Directed by Martin Scorsese
IN The Irishman (2019) someone puts a question to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the same question that is title of Charles Brandt’s 2004 book (I Heard You Paint Houses) — the same question one might ask of Martin Scorsese with the same innocuousness, and just the hint of something more.
Arguably the question is bullshit — Bill Tonelli in a Slate piece pokes holes in Sheeran’s story and on the surface the very premise of the film sounds implausible: an armed Forrest Gump wandering the margins of mob history, delivering boxloads of Browning M2 machine guns for the Bay of Pigs invasion; walking into Umberto’s Clam House to shoot “Crazy” Joe Gallo; walking into an anonymous house in suburban Detroit with gun in hand, right behind Jimmy Hoffa (in Brandt’s book Sheehan goes further to claim he delivered three rifles to a pilot days before the Kennedy assassination, and half a million dollars to US Attorney General John Mitchell).
Tonelli even makes fun of the book’s title: “In all of mob literature” he asks, “fictional and factual, has anyone ever uttered such expressions about painting and carpentry?” I wouldn’t know, not familiar with mob literature, and what mob cinema I’ve seen — no.
But it’s a hell of a phrase: “I hear you paint houses.” “I hear you make movies” — and I remember a scene in Resident Evil: Retribution where Milla Jovovich hands Michelle Rodriguez a pistol and ties film and violence together with a single throwaway statement: “It’s just like a camera: point and shoot.”
The film’s themes also rope in one of Scorsese’s pantheon figures, John Ford, whose late masterwork The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance turned on the phrase: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ford had a way of making historical accuracy seem irrelevant or at least dull; someone once pointed out that the climactic chase in Stagecoach would have ended sooner if the Apaches had shot the horses. Have no real response to that, save the thought probably doesn’t occur when one is actually watching the film.
Actually, the character of Sheeran himself doesn’t exactly pop out of the screen: this is one of De Niro’s more introverted performances, where he plays a lump that if allowed would rather blend into the background — someone who treads lightly but carries a loud .38 Special.
Or so Sheeran says — again we need to take his word with a chunk of salt (Tonelli scoffed at the idea that he ever took a life, though I wonder if the writer ever considered Sheeran’s war record). It helps that Scorsese does away with Brandt as a character and has Sheeran face the lens directly as an old man (the camera wandering in from outside past wizened figures tottering on canes and walkers, to come upon our protagonist in a wheelchair, lost in his memories).
That image (an old man and his memories) starts and ends the film; the old man experiences two kinds of flashbacks — one being a trip from Philly to Detroit, the other the various memories prodded along the way, like the swarm of birds provoked in a forest by the passage of a rhino. One kind the narrative spine, the other the narrative meat, the retirement home scenes framing the whole.
Gradually an image forms: of truck driver Sheeran and his chance meeting with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci, reportedly coaxed out of retirement after being asked 50 times, and terrific), of his later meeting with James Riddle Hoffa (Al Pacino) and their growing brotherly bond.
Sheeran’s troubled relationship with Hoffa recalls Scorsese’s earlier autobiographical Mean Streets with Hoffa as Johnny Boy, playing irrepressible Id to De Niro’s Sheeran playing the dutiful Charlie (who — following Mean Streets schema — also plays the director’s cringing conscious-stricken self). De Niro was the original Johnny Boy and lit up the screen with his unpredictably hilarious-yet-horrifying antics; as this film’s Charlie, he’s if anything better, the heroically staunch spear-bearer of first Russell and later Jimmy Hoffa. Call Sheeran a man of faith, a faith established by an ancient organization with laws and secrecy and wide-reaching influence; call the film a test of Sheeran’s faith versus his family (with his daughter Peggy [Anna Paquin as an adult, the haunting Lucy Gallina as a child]* standing as witness), versus his friend Hoffa.
* As for the whole brouhaha about Paquin’s character’s relative silence — there’s some point to the Bechdel test, but the impact of Peggy depends mainly on the idea that she stands aside watching what’s going on and keeping everything to herself, only speaking up (as an adult at least) when it most mattered. Like her father she sees but is silent; like her father she remembers, feels, judges.**
** As for Peggy’s judgment I’m guessing she keeps arms’ distance from her father and Russell because they’re killers; Hoffa while egotistical and corrupt is not — at least not directly, as far as we know. It’s the stink of blood that makes the difference.
The latter half of the film plays out like The Last Temptation of Frank (or, going back even further, Mean Streets: Detroit) — the power figure rising, hitting his plateau, striving for higher, being betrayed by his Judas. Frank/De Niro as Judas/Charlie/Scorsese registers the journey as near imperceptible tics on the face, fissures on what is supposed to be a professional mask, and a grim line of a mouth that warps gradually into a grimace.
Is Scorsese replaying his greatest hits? I’d say he’s reviewing them, slowed down and distorted, turning them over in his head in the hope, possibly vain, of making sense of what he had wrought, wrote, rote. His usually operatic rhetoric has been dialed down to a whisper, his visual brio reduced to a simmer; he seems subdued, confronting what may be his, Frank’s, Jesus’, Charlie’s final adversary. If, as detractors say, this is yet another of Scorsese’s gangster flicks it has the look and feel of a final Scorsese gangster flick — his last word on the subject.
Saying “dialed down” doesn’t mean “totally absent.” The opening tracking shot and barber shop hit show Scorsese still has the spark, just isn’t putting it front and center; the Joe Gallo hit is a marvel of blinking bright reds and whitewashed walls drenched in sickly green neons. He’s also taken to perching the camera from on high to look down on a street corner or intersection of hallways, suggesting that the protagonist or character is approaching a dramatic turning point.
Sound may be the film’s most innovative feature: Sheeran’s offscreen narration opens the picture and suddenly his voice speaks up, continuing his train of thought; the scoring is relatively subdued, with long stretches of quotidian life punctuated mostly by the clink of silverware or traffic noise or occasional bird call; Sheeran on the phone mutters painfully hypocritical words of reassurance to a distressed Jo Hoffa (Welker White, her voice muffled so that emotion and not specific words are more audible).
Not a perfect picture: the digital de-aging looks grotesque, actually looked even more grotesque on the big screen with De Niro’s and Pesci’s faces looking boiled lobster red, their hunched bodies walking slowly, carefully as if they were in their frail seventies (which they are) — watching the film on Netflix streaming I see that they have apparently corrected the offputting red, though the old-man movements remain. I remember how in Once Upon a Time in America Scott Tiler’s performance as the young Noodles dovetailed so lyrically into De Niro’s adult figure and wonder why Scorsese couldn’t cast accordingly. Also wonder if Scorsese couldn’t have inserted a little more skepticism about the veracity of Sheeran’s claims, or at least suggest more that the man’s memory is unreliable — possibly De Niro (who produced) and Scorsese did buy Sheeran’s story hook line and sinker, only pivoting in interviews (emotional truth takes precedence over historical) in response to Tonelli’s article.
Oh and the titles that give us the various mobsters’ varied fates (“shot in the head, 1980”; “killed, 1979”): what was it about the period of 1979 to 1980 that nearly everyone was bumped off? One of the film’s biggest laughs happens when we learn that “Tony Jack” was well-liked by all and died of natural causes in 2001.
The final 50-plus minutes (skip this and the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!) recalls Father Rodrigues’ odyssey as a changed man moving through a changed more accommodating Japan, in Silence — what to do with yourself when you’ve won the one thing you desire above all (the cessation of others’ suffering) at the price of the one thing you value above all (your faith). Rodrigues’ struggle is frightening in its way — he can’t utter even a whisper of dissent — but Sheeran, in total freedom and with only passing interest from law enforcers (a pair of federal agents, asking him to come clean), learns an additional lesson: with the passage of enough time no one cares. People die, people forget, things change irrevocably. Rodrigues faced the absolute terror of totalitarian repression for the rest of his long life: Sheeran faces the absolute invincibility of indifference.
As for Tonelli’s points, I find them believable, including one that even Tonelli concedes: Sheeran must have been in the car that drove Hoffa to his death otherwise Hoffa would have never climbed in. Sheeran was involved, however tangentially, and likely knew what’s going on. All this — Sheeran shooting Hoffa, shooting Gallo, all the other killings, even delivering guns for the Bay of Pigs — is his way of blowing up his reputation and improving his stature that his fall might be all the greater, confessing crimes to give substance and scope to his real central sin: betraying the friend who trusted him. As with Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, much of the whole three hours might just be taking place inside Sheeran’s guilt-wracked head — the ultimate jail cell and torture chamber.
John Ford once appeared before the Director’s Guild to say “My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.” The matter-of-fact statement nicely sums up what the man was about, the way this film pretty much sums up what Scorsese’s about (and, as I say that titles come to mind contradicting the assertion: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; Kundun; Hugo). He did do this film, that much is clear, and I think it’s terrific, the best American production of the year — which I think is true even if you didn’t like the picture.