Runtime: 209 Minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Charles Brandt, Steven Zaillian
Stars: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Harvey Keitel
By Joan Amenn
I had a surreal experience watching “The Irishman” (2019). There is a scene of a gangster assassinated while he is eating dinner with his family in a restaurant in New York City’s Little Italy. As I watched I slowly recognized the restaurant and remembered a dinner I had had with my brother and two cousins so many years ago I had forgotten all about it. My memories superimposed themselves on the murder taking place onscreen which I had never known before had happened there. As an Italian American raised in New York one must sometimes wonder, “Have I really been living in a Martin Scorsese film all my life?”
Scorsese sets up the film’s meandering opening shot of a nearly deserted, slightly claustrophobic nursing home hallway to reveal Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) beginning to narrate the story of how he was once “one of a thousand working stiffs, until I [he] wasn’t no more.” Quickly the years are rolled back and the audience is about to hit the road with a younger De Niro and Joe Pesci who are accompanying their wives to a wedding in Detroit. Since this is the early 1970’s there is no GPS, no cellphones and the men sit in the front of the car while their wives frequently announce their urgent need for a cigarette break from the back seats.
“Anna Paquin as adult Peggy has one gut-wrenching scene where she asks a seemingly innocent question of her father. It is really not so much a question as an indictment; of the life he chose, of his actions, of the corruption he represents. Sometimes the only way to cope with toxicity in a relationship is to walk away from it.”
From Frank’s computations with his highlighted map and the first of many roadside stops, we immediately get the sense this journey and this film will be lengthy. After a while it almost becomes a joke between Scorsese and the audience that it really isn’t his fault the film is so long, the ladies needed their timeouts to take care of their needs. Having said that, the shots Frank of pulling over become repetitive and could have been pruned judiciously. This is a minor quibble in an otherwise beautifully crafted, stunningly acted film.
Sheer luck and the father of the bride whose wedding he is driving to brought Frank to the attention of crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Pesci is electric in the subdued power that he brings to the elder man mentoring a younger Frank in the ways of both the Teamsters and the mob. It is Russell’s cousin Bill (Ray Romano) who brings Frank to his attention and Russell creates the opportunity for him to work for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
While recounting his wartime experiences to Russell, Frank admits to being scared and just focusing on survival. This question of what a man will do to survive and at what cost is a reoccurring theme of many of Scorsese’s films. It is unusual to see De Niro in a role where he is vulnerable and dependent on others for his survival. His scenes where his loyalties are torn between Bufalino and Hoffa are so effective because it is so rare to see conflict and uncertainty play across De Niro’s face. We watch Frank do what he is asked to do by the mob and by Hoffa but someone close to him is watching too, his daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina, Anna Paquin). Their relationship draws the audience in and makes this more than just another “gangster” film.
Peggy is the heart and conscience of this film, but that subtlety may be lost among the performances of so many acting legends. Little Peggy cannot do much more than stare at the viciousness of her father’s vengeance on a grocery store owner who was rough with her. Her beautiful innocent eyes seem to pass judgment on Frank whenever he leaves his home, especially when she spots a gun in his hand. Hoffa manages to break through to the girl and they develop a special bond, much to Frank’s growing resentment.
Pacino is dazzling as Hoffa. The complexity of a man who could win the love and loyalty of so many and yet be despised and feared by so many others is all conveyed in every scene he is in. An inevitable collision course is set between Bufalino and Hoffa with Frank in the middle of their power struggle. When he inevitably chooses the side that would ensure his survival, there is a devastating price to pay.
“Peggy is the heart and conscience of this film, but that subtlety may be lost among the performances of so many acting legends. Little Peggy cannot do much more than stare at the viciousness of her father’s vengeance on a grocery store owner who was rough with her.”
Anna Paquin as adult Peggy has one gut-wrenching scene where she asks a seemingly innocent question of her father. It is really not so much a question as an indictment; of the life he chose, of his actions, of the corruption he represents. Sometimes the only way to cope with toxicity in a relationship is to walk away from it and Peggy flees her family much to Frank’s eternal heartbreak. While older generations of Italian women might have endured the risks to their family that the mob represented, they had little other choice since they were dependent on a male dominated society. Obviously, times have changed but Frank does not recognize this anymore than Hoffa would admit that his time as a kingpin had ended. Scorsese cleverly subdues the color saturation of the film as time passes and Frank ages which only heightens the effects of the CGI work done on the faces of three male leads.
“The Irishman” evokes comparison to another film about gangsters by another Italian filmmaker. Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather Part 2” (1974) ends with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) sitting alone with the ghosts of his past while Frank sits in his room in the nursing home, but he leaves his door open. We are left to wonder if he waits in hope that his daughters will someday walk in or that he only has the echoes of his choices as company too.