“I heard you paint houses.”
In an homage to old gangster films –like Scorsese’s own Goodfellas— The Irishman plays out like a solemn farewell to the mobster movies of yesteryear. And yet, it is also a forward-looking picture, offering an optimistic embrace of new possibilities, like its acknowledgement of the decline of old theatre-based cinema in favor of new online streaming options, a change we might be tempted to call the biggest revolutionary shift in the industry since the rise of talkies –in fact, The Irishman was primarily released on Netflix. With some wonderful acting, editing, a great score, and terrific directing, in my view one piece of criticism is that The Irishman is just a tediously long movie, clocking in at nearly four hours. Perhaps this is connected to its themes in a certain sense. The Irishman is a late career reflection upon the passing of time by one of America’s more popular living directors. It comes at a unique moment in the United States as we face general widespread dissatisfaction with elites, corporations, celebrities, academia and so on –and our protagonist displays echoes of this ethos. Rather than a desire for a simple union job with security, he shows a deep yearning to “become somebody,” to feel important and connected to something bigger, and thus he falls in with the mafia. I have to admit that all the de-aging special effects used on Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci represent a kind of metaphor for the themes in this film. Martin Scorsese spends considerable time looking back on an imagined time wherein corrupt gangsters and union thugs were idealized as working class heroes all across the present-day rust belt. It was their time to shine but now that whole era has passed, along with everyone in it, and the only way to go back is through the magic of movies. The Irishman is a nostalgia-heavy film as Scorsese uses the true story of notorious teamster Jimmy Hoffa as the inspiration for a forgotten era and he wonders –will any of it be remembered?
In a string of flashbacks we meet a digitally de-aged Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a World War II veteran who works as a truck driver. He quickly becomes a hitman for the mafia by “painting houses.” Of course, this is based on the true story of Frank Sheeran “The Irishman” and his involvement with the Bufalino crime family. In the film Russell Bufalino is played by Joe Pesci, and the family attorney Bill Bufalino is played by Ray Romano. They rescue Frank while the controversial leader of the teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa, is played by Al Pacino. Gradually, Frank becomes Jimmy Hoffa’s body guard where he is torn between the union and the family (as well as his own family) –in the end Frank chooses the Bufalinos. Frank is exploited by the mob and brutally paints one last house by killing Jimmy Hoffa (in reality, Jimmy Hoffa’s death remains a mystery but he is believed to have been murdered by the mafia). As in other Scorsese films, Catholic imagery and death are prevalent throughout the story, though in The Irishman, death comes for all in surprisingly unceremonious, instantaneous, unremorseful moments. Frank is a cold-blooded killer who justifies his mob activities as merely “protecting his family” and also “making something of himself.” However in doing so, he gains a prison cell and loses his own daughter. He is left alone at the end of his life in a retirement home where he permanently leaves his door ajar, fearful of being alone with himself, hoping the old world might one day return even just for a day, or perhaps that his daughter or God might finally enter the room and forgive him for his many transgressions. Alas all that comes is a great deafening silence for Frank.
With The Irishman, Scorsese offers a sobering, existential film which questions the vanity of vanities, or to quote Shakespeare, of all the cloud capp’d towers and gorgeous palaces in the world. What was it all for? And who can disagree? For who today remembers the legacy of Jimmy Hoffa? In his day, he was Elvis in our culture, though now most of our fellow citizens would likely not recognize his name much less what he represents. With the passing of time, Scorsese wonders what truly endures in life as people and entire epochs are wholly wiped away. And perhaps in his twilight years, Scorsese is also reflecting on his own cinematic legacy and posing the same questions to himself.