The Life You Lead

‘The Irishman’
Robert DeNiro in ‘The Irishman’ (Courtesy of Netflix)

Three years ago in these pages I interviewed Martin Scorsese about his adaptation of the Shūsaku Endō novel Silence. At the end of our conversation, I asked the director what was next for him. Scorsese sighed. He was exhausted from making the film, he confessed, and wasn’t sure he was up to any more. Then he offered a sly grin. Robert De Niro had been whispering in his ear, he said. “De Niro and I, we’ve had this project in mind about an old hit man—a true story. It takes place in the 1960s. It’s about the price you pay for a life that you lead, and a sense of good and evil.”

And so comes The Irishman, produced by Netflix with a reported budget of $160 million. Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian—the two collaborated on 2002’s Gangs of New York—have based the film on the 2004 nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses, presenting the life of Frank Sheeran, a high-ranking Teamster official known for his ties to the mob. As an old man, Sheeran (who died in 2003) boasted that, alongside his Teamster duties, he had served as a hit man, adept—in a gruesome metaphor that formed the book’s title—at “painting house walls.”

The Irishman follows the careers of two men, Sheeran and longtime Teamster chief Jimmy Hoffa, from the 1940s to the 2000s. (Chronicling this sweep of time is made possible through the interventions of VFX technology—CGI touchups that make actors look younger, digitally “de-aging” them.) De Niro’s Frank is a World War II vet, truck driver, and petty thief who, through a chance meeting, becomes a trusted henchman for Philly mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). With Bufalino mentoring him, Frank gets a union job, rises in the Teamster hierarchy, and ultimately lands as confidant and friend to Hoffa (Al Pacino, in what incredibly is his first-ever appearance in a Scorsese movie). Scorsese and his lifelong editor Thelma Schoonmaker steer deftly among different time frames; a narrative spine is provided by a 1975 road trip Sheeran and Bufalino are making, with their wives, from Philly to Detroit to attend a wedding—and also to visit Hoffa. With De Niro narrating in voiceover, the movie ranges back over Frank’s career and family life, and forward to his eighties, alone and ailing in a nursing home.

The Irishman is long, but its three-and-a-half hours fairly fly by, a tribute to the effectiveness with which Scorsese and Zaillian sympathetically engage the experiences of multiple characters over many decades. In addition to the aging of the actors, superb period-piece details and a background tapestry of news stories all create a near-perfect blending of personal story and social chronicle, working together to draw forth the reality of time’s passage, with it mixed mercies and cruelties. A movie that draws you in this fully can go on a long time; it feels less like an entertainment than like life itself.

Throughout much of the film, De Niro wears a default grimace, as if assailed by a bad odor. That odor could be Sheeran’s discomfort at his own actions, which culminate in a crass and violent betrayal. Good mob lieutenant that he is, his is not to question, but to act; loyalty, rather than ethical deliberation, is his stock in trade. Does Frank’s complicity bother him? Hard to tell. The Irishman reminds us how effective De Niro—who has played voluble roles aplenty in his career—can be when he’s not saying very much. Frank possesses the quiet person’s advantage, by which simplicity can pass for depth. (When Frank does open up, what comes out is hilarious; in one scene, he muses about why he prefers to be buried in a crypt, since “you’re dead, yes, but it’s not as final” as being buried in the ground.)

While De Niro’s character sits at the center of the film, Pacino’s Hoffa is the tragic figure, and the more compelling one. As various conflicts with the mob mount in intensity, Hoffa’s insistence on defending his own personal fiefdom (“This is my union!” he snarls) eventually transforms mere turf protection into something more, something like a commitment to a principle that—amid a life of moral chaos—might even be worth dying for. Addressing a union rally, Hoffa whips the Teamsters into a frenzy with a rousing refrain of “when anything gets done in this country, a truck got it there!” The scene captures brilliantly the point at which demagoguery and passionate political commitment blur together. In recent years one might be forgiven for feeling that Pacino has jumped the shark as an actor, playing roles with a gravelly voiced, shouting braggadocio that approaches caricature. But the role of Hoffa allows him to take these energies and plow them back into nuance, delivering a mesmerizing performance that lets us see once again the actor who is fine-tuned enough to play Shakespeare.

 

American immigrant Catholicism provides a steady stream of rituals (baptisms, weddings, absolutions, funerals) that offer solace and help form identity.

The Irishman contains any number of Scorsesean hallmarks, continuities of style and subject that trace to the very beginning of the director’s career. There’s his penchant for popular music, the movie bracketed by The Five Satins singing the doo-wop classic, “In the Still of the Night.” There’s the terrific period-piece look of Frank’s 1960s and ’70s heyday: “mod” kitchen furniture; boatlike Cadillacs; the glossy glam of a Miami luxury hotel; the opulent hairdos of Frank’s and Russell’s wives. And, of course, there is violence. That’s been present ever since a short notice in the Times of 1965 cited Bring on the Dancing Girls—in a showing of NYU student films—and praised “the savage, dramatic study of young urban wastrels, written and directed by 22-year-old Martin Scorsese.” That apprentice film led two years later to Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, which studied young male violence expressed through bluff bluster, bellicose gamesmanship, and harsh ambivalence toward women. Those same energies shaped the gangster codes of Mean Streets (1973), which, along with Taxi Driver, completed the nascent view of society and human nature—and of film as an art form—that made Scorsese’s name.

Gangster violence is certainly given its due in The Irishman—several killings feature a Peckinpaugh-like explosive spouting of blood—and yet it is subsumed within other, mellower forces, cued by Frank’s voiceover and reflecting Scorsese’s own implicit retrospection, the essentially grateful ruminations of a man in the gloaming of a magnificent career. Though far more blood is spilled, The Irishman contains almost none of the raw ferocity of Taxi Driver, and the film’s look and feel accordingly occupies a far gentler register. In our interview, Scorsese mentioned growing up reading the Daily News, and commented, interestingly, that its aesthetic “goes through all my movies. That black-and-white tabloid, that’s Taxi Driver.” The Irishman lets in something more like LIFE Magazine. Not a noirish glare, but rather a mellow goldenness illuminates the wise guys assembled here. De Niro, Pesci, Pacino, Harvey Keitel: the geriatric status of this pantheon of twentieth-century American gangster actors, and of Scorsese himself, lends an inescapable meta-dimension to the film’s preoccupation with time and aging, and accounts for its pleasurably mellow cast. In a way, The Irishman is Scorsese’s version of those comedies, like Tough Guys and Grumpy Old Men, in which we celebrate old codgers for their old codgerness. The film’s long coda—when you think The Irishman is over, there’s still a half-hour left—ties the perspective of time to themes of sin and forgiveness. As the elderly Frank is tended to by a young nursing-home aide, he tells some of his Hoffa stories, only to realize that she has no idea who Jimmy Hoffa was. The realization frames a question: Does time assist forgiveness, or merely forgetting? Twice Frank is counseled by a young priest who digs into the ex-hit man’s moral self. Is he sorry for the things he has done? the priest asks; does he feel remorse? Not really, Frank answers. He seems less haunted by his violent past than baffled. “What kind of man makes a phone call like that?” he mumbles, referring to a call he made years earlier to comfort the wife of someone he himself murdered. But as a response to the priest’s question, this amounts to little more than a shrug; what Scorsese manages to convey is not so much moral ambiguity or confusion as collapse—a kind of moral dissolution before the primal facts of time and mortality.

Religion in The Irishman—that is to say, American immigrant Catholicism—provides a steady stream of rituals (baptisms, weddings, absolutions, funerals) that offer solace and help form identity. But Catholicism’s ability to extend truly substantial moral scrutiny or reckoning, even through the agency of a spiritually alert priest, is next to nil. This sharp disjunction between ritual piousness and personal pathology has been a staple of the mob genre in film and TV—it was taken to the next level, in The Sopranos, by the recourse to therapy—and Scorsese deploys it here to ambiguous effect. Frank is not so much a moral conundrum or paradox or enigma as he is a moral non-entity.

In our interview, Scorsese cited a line from Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest: “God is not a torturer; He wants us to be merciful with ourselves.” The director pointed to the last, tormented scene in his 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull—the scene in which De Niro’s Jake La Motta lacerates himself with a guttural and despairing cry of “I’m not an animal!”—as portraying our raw human need for the kind of mercy he discerns in Bresson. But with Frank, there is no torment; and some may wonder, how exactly are we supposed to respond to the memoirs of a hit man? With the warm fuzzies? If, as Scorsese said three years ago, his new film is about “a sense of good and evil” and “the price you pay for a life that you lead,” what really is the price Frank has paid? Yes, he’s estranged from a daughter who grew up repulsed by her father’s easy recourse to violence. But all in all, he seems as happy as any eighty-year-old American.

Three years ago, with reference to Silence, Scorsese said that both the Endo novel and the film he made of it addressed a question: “If you strip away everything, what really matters?” The answer, the director said, was faith, and how that faith animates your life. “Stripping away everything ultimately comes down to God and you,” he remarked back then. The film he made was accordingly severe. Rife with extended still camera shots, visually carefully composed, Silence is an outlier in Scorsese’s filmography. There was a stillness at the heart of the movie; it’s isolated, quietly meditative, and spiritually earnest. These aren’t typical qualities for a director whose movies brim with raucous energies, jousting sarcasm, and a lot of noise. The Irishman returns the director to his familiar cinematic beat.

Assessing the long list of Martin Scorsese’s accomplishments, I’d rank The Irishman high. But it raises more questions than it answers. Is it possible for a portrayal of violence to be elegiac? In the end, you can’t really separate the reality of Frank Sheeran from the genre in which it’s deployed, or from the record of triumphs this now seventy-eight-year-old director has produced in that genre for half a century. There’s a kind of hit-man’s-greatest-hits quality to the film’s parade of murders, and Scorsese repeatedly freezes the action to list, via subtitles, the future date on which this or that character will meet his untimely end, and how it will happen (shot twice in the head, garroted in a cab, and so on). These garish destinies register as more merry than horrifying, and I like to think that Scorsese would be warmed by our mordantly imagining some character in the movie walking away from a funeral and saying, “Well, at least he died doing what he loved most.”

Published in the December 2019 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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