Film Review: “The Irishman” — A Blood-Soaked Cautionary Tale

By Matt Hanson

For all its cinematic zest and superb acting, The Irishman offers a bleak demonstration of what happens when you sell your soul for too little.

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema, West Newton Cinema, Somerville Theatre, and other movie houses around New England.

Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in a scene from Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

When I walked into my local movie theater recently to see Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the big screen, as the Gods of cinephilia intended, the impeachment trial’s mob-like updates were on my mind. Does Rudy Giuliani actually have some kind of compromising dirt on President Trump? An insurance policy in case his longtime boss turns on him? Who will be the next to drop a dime on Trump or one of his cronies? The underhanded attempts at deal-making, the secrets, lies, and megalomania swirling daily in the news cycle create the perfect mindset for taking in all three and a half hours of this epic chronicle detailing, from the postwar era to the end of the century, an unholy trinity made up of the Mafia, organized labor, and American politics.

The title refers to Frank Sheeran, played with gruff reticence by Robert DeNiro, a Philly-born working stiff turned hitman who finds himself in the middle of the symbiotic (or is that parasitic?) relationship between Mafia don Russell Bufalino, given quiet menace by Joe Pesci, and Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa, held at a perpetual boil by Al Pacino, in his first ever Scorsese collaboration. Netflix produced the film and spent an eye-popping amount of money to de-age the actors throughout this multigenerational chronicle. What we see onscreen was worth the money; the age differences are hardly noticeable. Even though the film clocks in at a magisterial length (without intermission), the brisk pacing and ultra-precise editing, courtesy of master cinematographer Thelma Schoonmaker, makes sure the proceedings never drag.

Without giving away too much of the plot, The Irishman shows clear parallels between this narrative and Scorsese’s other gangster-themed films. Of course, Scorsese established himself long ago as a capital-G Great Filmmaker. His oeuvre is wide and varied — but there’s an argument to be made that his greatest achievements were ultimately gangster flicks, such as Goodfellas and Casino. The Irishman could easily be thought of as the end point to the informal crime trilogy that includes those earlier films. This is not to malign or stereotype Scorsese at all — what John Ford did with the Western or Alfred Hitchcock did with the thriller is comparable to what Scorsese does with the mob tale.

For longtime fans, The Irishman offers the fun of seeing Scorsese delight in his own mastery of the medium. Every cinematic trick the director has honed over the years is here in full force — the nimble camerawork, the ironically exuberant soundtrack, the graceful use of slow motion, the impeccable comic timing, the amusing cameos, the subtle references both to cinema history and to Scorsese’s own filmography, and a deep feeling for how the lethal and far-ranging decisions of powerful men are decided by a few oblique words exchanged in ominously quiet rooms. Plenty of the usual mob movie tropes are in The Irishman, but the film ultimately transcends them by not glamorizing them.

The story, courtesy of Steve Zaillian’s often dryly witty script, evolves into a subversively cynical counternarrative of 20th-century American life. Hoffa wavers between being a workingman’s hero, a master manipulator, a prim Puritan type who will not abide lateness or anyone drinking booze, and a paranoid egomaniac. It is a bit odd at times to hear Pacino use Hoffa’s nasal Pennsylvania Dutch accent when we’re so used to taking in his gravelly bellow. But Pacino proves that he can still modulate between the so-called “shouty Al” and the quieter cunning of the Godfather movies. His Hoffa isn’t the beefy, crasser version of the man portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the ’90s; instead, he’s a wily operator whose hotheadedness and irritability propel into dark trouble.

The real-life Hoffa’s connections to organized crime are fairly well known and well documented. But exactly how far-reaching that relationship was and how directly it affected American politics is usually the stuff of conspiracy theories, officially sanctioned or otherwise. Suffice to say that as The Irishman’s drama gradually unfolds, there’s a potent alternative narrative constructed for one of the most infamously unsolved mysteries of the past century. What’s more, there’s plenty of controversy about Hoffa’s real-life disappearance and who or what was ultimately responsible for it. The real life people involved offer contradictory stories about what “really” happened. The film presents its version of the events surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance — and it is fairly plausible. The story leads to a conclusion that is unsettling precisely because it lacks the clichéd big bang that usually caps epic sagas about what ruthless men will do for — and with — power, money, and weapons. At the screening I attended, no one clapped when the credits rolled.

For all its cinematic zest and superb acting, The Irishman offers a bleak demonstration of what happens when you sell your soul for too little. And, in a larger sense, it slowly but definitively demonstrates what happens when you decide to throw in your lot with the wrong bunch of crooks. Mere survival isn’t enough to justify its cost. Assuming that the producers had the President’s various moral and legal outrages in mind while crafting the story might be a bit presumptuous. But I for one would be very curious if anyone in Washington is screening The Irishman right now, and whether or not they’re paying attention to the hard lessons to be learned within this blood-soaked cautionary tale.

Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.

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