The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019) – Full Original – Period Gangster Drama
In a story told in flashbacks from a nursing home in 2000, Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) recounts his life as a hit man in the Philadelphia mafia, a career that stretches back to the 1950s. Central in his story are his friendships with mentor Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the latter of which is put to the test when Hoffa runs afoul of Frank’s bosses.
By any measurement, The Irishman is a work of monumental proportions. The film features an epic historical sweep of nearly 50 years, features three legendary actors as stars, was made by an equally legendary director in Martin Scorsese, features a running time of over 200 minutes and cost an absolute fortune to make. And of course, it is monumentally good, evoking a tragic vision of a life that was ultimately wasted as Frank finds no redemption or understanding from his life of crime and loyalty to Russell. As such, the film is a genuine triumph for Netflix, which should now reasonably expect an awards season full of accolades for this year’s showpiece film.
But this is not a film for everyone, and it really only comes together at the end. Throughout, the film is permeated by gloom and sadness in a way that is diametrically opposed to the kind of garrulous fun found in Scorsese films such as Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street, indeed acting more like an anti-gangster film than the other famed Scorsese-DeNiro-Pesci collaborations like the aforementioned Goodfellas or Casino. In this way, I thought it was more like my personal favorite from the Scorsese oeuvre, Mean Streets, which undermined genre expectations by giving us a group of losers masquerading as big shots with tragic consequences. But stylistically, these films are very distinct, with Mean Streets having a kinetic energy that is pointedly lacking in the somber and even funereal The Irishman.
For about the first three hours of the film, The Irishman steadily frustrates fans of the gangster film by making the gangster lifestyle and gangster hijinks generally seem monotonous and unfulfilling. DeNiro’s Frank is unlike many of the actor’s signature roles in that he is terse, morose and matter-of-fact about his life and work. He may well have literally painted houses for how much he seems to enjoy being a mobster. While his friendships are described on the voice-over track as very important to him, we don’t feel this as viewers as Frank seems to sleepwalk through it all, a virtual passenger in his own life.
This seeming detachment on Frank´s part, for me, makes the Hoffa assassination less powerful than perhaps it could or should have been, and up until the last 20 minutes, I thought it kept the film from really hitting the highest cinematic notes. But what seems like an epilogue showing Frank in his last years is where we see his detachment from his own life and family really come home to roost. Having never made an effort to make a human connection with his family or those around him besides Russell and Jimmy, Frank is left utterly alone after their deaths. Adding to the tragedy is that he doesn’t seem to understand why or what to do about it and looks set to die alone, unloved and unredeemed. If that sounds bleak to you, it definitely is and this is what makes it a great gangster film but also one that will exasperate those expecting redemption or at least death in a hail of bullets.
While I thus think highly of the film, it is worth pointing out that the film’s critics are completely right to complain about two aspects of the film. The de-aging digital technology does look weird at times on all the main characters. In its best moments, it adds to the feeling that Frank is somehow off and alienated from the world around him, such is the oddness of DeNiro’s face in some sequences. In its worst moments, the technology creates unsettling dissonances between bodies and faces. As many others have pointed out, this is especially the case when DeNiro is called to perform physical acts of violence, such as the attack on the grocer early on in the film.
The other major complaint about the film has been about its depiction of women. While I personally see the point of having characters like Peggy (Anna Paquin) speak very little on camera – it is an indicator of how little voice she had in Frank’s life after all – it is also frustrating to see women serve as little more than moral rebukes to male characters. The Irishman is far from the only work to do this with daughters especially – think of Mad Men or The Americans for example – but it takes it to an extreme that is at one and the same time very boldly stylized and very irritating.
Martin Scorsese also directed A Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story for Netflix and was an executive producer on two other Netflix films: Uncut Gems, which was acquired by the streamer for markets outside the US, and Happy as Lazzaro, which was acquired for the US and Latin America.
Ray Romano also appears in the Netflix film Paddleton and has a stand up special on the service.
Jesse Plemons also appeared in Black Mirror and was a recurring character in the later seasons of Breaking Bad, a key licensed title for Netflix. He would later reprise his character from that series in the Netflix film El Camino.
The Irishman was originally set up at Paramount, where Scorsese has made his most recent features, and where he will actually make his next one as well. Paramount baulked at the growing costs and sold the film off to STX, who then sold the film off to Netflix.
Notable Corporate Alliance
Although Paramount originated the project, it was from STX that Netflix bought all the international rights. It was STX that originally saw this film as their calling card for announcing themselves as a genuine international studio. That is, until Netflix came along. The negotiations between the companies seemed to go on for a while, but Netflix eventually bought STX out, likely meaning some kind of profit for the US-based aspiring mini-major. It is not the only film that Netflix bought off of STX, having done the same with the completed film The Red Sea Diving Resort. Tellingly, after the completion of both deals, STX executive for international cinema David Kosse eventually came to work for Netflix.
Difficult Themes/Conspicuous Cinephelia
At over three hours, with a dark and maudlin tone, by a master director who spared no expense, The Irishman is a cinephelic statement of monumental proportions. This same impulse to seem like the guardians of Cinema with a capital C guided Netflix’s purchase of Roma and its re-editing of The Other Side of the Wind, both of which defied conventional commercial wisdom in Hollywood (and subsequently traded on that defiance). The factor driving the studio fear around the film was not that it was uncommercial per se, but instead that it could never make a decent return on its growing budget. As numerous figures, including Scorsese himself, have pointed out, there was no company in the world willing to fund this film at this price. And so we are fortunate that Netflix was there to bring us this one of a kind movie.
But then, it is difficult to imagine they will end up making any kind of profit on this film. One analyst has predicted that 110 million accounts would have to watch it in the first four weeks for it to make sense with the Netflix business model, but that would take a miracle given its running time and content. Bird Box holds the crown thus far for (alleged) first month viewing and that was still nowhere near the figure estimated here. And remember, this is still a business model that doesn’t generate cash and the company has been able to generate very high numbers on much cheaper films BB was rumored to cost $20 million, one eighth of The Irishman’s. As I have said before, the banks will eventually wise up to Netflix’s cash-losing ways, so we have to enjoy films like The Irishman while we can, during this anomalous time in which the rules of capitalism don’t seem to apply to the company.