Rated R for the realistic kind of violence. If violence had a certain sexiness to it, the violence in The Irishman has the kind of violence that is blatantly unsexy...which ultimately makes it kinda sexy? Okay, this violence is really intense. I'm just saying that there's nothing really Hollywood about it. It kind of hearkens back to the Scorsese violence of yesteryear. There's also language and people are generally terrible to each other. It's a world without heroes and, gosh darn it, they're going to act that way.
DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese
I'm going to be one of the people who is anti-Scorsese! I know! Out of all the people on this planet who should be "rah-rah! Take down the system!", I actually think that the man was out of line. It definitely had an "OK, Boomer" vibe to the whole argument. This is the movie that kind of started the whole, "Marvel movies aren't cinema" bit. Before I talk about this 3.5 hour movie, I guess I want to give my two cents on Scorsese. The only way I can get behind Scorsese is if he tweaks his argument a little bit. I totally agree. People should not live on Marvel movies alone. There is high art and low art and people should experience both. As an English teacher, I teach the literary canon. But when someone comes in reading a Stephen King novel, I get really excited to hear what they think of it. Do I understand that there's a difference between Wuthering Heights and Cujo? Sure. But I also think that they both have value. Also, it's kind of a bummer that Scorsese is dumping on Marvel movies because they borderline saved cinema. People are going to the movies again because of the Marvel movies. There was a time where I honestly thought that movie theaters were going to be a thing of the past. How about giving credit where credit is due, Marty? Yeah, watch smart films. But also watch what you like.
Okay, onto the actual movie.
Before all of the hullaballoo, I was jazzed to hear that Scorsese was going to be making an epic for Netflix. Then the nonsense happened and I knew that I would eventually give The Irishman a whirl. I've often made arguments that much of Netflix's original content tends to be a bit disposable and disappointing. Perhaps the investment that comes from choosing a movie in line helps the palate a little bit more than finally submitting to watching something that I know I should watch. But The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected kind of changed my mind about all of that. I simply adored that movie and I realized that Netflix is simply a venue that forces me to slightly shift my attention span into something else.
The only problem is that The Irishman is way too padded and indulgent to be considered something great. From the opening shot, a snaking exploration of a nursing home, it is apparent that Scorsese wants to make something special with this movie. From what I understand as I creep across Internet articles about Scorsese, he likes that Netflix is willing to give him money and allows him to make whatever he wants. I'm sure that Scorsese, for a while now, probably isn't a guy who needs to talk to his money people about making sure some cash flows his way to get the shots he wants. But The Irishman doesn't really feel like a tight movie at all. There is so much waste in the movie. As such, The Irishman actually reads like a really good HBO limited series than a traditional film. My friends were complaining that the movie feels really boring and that they couldn't get into it. I don't really think that boring was my problem...at first.
My wife and I watched through it in hour+ shifts. I'm sure that somewhere, Marty's blood pressure was spiking knowing that I was really respecting the unity of cinema. Even though David Lynch had nothing to do with this movie, I'm sure that he was also taken aback by our casual consumption of this movie. In one hour shifts, I think that the movie is very watchable. The movie acts as a character analysis of a morally stilted man. I don't think that he's morally ambiguous. The film actually gives him a code, albeit a very loose and messed up code. But as a character study, much of the movie acts like an arc of Mad Men.
Mad Men is hard to enjoy in episodic form. Sure, I'll have these moments where the show really shines. That time that someone got his foot run over by a John Deere? Yeah, I remember that. Betty Draper shooting animals? I remember that. But to explain why I like Mad Men is good is because the picture as a whole. While watching The Irishman, there were a few moments that really were great cinematic moves. But I didn't really get to appreciate the movie until I saw it as a whole. I mean, it isn't the same level of satisfaction as a season of Mad Men, but the approach is very much the same.
Frank seems complex, but he really isn't all that complex. That's me really Monday Morning Quarterbacking the whole thing. The protagonist of the film is Frank. Frank both acts as protagonist and as narrator. He kind of needs to because he's such a simple character. I love De Niro and he does the right thing with Frank in terms of character building, but Frank doesn't really have a lot going on. He's a guy who is out there to make friends in high places. He's not conniving about it. People tell him how to get ahead in the criminal underworld and he just kind of does it. Frank is kind of what makes the movie seem indulgent for me. Frank is surrounded by all these really cool complex characters. I adore Joe Pesci (for the first time probably) as Russell Bufalino. He's interesting. He's smart. People are afraid of him. Frank is simply a reactionary character. For a protagonist, that's kind of blah. Frank doesn't really change. He is the same person that he is from the beginning of the movie until the end. There are moments where it seems that Frank has depth. His relationship with Hoffa appears to be deep and complicated. But Frank is put into a position by Bufalino to kill Hoffa.
And he just does. I get it. There's something cold and sterile about the fact that the mob isn't about friendships. It's about efficiency and brutality. But then, it comes down to a big case of "who cares?" I said that this movie is about slow character development. We never really get the cursed Frank, who weeps about his involvement in the death of his friend. That's kind of nifty, I guess. But it also really puts Frank in the background of his own movie. The movie is named The Irishman. My guess is much of the movie comes down to author's purpose. What was Scorsese trying to make with this movie? It feels like an old man telling a war story.
There's a great line that probably illustrates Scorsese's intentions pretty clearly. There's a part where someone narrates (I apologize that I forget who) that this generation doesn't really know who Jimmy Hoffa was. Perhaps we knew that he disappeared, but that's really about it. This motif shows up throughout. Frank's nurse in 2003 had no idea who Hoffa was. I was probably part of the crowd who knew that he disappeared. I could add that he was a union guy. But rather than talking about director's message or why this movie was being told, a lot of it came down to reminding the world that Jimmy Hoffa was a great man who was easily taken down by the mafia. That's fun, but that's also a little safe for Scorsese.
Scorsese doesn't have to wear this themes and messages on his sleeves. I'm sure that he wants me to sleep on them and then rewatch the movie to come out with a deeper meaning from the film. There are motifs and themes of aging and family. Watching old man Russell Bufalino was oddly heartbreaking, considering that he was still a mob boss in his old age, but he could barely hold his hand straight. We see some of the consequences of a life of crime. The end really tries showing the hypocrisy of the church and the mob when it came to the act of confession. As critical as it was of the Church (which I might be reading into a bit), it actually really dispel the notion that one can lead a terrible life with the assumption that you can just confess it all on a death bed. I kind of love that Frank really doesn't feel remorse for the actions he did. A life of crime desensitized him to the whole affair and now he can't actually feel bad.
But it felt like Old Man Martin Scorsese wanted me to feel bad for not knowing Jimmy Hoffa. I would love to be wrong. Maybe he's saying that Hoffa deserves to be forgotten, but I don't really get that vibe. There's so much that made the character interesting and kind of deserving of his fate. Regardless, this movie could have been cut down into a neat 2 hours and change movie and it probably would have worked on the same level. Since Frank never really grows as a character, I don't know why I needed those beats to imply that he was going to grow. He starts off the movie without remorse and he ends the movie without remorse. It's a pretty movie and Scorsese has done way worse than this. But this kind of felt like a safe and indulgent film for a lot of it. It's fine and I'm glad that it exists, but I love a lot of his other work better.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.