderick Heath

And then, more time had passed than anyone realised, and suddenly things we thought perpetual are lost, and the age and its titans that stood in authority became another dusty annal.

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, now aged 77, stands self-evidently as a work both extending and encompassing a key portion of Scorsese’s legacy, his beloved and perpetually influential mafia movies. The Irishman reunites the director with three actors long connected with his cinema, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, as well as bringing in a fresh young whippersnapper named Al Pacino. The sharp pang of recognised mortality inherent in The Irishman is given a special cruelty by the way Scorsese’s cinema has long seemed, even in its most contemplative and rarefied moods, like American virility incarnate. The clamour of New York streets, the whiplash effects of urban life’s furore and the human organism in contending with it, the buzz of an era bombarded with cinema and television and advertising, written into the textures of Scorsese’s famous alternations of filmic technique, whip-pans and racing dolly shots colliding with freeze-frames and languorous slow-motion: Scorsese’s aesthetic encephalograph. The Irishman has been described by many as a terminus for the gangster movie. That’s fair in some ways, dealing as it does with a basic and essential matter very often ignored in the genre, what happens when gangsters are lucky enough to get old and die, as well as simply recording a moment when a genre’s stars and a most esteemed creator are facing the end of the road, however distant still.

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But of course, movies set amongst hoodlums and lowlifes are still pretty common, for Scorsese’s bastard artistic children are plentiful and likely to populate the cinematic landscape for a good while yet. What new tricks could the old dog still have to teach? The Irishman answers that question incidentally as it adapts a book by Charles Brandt, recounting the life story of Frank Sheeran. As biography it includes inarguable factual details, like the time Sheeran spent as a World War II soldier, truck driver, and Teamster official jailed for 13 years for racketeering, blended with assertions and conjecture about Sheeran’s involvement with organised crime, most vitally the claim he personally killed Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary former head of the Teamsters union, who vanished in 1975. The tales in Brandt’s book have been disputed, but the appeal to a filmmaker like Scorsese, over and above the inherent drama in such a story, lies in the way Sheeran claims to have grazed against the mechanics of power underlying American history in the mid-twentieth century, and indeed have been part of the mechanism, the finger that pulled triggers but never the levers. The Irishman becomes, amongst many achievements, a unified field theory in regards to the concerns of Hollywood’s New Wave filmmakers, wrestling with the waning memory of a certain age in political and social life, as well as that cinematic era.

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And yet The Irishman is also a project that sees Scorsese negotiating with very contemporary aspects of the moviemaking scene, produced by online streaming giant Netflix and exploiting all the possibilities opened up by such a backer in making a film without compromise, and employing a cutting edge special effects technique, using digital processes to make his lead actors appear younger in sequences depicting their characters in their prime. It’s Scorsese’s longest film to date, a veritable epic in theme and scope even whilst essentially remaining an interpersonal story, arriving as a roughly hemispheric work. The first half, recounting Sheeran’s early encounters with the potentates of the underworld and evolution from scam-running truck driver to hitman and union boss, broadly reproduces the detail-obsessed and gregariously explanatory style of Scorsese’s previous based-on-fact mafia life tales, Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), if rendered in a much cooler, less compulsive manner. The second half mimics the processes of ageing, slowing down until finally reaching a point of impotent and stranded pathos, ticking off fate-making moments of choice and consequence, contending with the ultimate consequences and meanings of a man’s life actions.

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If The Irishman’s tone and sense of mortal and moral irony suggests Scorsese’s tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), the famous epigraph of which Scorsese reiterates in direct and pungent terms, the method is more reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II (1944-58), as an expansive and surveying first portion sets up a second that proves a dark and immediate personal drama about power and betrayal. The Irishman’s narrative revolves around what seems initially a scarcely notable vignette, with Sheeran and his friend, associate, and boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a cool, wary potentate of the Philadelphia mob with great resources of invisible yet definite power, and their wives Irene Sheeran (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie Bufalino (Kathrine Narducci) striking out on a road trip on the way to attend the wedding of the daughter of Russell’s lawyer brother Bill (Ray Romano) in 1975. Sheeran’s voiceover narration readily concedes there’s a definite pretext to this trip, as Russell wants to collect various debts along the way. But the peculiarly pregnant, tense mood of the journey betrays something else in the offing, a hidden source of tension and expectation, and of course when it comes into focus the implications are terrible. The road trip accidentally doubles as a trip down memory lane, as they pass the scene where Sheeran and Russell first actually met, when Russell helped the young truck driver when he was pulled over with mechanical trouble, sparking an account of their adventures in racketeering.

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The Irishman returns to a motif Scorsese touched on in Shutter Island (2010) in contemplating the mental landscape of the so-called greatest generation of servicemen returned from World War II, men playing at fitting into a suburban world whilst invested with the skills and reflexes of soldiers, all too aware, with niggling import, how thin the membrane between settled life and chaos can be. Sheeran recounts the pathetic details of shooting German POWs with nonchalance, an experience he describes as teaching him to simply accept life and death with an almost Buddhist indifference, only to make sure to be on the right end of the gun. This experience, at once brutalising and transfiguring, proves to have armed Sheeran with not just a skill set but a mindset as well, one that makes him useful to men like the Bufalinos and their associates, including Angelo Bruno (Keitel), and ‘Fat’ Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi). Sheeran gains his first contacts in the underworld via the lower-ranking Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), by letting him substitute the high-quality meat Sheeran transports for his restaurant. When a load of meat he’s carrying vanishes before he can steal it himself, Sheeran is prosecuted for the theft. Bill Bufalino successfully defends his case, although he gets sacked from his driving job. After proving himself adept at debt collecting for DiTullio, he gains a more definite connection to Russell and Angelo, who sit in mandarin judgement upon representatives of a tragically unwise world.

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As in Goodfellas and Casino, Sheeran’s narrative expostulates the arts of gangsterdom in a succession of illustrative vignettes, as Sheeran begins to make himself reliable with his army-instilled smarts for sabotage and demolition, making him handy at wiping out rivals’ sources of income and power. Such gifts are illustrated in sequences touched with a sense of the ridiculous, as when Sheeran and some other mobsters try to wipe out an opponent’s taxi fleet by laboriously pushing all the cars into the harbour before Sheeran suggests less arduous means. When he’s hired by a laundry boss Whispers DiTullio (Paul Herman) to destroy a rival laundry only to be brought before Angelo who partly owns the rival, Sheeran is obligated to make amends and shoots Whispers in the face, kicking off his new career as a hitman, or, in coded parlance, a man who “paints houses” with blood. Some of the blackly comic hue Scorsese’s long been able to tease out of such grim situations manifests here as Sheeran notes the building arsenal of used weapons collecting on a river bottom under a bridge popular with folk in his line of work to toss away their used guns. Scorsese avoids the adrenalized fervour of his earlier films, however. For one thing, Frank Sheeran is a different creature to guys like Henry Hill or even Jordan Belfort, who delighted in their status as men apart, challenging law and fate with bravura even as they proved much less tough and canny than they wished to think. Sheeran rather fancies himself as a suburban husband and father with an unusual occupation: the circumstances that eventually make him a hitman stem from the need to feed his growing family.

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Part of what made Scorsese’s canonical gangster films vibrant was the way they offered innately interesting prisms through which to encompass other, more quotidian things difficult to make popular movies about. Friendships, troubled marriages, domestic violence, gender roles, the structure of civic life and the circuits of power that often hide in plain sight. One reason Scorsese has long seemed to have a specific affinity for the genre, to a degree that tends to drown out perception of his varied oeuvre, is because the gangster in his eyes simply represents ordinary people in extremis, bound by peculiar loyalties of family and immediate community, balancing attempts to retain certain ideals whilst contending with a cruel and corrupting world. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography, with a muted, greyish colour palette, gives the most immediate visual clue to the way The Irishman disassembles the template of Scorsese’s earlier gangster works, contrasting their lush, pulpy hues and baroque evocations in favour of something chillier, more remorseless, like the cancer that eats up the flesh and bones of these old bastards in the end.

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Another vital pivot in Sheeran’s life comes when Russell sets up the opportunity to become Hoffa’s enforcer, some hard muscle to back up Hoffa’s battles with rivals and powerbrokers. Sheeran’s first conversation with Hoffa over the phone sees De Niro register with beautiful subtlety the minuscule moment of shock as Sheeran realises Hoffa speaks the rarefied language of mob euphemism, conversant in the harshest facts of such life. But Hoffa manages to retain an avuncular glamour, a sense of righteousness even when swimming with human piranha, through seeming like a general engaged in a long guerrilla war, and he also crucially reaches out to Sheeran as “a brother of mine,” that is, a Teamster. Hoffa isn’t wrong to surround himself with hard men, with lieutenants nominally under his control like Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Sheeran recounts how Pro had a rival underling garrotted in a car, cueing one of the film’s most startling visual flourishes, as the murder is glimpsed as the car moves by a moving camera, yawing mouth in silent scream and struggling bodies glimpsed in a flash and then gone. Pro is just one of many creeps and thugs who parasite off the Teamster organisation, a union built to resist the violent resistance to organised labour from management, but which has required and rewarded mob support to do so. Tension builds between Hoffa and his underworld contacts however as he tries to prevent the Teamster union fund, which bankrolled their casino projects, from devolving entirely into a ready cash pool for wiseguys. When a government investigation of Hoffa sees him imprisoned, the mob becomes more inclined to see the union go on being run by more pliable figures, like Tony Pro and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba).

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Like an updated version of the same analysis in Gangs of New York (2002), Scorsese considers the tribalism of politics and gangland as they form mutually parasitical relationship through their symmetry of outlook and method, disconnected from the real musculature of the workers whose ambitions and desires fuel their empires. Hoffa’s story has already been told comprehensively on film, in Danny DeVito’s overblown but fascinating Hoffa (1992), which rendered his life as an outsized romantic epic and elegy, in complete contrast to Scorsese’s dolorous and nitpicking realism. Hoffa was upfront in exploring the way Hoffa turned to the mafia for support to counter the overt and unsubtle brutality wielded by big business, where here this aspect is more implied and seen as part of an inseparable organism: wherever human energy is turned, and money’s involved, reefs of strange coral grow, and sharks come to live. The great swathe of The Irishman’s plot encompasses titanic figures like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (Jack Huston), whose vendetta-like pursuit of Hoffa drives the union boss to distraction, and finally overt acts of petty defiance like refusing to have the Teamster flag lowered after John’s assassination, whilst it’s heavily suggested the mob arranged the assassination in revenge for the Kennedys turning on them after they helped John’s election.

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Such history also grazes minor yet noteworthy supporting players like David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), interlocutor for the Mafia support for Cuban exiles trying to retake their nation from Castro, and E. Howard Hunt (Daniel Jenkins), CIA agent and eventual Nixon henchman infamous for his role in Watergate, both of whom Sheeran meets delivering equipment to the Cubans. Sheeran’s encounters with such people illuminate in flashes the great puzzle of power Sheeran perceives without really comprehending. They also contain Scorsese’s winking acknowledgement of the way the film encompasses cinematic as well as political history, for Pesci played Ferrie in Stone’s JFK (1991), whilst the personages and events the film touches on have provided bone marrow for a host of serious modern American movies. Such encounters are nonetheless laced with a droll sense of individual ridiculousness and everyday farcicality contaminating all facades and postures. Hunt gets upset when he thinks Sheeran is staring at his infamously big ears. Hoffa’s unwitting ride to his end, a moment of solemn and skittish tension, is tainted by the smell and run-off of a fish his adopted son Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons) dropped off beforehand for a friend, taunting all the men present with the reek of ludicrous fortune and imminent mortality. Sheeran’s proximity to Hoffa and the generational struggle he represents is the most concrete and meaningful of his brushes with renown, and even sees him write a page of history.

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And yet Sheeran’s presence is actually defined by his absence, his being the incarnation of impersonal power, his carefully maintained readiness to be erased the key to his success as a killer and functionary. There’s an aspect of the self-mortifying and self-annihilating in Sheeran’s makeup, only purveyed for worldly rather than spiritual ends. Hoffa keeps him in his hotel room so his visit to the city for strongarming is completely without record, a trick that’s eventually turned on Hoffa as it’s revealed the true purpose for Sheeran and Russell’s road trip in 1975 is to set up a situation where Sheeran can be flown to Detroit to kill Hoffa. His talents as a killer demand taking some real risks, particularly when he’s sent to take out Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), a strutting, defiant figure of the underworld who happily ignores its laws as much as the straight world’s and who’s had a potentially difficult Teamster boss killed during a rally. Scorsese nods back to the gun purchasing scene in Taxi Driver (1976) as Sheeran selects the ideal weapons for the attack and considers how to pull it off with method. Sheeran elects to kill Gallo in a restaurant, avoiding gunning down his family members about him whilst taking out his bodyguard, before chasing Gallo out to the sidewalk to deliver the coup-de-grace as he’s sprawled on the concrete. This scene captures Sheeran’s abilities as a hitman at zenith, as well as illustrating his personal myth, seeing himself as a kind of good guy according to the world he lives in, eliminating fools and scumbags and sparing the innocent. It’s a mystique eventually stripped from him in the rudest possible manner.

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Although hardly a repudiation of his bravura stylistic flourishes, The Irishman sees Scorsese and his ever-ingenious editor Thelma Schoonmaker delivering a sinuous and measured work of high style. An early shot ushering the viewer/camera down the corridors of the nursing home Sheeran’s exiled to in his dimming days has the quality of a visitation by a reluctant but curious acquaintance; when this shot is repeated close to the end, it has a lacerating effect as now it’s clear that when the camera abandons Sheeran he is left in utter solitude, deserted by all he once claimed as friends and family. Scorsese repeatedly interpolates sequences shot in extreme slow motion, in one case in portraying percussive violence as Gallo’s goon shoots the Teamster official, bullets puncturing his flesh in spurts of red blood whilst hands desperately wrap about the assassin, but in each case with a sense of languorous absurdity even when describing tragedy, like the survey of seemingly mundane but despicable visages at the wedding after Hoffa’s killing: the wistfully twanging tones of a guitar cover of ‘Blue Moon’ and some doo-wop giving such scenes with a sardonic quality, at once melancholy and mocking. Throughout the film Scorsese puts up titles identifying various characters with their nicknames and the date and manner of their death, almost only violent. In the film’s slyest joke, one man is blessed with a title describing him as “well-liked by all, died of natural causes.”

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The cumulative effect of this device is to emphasise not just the incredible brutality of the mob world around Sheehan but also his ultimate luck, which might not be luck at all, in outliving all of them; suspense is removed from the equation, and instead we’re made to understand Sheeran as a man living in a city of memory crowded with ghosts. The mob community, one that eats its own, is a perverse family that has its deep rituals of belonging and expulsion. But the rubbing out – erasure – of its members is reproduced in terms of actual family as Sheeran secures his position but with consequences. Of his four daughters, Peggy, growing from a small girl (Lucy Gallina) to a middle-aged woman (Anna Paquin), matures as the mostly silent but incessantly aware ledger of culpability. She regards Russell with suspicion, knowing him for the monstrosity he is, and remains wary of her father ever since witnessing in childhood the spectacle of him beating up a grocery store owner who treated her brusquely, an act that left her feeling less like the well-guarded princess than an unwitting bringer of violence and horror. Peggy’s gravitation to Hoffa, even idolisation of him gives special sting to the way Hoffa embodies for Sheeran a more idealised version of himself, a man with feet planted in the mud and bloodied knuckles but with the stature of a working class gladiator turned statesman.

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The shift of The Irishman from case study review to something more intimate and tragic is managed over the course of a central sequence where Sheeran’s tenure as a Teamster Local boss is celebrated. Hoffa is present, out of jail and pursuing his utter determination to win back “his” union from Fitzgerald, Pro, and the mob heavyweights who want to maintain the new status quo. Hoffa glares daggers at Russell and Salerno whilst sawing up his steak, and carefully fends off Sheeran’s mediating warnings about giving up, insisting with simple assurance that for him abandoning such a cause, so deeply infused with his sense of being and mission, would be tantamount to dying in itself. Peggy watches the play of glances and conversation as she dances, long used to divining through such tells of language and posture. Sheeran is ennobled when Russell gives him a ring that signals his induction into the innermost circle of the mob along with Russell himself and Salerno, a gesture that indicates permanency and security in terms of that family, but which soon proves to actually be a nomination and bribe, as Sheeran is being commissioned without realising to be Hoffa’s assassin.

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The vein of pitch black comedy, blended with a forlorn sense of human vileness, is particularly icy here as Sheeran is essentially wedded to Russell via the exchange of rings, a gesture that contrasts in fascinating ways both men’s relationships with their nominal wives and families. Russell is married to a princess of mob royalty, a detail noted as it makes Russell seem for all his gathered strength like someone who just lucked out and married the boss’s daughter, whilst Sheeran almost casually seems to swap his first wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) for his second, a little like getting a car upgrade. Hoffa’s wife Josephine (Welker White), who gets fired from her Teamster bureaucratic job in the escalating tit-for-tat, winces and imagines a car bomb blowing her to smithereens as she starts her car before the engine roars calmly to life, just another moment in the life of a foot soldier in a game of spousal ego. Late in the film Sheeran ruminates with tragic sting on how another car, one he loved, became responsible for his imprisonment. The men in The Irishman, at least until it’s too late, tend to adopt a fiercer sense of loyalty to the measures of their social status than their human attachments, from Hoffa’s obsession with “his” union to Pro’s anger at losing his Teamster pension despite being already being rich through to that car of Sheeran’s, his personal cross with Corinthian leather seats.

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One of the wisest decisions Scorsese made in tackling The Irishman, possibly even the reason he made it, was also one of costliest and most troublesome, in offering a movie that serves as a grace note not only for Scorsese’s career but for his stars. Though he’ll surely make more movies, perhaps many more if he keeps at it like Clint Eastwood, The Irishman relies in a manner reminiscent of something like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) on emotional association with its stars and the sense of an era ending. Scorsese first worked with Keitel on his own debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967), and his associations with De Niro and Pesci, stars of several of his best regarded works, seem virtually umbilical. Scorsese spent a lot of time and effort on the de-ageing effects even as the stiff and angular movements of the actors, as well as the often plastic look of the effects, betray reality. It’s a more convincing approach than using make-up probably would have been for actors in their seventies, but the artificiality is still patent. In practice it’s clearly just a theatrical nicety, not trying to fool the audience but negotiate with our knowing in a way that Scorsese couldn’t have managed if he’d cast other actors to play his protagonists when young as is the usual practice. Scorsese needs the sense of continuity, wants us to perceive the corporeal reality of old men lurking within facsimiles of young, potent bucks, in a tale where what age does to self-perception is a key aspect of the drama as well as artistic nostalgia. The quality of the mask-like in the effects underscores Peggy’s keen capacity to penetrate such veneers, and time just as assiduously uncovers the face men carve for themselves.

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Hoffa conceives time as a literal form of wealth, a notion that provides both a thematic thesis – everyone’s time is running out – and also essential characterisation, as Hoffa’s anger is stoked by nothing quite so much as being made to wait, in part because he knows that waiting is something you only do for someone who presumes to have control over you. Which is why Pro calculatedly infuriates him by turning up late to a meeting, adding fuel to their feud. Pacino, ironically finally appearing in a Scorsese film despite being very much another Italian-American product of 1960s New York’s cultural vitality and long associated with gangster films, is particularly well-cast not only for his capacity to project potent, larger-than-life charisma but also embody in Hoffa a being who, whilst capable of speaking over the gap, nonetheless inhabits a slightly different continent to the gangsters, a man corrupt, compromised, but proud, not cynical in his authority even when cynical in many of his actions. Pesci by contrast is intriguingly cast as the most contained and calm of the major characters here after playing eruptive firebrands for Scorsese in the past, his Bufalino charged with terseness edging into easily stirred disgust, as he deals people who can’t work to the very specific rule their world demands, like an aged priest with unruly seminarians. One of the most arresting vignettes in The Irishman is also one of its most casual, as Russell orders Sheeran to hand over his sunglasses before he boards a plane to go kill Hoffa. Russell knows very well that the sunglasses are part of a killer’s uniform and shield, where he knows Sheeran needs the appearance of complete simplicity to pull off the hit, and moreover the discipline imbued by not retaining such a shield. Treachery must be entirely honest.

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De Niro’s specific brilliance, in a different key again from his two great costars, manifests in playing a man who feels no particular emotional urgency until it’s far too late for him to do anything about it. This reckoning comes in two great, mirroring moments, first as he regards Russell in silent grief and reproach even as he also plainly acquiesces to his command to kill Hoffa, and then later as he struggles to maintain a feined veneer of bewildered concern through a conversation with his family over Hoffa’s vanishing, before calling Josephine Hoffa to offer reassurances. The film’s heightened commentary on paternalistic values, where old men’s capacity to make conversation is a very obvious marker of their power and various characters ultimately reveal their foolishness and impotence by talking out of turn or too long, crystallises here as Peggy, who has noticed everything whilst adhering to the rule of being seen but not heard, rips off her father’s façade with a few pointed words, “Why?” the question that registers like the point of an ice axe into a glacier. Sheeran makes his call, an action of duplicity and false hope he’s still quietly hating himself for making as he waits around to die decades later: “What kind of man makes a call like that?” he asks of an oblivious priest seeking his confession in the nursing home.

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The most fundamental thread of Scorsese’s cinema has been the hunt for spiritual and aesthetic clarity in desperate conflict not just with the necessities of existence within a society but also with physical and emotional hungers that lead in the opposite direction from sainthood, even whilst stemming from the same impulses. Scorsese knows about such things; he took on Raging Bull (1980) as a project after being hospitalised for a cocaine overdose, and that film’s alternations of dreamy meditation and raw savagery have infused his mature oeuvre ever since. The Irishman follows Scorsese’s masterful study of cultural and religious clash, Silence (2016). Where that film seemed a capstone on a loose trilogy studying belief after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), The Irishman rounds out Scorsese’s study of mafia lore in Goodfellas and Casino, chasing their concerns to one logical end. The unexpected quality of The Irishman is that it also unites the two bodies of work. Scorsese returns to the figuration of Judas and Jesus Scorsese wrestled with so controversially on The Last Temptation of Christ in Sheeran’s treachery towards Hoffa. This comes with an inherent sense of irony – no-one here is exactly Jesus – whilst extending Silence’s contention with devotion and betrayal, the costs of adhering to a faith, with inverted propositions, and like so many of Scorsese’s films it contends with a character who eventually faces the essential situation of being left alone to do battle, Jacob-like, with their contending angels and devils.

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The ideals of religious faith, humane and yet eternally defined by individual conscience, high-flown, transcendental, necessarily defined ultimately by a person’s solitary confrontation with their conception of eternity, have always warred in Scorsese’s vision with a different brand of faith, a social devotion defined by communal ties, hierarchy, expectation, and ruthless punishment for deviation. Religious faith, which in Scorsese often bleeds into other faiths, like labour organising in Boxcar Bertha (1971) as well as in The Irishman, contends with social faith in direct contrast: religious faith is punishment of self where social faith is punishment of others. Father Rodrigues in Silence suffered just as much and met his end just as solitary and battered as Sheeran, but his retained grip on faith into the grave signalled his most vital stem of being, no matter how tortured, retained a sense of worthiness in his life mission. By contrast Sheehan is left by the end of The Irishman entirely stripped of any illusion his choices have ultimately been worth the cost, and stripped at the same time of the things that make such costs worth bearing. The Irishman could be seen as a classical winter’s tale as Shakespeare might have recognised it, even as it refuses to become such a tale. Those are supposed to be about conciliation and natural cycles, stories where the bite of the frigid season matches the gnawing proximity of death and the necessity of making peace to facilitate rebirth. The Irishman is about the consequences of rudely assaulting nature, and instead becomes something far more like King Lear, a tragedy where a once ferocious king is left bereft and pitiful and exiled from home and kin because of the long, lingering memory of his own lessons.

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Hoffa’s actual death nimbly turns from deadpan realism, as Sheeran shoots him in the head in an awkward and rushed jumble of motion, to a precisely composed renaissance pieta, as Sheeran leaves the arranged corpse and gun lying in the foyer of an empty house. Scorsese lingers on the sight after Sheeran leaves, the weight not simply of violence and crime but of dreadful absence, the negation of Hoffa’s presence and will, forces that compelled the world. The hit excises a roadblock to easy business but also echoes as an act of violence that consumes the men who committed it. Sheeran is forever excommunicated by Peggy, refusing to speak to him again even as he shambles after her in withered age in a bank where she works, whilst the destabilisation of an equilibrium vibrates through the mob world, with authorities prosecuting and jailing everyone they can, including Sheeran and Russell. Their figurative marriage becomes more like a real one as they’re left only with each-other in a cold and cheerless old age, withering within prison walls, two men who quietly despise each-other for the compromises forced and the implied lack of forgiveness in return, chained together in a caricature of amity into the halls of prison and then the grave.

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The viewer must watch with both a touch of scorn and half-willing sympathy as Russell, dying, reveals he’s turned to religion as he’s pushed away in his wheelchair for treatment, as if he’s found a way to mollify the big boss. No major American director has dealt so sharply with imminent old age, the reduction of the human form and mind by the entirely natural predation of ageing, although in taking up such a theme in what’s nominally supposed to be a true crime thriller recalls Eastwood’s similar evocation in J. Edgar (2011). Sheeran’s corrosive experience of solitude and humiliation even after being released from prison sees him fending off two calls for purgation by confession, from the priest (Jonathan Morris) and federal agents, whilst he picks out coffins and resting places, still hunting a last echo of worldly status even into the grave. But the framing suggests Sheeran is confessing to someone, perhaps the audience, a surrogate for Brandt, a craned ear hungry for forbidden lore. All these legends lose their immediate meaning as their actors die off, even as the labour they’ve been part of, equated with both the society they comprised and the movie they appear in, persists, carrying lessons that cut many ways for those who follow. Sheeran recounting his story is one last attempt to leave a certain mark, to give experience any form of meaning. Scorsese grants him no absolution, but does offer a small consolation.

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1990s, Auteurs, Drama

Goodfellas (1990)

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By Roderick Heath

My clothes may still be torn and tattered/
But in my heart I’d be a king/
Your love is all that ever mattered/
It’s everything.
– “Rags to Riches” by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, performed by Tony Bennett

Knocked out in bed last night/
I´ve had my fill, my share of looting/
And now, the tears subside/
I find it all so amusing/
To think, I killed a cat/
And may I say, oh no, not their way/
But no, no, not me/
I did it my way.
– “My Way” by Claude François, Jacques Revau, Paul Anka, and Sid Vicious, performed by Sid Vicious

1990 was a vintage year for gangster films. Francis Coppola revisited old turf with the underrated, operatic The Godfather Part III; the Coen Brothers made a typically skewed visitation to the Hammett/Chandler subgenre with Miller’s Crossing; Stephen Frears tried Jim Thompson’s hardboiled milieu with The Grifters. But it was Martin Scorsese who laid down the template for a glut of gangland portraits with Goodfellas, creating surely the most stylistically influential film of the following decade. Goodfellas’ punchy aesthetic is reflected in films as diverse as Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997), Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), through to TV’s The Sopranos. Countless pseudo-indie confections made its tone-setting, narrative-driving voiceovers irritatingly popular.

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After the cacophony that met The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas must have felt like safe ground, and Scorsese was handsomely repaid with his most generally admired work. For most of its running time, Goodfellas is an experiment in sheer cinematic motion – a deeply expressive virtuosity, structured like a cocaine binge, all electric pulse and giddy thrills to begin with, concluding in sweaty paranoia and collapsed perspectives. It’s impossible to forget the impact of first watching the film and being instantly hauled along by its compulsive force, the giddy, dirty life story Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) narrates. We meet Henry during a moment of staggering brutality: his friends Jimmy Conway (Robert de Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) shooting and stabbing a groaning, bloodied man in the trunk of their car.

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Henry slams the trunk shut, and Scorsese freezes frame on his pale, sweat-flecked face, to the immortal voiceover announcement, “All my life all I ever wanted was to be a gangster.” In five minutes we know all there is to know about Henry and why he ended up confronting this, and why his expression looked like he was thinking, “Well, I knew there’d be days like this.” As it happens to Henry, so the film happens to us; the logic is there, but shit happens so quickly you hardly know it. Henry’s a half-Italian, half-Irish, blue-collar boy (played young by Christopher Serrone) whose working-class life of straitened circumstances and furious belt beatings looks like excellent training for the brutality, avarice, and lordly authority gangland life offers. Henry starts his underworld career as a gofer for local Mafia heavy Paulie (Paul Sorvino) and the vibrating network of hoods, stick-up artists, skimmers, and scammers he patronises.

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In the arc of Scorsese’s career, Goodfellas was important not just for being a return to the criminal milieu underpinning Mean Streets and Raging Bull – although, unlike those films, Goodfellas is about the men on the far side of the invisible line that Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Jake La Motta danced on – but also as a return to his neo-realist inspirations. Goodfellas achieves its great impact by fusing the slickest of modern movie technical, editing, and storytelling techniques, with a carefully expostulated charting of a specific milieu utilising a flavorful verisimilitude straight from the neo-realist playbook by using real ex-mobsters in the cast and the casting Scorsese’s parents in key roles. Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi adapted Pileggi’s nonfiction account of Hill’s life, Wiseguys, which was dedicated to analysing and describing just how the mob works in all its sleazy, entrancing details.

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The film warps our perspective, not just with Henry’s incessantly nasal, quick-fire patter reproducing a high-pressure salesman’s enthralling seduction of the senses whilst numbing critical faculties, with his constant phrasings (“it’s just good business,” “makes sense,” etc.) ad nauseum. Scorsese furthers the effect with tunnel-vision framing, edits, and dizzying camera movements – most famously, the single-take tracking shot in which Henry, trying to wow girlfriend Karen (Lorraine Bracco), treats her to the alternative entrance to the Copacabana, passing through kitchens and hallways, greeting chefs, waiters, necking couples, and celebrities with easy flair, to a table summoned from nowhere especially for this VIP. She (and we) is knocked flat by the effect. Much later, as Henry descends into coked-up, paranoid hysteria, Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (this is the film credit he’ll probably want carved on his tombstone) go all out – whip-pans, flash edits, zoom shots, dollies, tracking shots, distorted sound, jaggedly intercut musical cues – in a sequence as impressive to film makers, who have hailed it as an experimental film construction in itself, as it is to ex-junkies for whom the sequence is queasily accurate.

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Goodfellas shows how crime families are just that – families consisting of people who spend all their time together, living, dying, raising families in each other’s laps. Henry’s vicious upbringing makes him drawn to the earned respect and familial trust of the mob. He and Tommy are virtual favourite nephews to Jimmy’s corrupting uncle when he’s the local dapper gent, god to all the two-bit punks. When Henry is busted for the first time, he is greeted by a celebration (“You lost your cherry!”) as affirmation he has now passed the final rite of passage for a wiseguy. As Henry sells it, the Mafia life is the ultimate refusal to kowtow to moneyed authority and the deadening demands made on working-class men – befitting the Mafia’s roots in Sicilian quarrymen’s attempts at union-building (the Italian phrase “syndicate” that has come to refer to the Mafia, also means “union”) – who earn with sweat and (literal) blood a life of luxury and authority that ordinarily would be denied them.

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That Tommy is an explosive psychopath is only of concern to Henry and Jimmy when he turns it on them – otherwise he’s the kind of scary force you’re glad to have in your corner. Tommy casually shoots a lippy waiter (Michael Imperioli) and is willing to risk assassination by their Mafia overlords to get revenge on obnoxious Bill Batts (Pesci’s old stand-up buddy Frank Vincent, getting his second beating off Pesci in a Scorsese film), a made man who teases Tommy about his childhood job shining shoes. Pesci’s signature moment – which, according to legend, Scorsese let him write and direct himself, and which did most of the work in capturing him his 1990 Best Supporting Actor Oscar – is when, in joking over drinks, he suddenly seems to take offence to Henry calling him “a funny guy.” Although he eventually realises it’s a put-on, Henry is momentarily a deer caught in Tommy’s headlights. It’s entirely possible, and he knows it, Tommy might shoot him for the perceived insult.

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But most of the time, Tommy’s their trouble-prone, motor-mouthed kid brother whose mother (Catherine Scorsese in her most indelible performance for her son) pesters him to get married, and who cheerfully takes the boys to her place and has them sit down for dinner with her whilst Batts is locked in the trunk. atts’ death echoes right through the film, both as the first true reality check and a narrative refrain at various points: when the dons look for their missing paisano, when the trio have to dig up the rotting corpse from its forest grave, right through to when Tommy gets a bullet in the brain when he’s expecting to be made a member of the Mafia fellowship he has insulted by killing Batts. It’s a thoroughly deserved death, but Jimmy and Henry weep for their comrade.

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The film’s second narrative voice is Karen’s. Bracco arguably gives the film’s best performance, sublimely communicating in body language her arc from fiery young suburbanite to a middle-aged woman addled by cocaine and cynicism. Karen is no innocent victim or clueless neighbourhood wife. She readily admits, when Henry sticks a gun in her hand, that it turns her on. Initially volatile, having been thrown together on a double date neither wanted, Henry eventually cements their relationship by beating a neighbour who molested her. It’s instantly apparent to Karen that Henry achieves the things – hard revenge, wads of cash, universal respect – most guys promise, and she swiftly lets herself be seduced by it.

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Her own ironic perspective on events – she’s middle class, Jewish, independent-minded – sees her aghast at the classless, foul-mouthed, violent mob wives like Rosie (Illeana Douglas) she’s supposed to hang with, the industrial-grade brutality, tackiness, and socially incestuous people she’s now surrounded by. But she’s fine with that as long as Henry’s handing her inch-thick bundles of bills (and not that Karen and Henry’s tastes are especially superior – when they give a tour of their newly furnished house, it’s an empire of kitsch). She loses her cool steadily in dealing with Henry’s institutionalised infidelity with Janice (Gina Mastrogiacomo), a lengthy imprisonment (she puts up with years of raising kids and struggling on her own without help – the moment he gets out, taking in their crummy house, he declares “We’re moving.”), until one morning he awakens with her jamming a revolver in his face, interrogating him about his girlfriend. It’s catching, this violence thing. The pair reconciles on the orders of Paulie – the Mafia’s family values are more about the potential security breaches of busted marriages than actual emotional concern.

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Henry, Tommy, and Jimmy make most of their money through robberies, especially hijackings and skims done from the freight terminals at Idlewild/JFK Airport which is on their turf; Henry also, whilst in prison, branches out into drug dealing, which Paulie has strictly forbidden him to do. The cosiness of their lives finally shatters when they pull off one of the biggest heists in history, ripping off Lufthansa of several million dollars. It renders them the most triumphant group of criminals in the country and the most paranoid. Soon Jimmy’s got Tommy and other thugs assassinating all the noncertifiably trustworthy partners in the heist, like Stacks Edwards (Samuel L. Jackson) and wig salesman Morrie Kessler (Chuck Low), whom Henry tries, ultimately unsuccessfully, to save from Tommy’s ice pick. Morrie’s the kind of guy who’s just born to be murdered, a clinging, cajoling, money-hungry schmuck; we, and Henry, cringe in defensive longing. The film’s almost unique in showing how truly dumb and loosely organised most of these people are – Henry’s drug posse includes his wheelchair-bound brother, his sexpot girlfriend (who leaves cocaine-glutted cookware around her flat), and his superstitious stoner babysitter. Only violence and codes of ethics keep this world in motion, and finally Henry realises even these don’t necessarily count for much.

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Morrie’s TV spot is a superb recreation of cheap advertising style, cementing another of the film’s strong aspects. Scorsese, always sharp with cultural reference and satire, also provided a blueprint for the increased pop cultural awareness of ’90s filmmaking, with his vividly utilised retro soundtrack and constant refrains to ephemera, like Henny Youngman entertaining at the Copa and polka king Bobby Vinton (played by his son Robbie), continually providing cultural context for the events portrayed. Early in the film, Tony Bennett’s gorgeous “Rags to Riches” blares, a height of Italian-American jazz-pop both declaring a cultural ascendency and providing an ironic counterpoint of emotional riches with the gangsters’ greed.

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After the ugly fallout from the heist, Tommy is brutally whacked; confronted with an empty room that should be filled with Cosa Nostra elders, he ejects “Oh no!” before having his brains sprayed over the tiled floor. Jimmy begins to make overtures to Henry that sound alarmingly like invitations to get whacked after he’s busted by DEA officers after his day-long crack-up. Karen calls him paranoid until she herself feels mysteriously threatened when Jimmy seems to be trying to set her up for a gang assault on the pretext of selecting some second-hand furniture. This convinces them both to flee for the cover of the witness protection program. Henry shops Paulie and Jimmy out for stiff stretches, whilst he lives out the rest of his life in squaresville suburbia, haunted by the image of a vengeful Tommy shooting at him, to the strains of Sid Vicious’ punk brutalisation of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – a logical end for a steady decline from glam to sham.

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Made hugely famous by the film, Hill, now long divorced from Karen, got himself kicked out of the WPP for eagerly announcing his identity to anyone who’d seen the movie, went back to prison for a stretch, and now stars in every other cable TV documentary on the mob. (It’s an interesting job to compare the film with the TV-made film The Million Dollar Getaway (1991), about the Lufthansa heist, featuring John Mahoney as Jimmy the Gent. In the latter film, Jimmy is portrayed as a folk hero contending with the determination of his Mafia partners to kill all the good blue-collar boys who actually committed the crime and keep the dough for themselves.)

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The final shot of Tommy blasting at the camera is a direct quote of The Great Train Robbery (1902), the first American narrative film, and western, and crime flick. As well as summarizing Henry’s final mood, it makes a statement about the history of filmmaking and American society, the long drift from Wild West banditry to suburban conformity, which Henry lives out in a particularly surreal, compressed version. Scorsese also puts in a shot of Karen watching The Jazz Singer (1927), the first sound film, which is both appropriate to her character – a Jewish kid alienated from her parents like Jolson’s titular hero – and another turning point in cinematic history, continuing Scorsese’s self-conscious motif. In the course of the film, he uses just about every narrative and cinematic trick extant, and these references seem to complement his awareness that in the 146 minutes of Goodfellas, he had found the perfect material to realise his own ideal of cinema’s potential.

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