Thursday 28 November 2019

Ageing bull: "The Irishman"

The recent row between Martin Scorsese and the overseers and flamekeepers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was only ever a question of experience. On one side, the film artist, raised in the post-War golden age of international cinema, taking up arms in defence of the movies as a forum for messy, complex life. On the other, the neophyte representatives of a generation of businessman-creatives, taking time out from building theme parks to justify fostering such escapism at a time when the real world allows precious few triumphs for good over evil. (This, of course, has nothing to do with the power wielded by corporations as all-powerful as Marvel and Disney.) The Irishman, which has just landed on Netflix after the most cursory and well-hidden of theatrical runs (backstreet cinemas, no box-office reporting), is recognisably a film of experience: funny, bloody, bitter, melancholy, to its closing moments tossing out lessons in such matters as the proper transportation of seafood, and the correct way to dispose of a union boss. It's also very much about the mixed blessings that come with age. Much of the pre-publicity centred on the fact those involved may have had too much experience: hence Scorsese rejuvenating his lead actors via the wrinkle-kicking process known as digital de-aging. A few close-ups of those tweaked features allow the mind's-eye to wander into the foothills of uncanny valley, but in the main the technique is applied with such assurance - and the underlying storytelling so strong - that one need not worry unduly about it; it's the inverse of the effects in the MCU, which cry out to be noticed because there's so little else of substance to grab onto.

There is, all told, a lot to grapple with in The Irishman. The film runs some three-and-a-half hours, and spans roughly sixty years in the life of its title character Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), touching upon his salad days executing German prisoners in World War II, his heyday as a hitman for Pennsylvania's Bufalino clan, and his final days in a retirement home as a rare survivor of the protection racket. To a degree, it's an extension of GoodFellas - made by a filmmaker thirty years older and wiser - in that its protagonist goes some distance beyond the mook we left Henry Hill to be, and becomes a skeleton, a wraith; the sense of a man exiled beyond human reach is established by the opening travelling shot, which has to wind a long way through the corridors and rec rooms of the retirement community to find the withered Sheeran. The rise to power he narrates, conversely, is full of colour, vigour, not to mention character. Part of the considerable pleasure of watching The Irishman comes from a sense Scorsese has used a hefty wodge of Netflix moolah (reported budget: $159m) to get the old gang back together: so here's Joe Pesci as the tortoise-like capo Russell Bufalino, Harvey Keitel as his associate Angelo Bruno, and Boardwalk Empire regulars Bobby Cannavale, Stephen Graham and Jack Huston (as a cuck Robert Kennedy), plus an authentic wildcard, new to the Scorsese universe, in Al Pacino, playing Jimmy Hoffa - whom Sheeran eventually wound up serving as bodyguard - as a sucrose-fuelled ranting loon the Mob probably had to whack just to get any peace and quiet. Steven Zaillian's script presents Sheeran's interactions with these wiseguys in a rambunctious, episodic style: the whole film's somewhat like chancing upon the juiciest chunks of a biography, brought to life by extraordinary performers. Yet it's also a film of violent contrasts, finessed by the surest of hands: the conviviality of the Mob business versus the solitary shut-off in the care home, regaling the camera because he has nobody else to talk to; the bringer of death, now slumped in a wheelchair, waiting for his own. As one of Bufalino's toasts puts it: "Things change".

For his part, the now 77-year-old Scorsese is busy demonstrating there's life in his cinema yet: The Irishman arguably surpasses 2016's slightly overlooked Silence as his greatest dramatic achievement of the decade. This material allows him entirely new reads on the mobster milieu. The WW2 flashback, along with Hoffa's dismissal of his enemies as "Nazi collaborators", and Sheeran's tendency to mutely follow Bufalino and Hoffa's orders - eventually putting himself in a terrible bind - confirms that these men were still fighting the war in their own heads. (Sheeran's sometimes rambling narration - very different from the fast, snappy Hill's in GoodFellas - is but the telling of war stories, a means of talking up his own misdeeds and around a reckless disregard for human life drilled into him on the battlefields of Sicily.) We've seen a lot of old-world movies this awards season - Once Upon a Time... in HollywoodLe Mans '66 - perhaps as even the cloistered dingbats who now run our movie studios have realised the times are a-changing. The Irishman is the first, however, to undercut its nostalgia with critical notes, to suggest there are elements within these otherwise alluring retreats we've done well to leave behind. Look at the women, Scorsese suggests, packed off to the kitchen and the beauty salon, forced to adhere to their own code of silence - though the camera picks up exactly what such silences can communicate. There's a superb scene at a bowling alley where Sheeran's youngest daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina) is called over by Bufalino, and picks up a strong whiff that her daddy's boss might be toxic. It's mirrored by a moment in the second half where the now-adult Peggy (Anna Paquin) comes home to find her father watching a news bulletin that confirms all her worst suspicions: that her dad is death. In both cases, barely a word is exchanged: you'll just have to chalk their effects up to female intuition, and never again bring up that hogwash about Scorsese not knowing what to do with women. (See also: the late phone call Frank makes to Hoffa's widow, another moment of De Niro excellence, and the closest we get to seeing the protagonist falling apart.)

Scorsese has come to study gangsters as David Attenborough has dinosaurs - he's both fascinated and terrified by their power - but then the whole movie's full of things on the verge of extinction: doo-wop, formal dress codes, hot dogs soaked in beer, the power of the unions. It's clear the director has been thinking long and hard about mortality, in a way he wasn't quite circa GoodFellas: he looks on Sheeran in the care home, and something in that gaze says there but for the grace of God (or cinema, which may be the same thing in this most religiose of filmographies) go I. Even as it averts its eyes during one hit, the camera alights upon a funeral wreath; there are cutaways to sudden, fiery demises that resemble deathly riffs on the sidejokes in Family Guy (one of several alternative titles that presents itself); and every so often the action pauses to plant a headstone credit over a minor character, informing us where and how they met their maker. (The most poignant of these is a brief shot of the withered Joe Kennedy, sat on a porch watching the sun go down.) A raucous bit with an insult comic roasting Sheeran at a charity event takes on a melancholy hue when the comedian is revealed to be the young Don Rickles (d. April 6, 2017), a.k.a. Billy Sherbert in Scorsese's Casino; it's not the only point in the picture where Scorsese, like Sheeran, is caught reflecting on living long enough to see your friends and contemporaries die, which a mindset as Catholic as his can't fail to see as some form of punishment. There's no way out of this world, save death: when we finally take our leave from The Irishman, three-and-a-half hours closer to that grave, it's through a crack in a door left ajar in part out of deference to Jimmy Hoffa's sleeping ritual, and in part to let the Reaper in. (Frank Sheeran died of cancer in December 2003.)

Perhaps that risks making the film sound gruelling or grim; granted, it's not as mindlessly enjoyable as an Ant-Man movie, but otherwise nothing could be further from the truth. An essential part of the Irishman experience is that conviviality: the kind of togetherness that comes from being among real people (rather than action figures), that allows us to forget about our impending doom temporarily, that must come easily on sets where an experienced director has been handed creative carte blanche to work with his favourite actors. (It's the right amount of the indulgence that has crept into Netflix's other original programming; it's the good stuff.) The Irishman may be the first Mob movie to seriously explore organised crime as a source of friendship and brotherhood, as it surely has been for some of its sociopaths: a Rotary Club with an elevated bodycount. Much has already been written about the touching sight of Pacino and De Niro bedding down for the night in their pyjamas, a logical progression of these actors' long-winded courtship in Heat; I wasn't quite expecting the scene in which Pesci bequeaths De Niro a gold pinky ring like a nine-year-old girl on the playground. Scorsese and Zaillian's genius here, however, is to never lose sight of how such alliances were tenuous, and absolutely dependent on each man knowing their allotted place in the social order. They had each other's backs, and did the most heinous things for one another, out of a fear they too might end up as isolated and powerless, as thoroughly enfeebled as the Frank Sheeran we're first introduced to in that nursing home - but gravity, the flesh, and the ever more rapid passage of time ensure no man can control this world for too long. We may see more specific critiques of capitalism, and where it left its footsoldiers, in the years ahead; we may not see anything that so clearly resembles a decisive last word on American gangsterism, and the gangster genre. Either way, no three-hour film released in 2019 has done more to earn an alternative, one-word title: Endgame.

The Irishman is showing in selected cinemas, and now streaming on Netflix. 

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