Scorsese and Pacino Resurrect Jimmy Hoffa in ‘The Irishman’

Issue 251

Robert Ross Oct 9, 2019

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, his latest cinematic exploration of the world of organized crime, is perhaps one of the most widely anticipated films of the year, but those looking forward to sitting down to the visual feast we have grown to expect from one of America’s definitive directors may be disappointed.

The opening scene of the film, one of 309 scenes shot over a period of 108 days, in 117 separate locations, promises the usual fare. The camera snakes down a series of hallways in a long dolly shot, eventually coming to rest in a closeup of Robert De Niro, portraying Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, the eponymous Irishman. This opening shot, a signature of Scorsese’s, proves to be only a teaser.

Sure, all the ingredients are there — the sea of familiar faces, De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. The smoke-filled nightclubs, the back-alley assignations and public assassinations, the paradoxical pathology of felonious family men who discuss the merits of meat sauce and machine guns in equal measure.

Pacino’s Hoffa is a garrulous force of nature that elbows and barges his way through the movie.

However, unlike Scorsese’s earlier Mafia movies, Goodfellas and Casino, which snap and crackle as they barrel through their respective stories, propelled by Thelma Schoonmaker’s unique editing and Scorsese’s fondness for dolly shots, smash cuts and sudden zooms, The Irishman moves more like its hero, a 6’4”, 250-pound lumbering menace who proceeds with the measured pace of a large man in no hurry to get where he’s going.

Scorsese largely abandons his usual tropes for a more generic style, a decision that may in part have been dictated by the new technology he’s working with for the first time. Much has been speculated regarding the use of the Industrial Light and Magic de-aging technology that enables actors to play characters half their age. Scorsese typically shoots mostly on film, but 70 percent of this movie was shot digitally with two cameras, which he described as “three-eyed monsters.” They permit digital aging without the actors having to wear any kind of mapping devices.

The director has talked openly about some of his reservations about this technical breakthrough, and although he has stated that the unfamiliar equipment did not slow down production, it may have played a role in determining the “look” of the film.

The first look at a de-aged De Niro, provokes uneasiness, as he at times resembles an action figure from Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome To Marwen. But as the film unfolds in a largely chronological fashion, albeit in the context of a flashback narrative, this uneasiness fades and one begins to appreciate the real genius of the leading players in our story.

Pesci delivers an understated and rock-solid performance as mob boss Russell Bufalino, Frank Sheeran’s mentor. One gets the feeling that this may be the last we see of Pesci, which would be a shame, but it lends his performance an entirely appropriate fatalism. De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is an uncomplicated man who proceeds through life with a resignation and stolidity that plays most effectively in the scenes he shares with Al Pacino, who gives us some of his best work in years, as mobbed-up Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa. Pacino’s Hoffa is a garrulous force of nature that elbows and barges his way through the movie.

Prior to his disappearance in 1975, Hoffa was trying to claw his way back into power. Before going to prison eight years earlier, he’d headed what was then the largest union in the country, which he’d done a lot to build up. The Teamsters controlled virtually all over-the-road trucking, and their leadership was spectacularly corrupt. Their massive pension fund attracted all sorts of unsavory characters — who Scorsese portrays more as charmingly inept uncles than menaces to society. 

Steve Zaillian’s script takes great delight in finding humor in the darkest of scenarios, resulting in many laugh-out-loud moments — mobsters bicker and quibble over social niceties, punctuality and fish, while nonchalantly committing heinous crimes. It’s the inherent humanity of these characters that allows us more access to their inner selves. The film becomes much more than a retelling of mobster apocrypha and lore, arriving at a meditative and thoughtful rumination on what it is to be a man, which one can expect from a director and cast who are well into their seventies.

By comparison, the female characters are given short shrift. It is a pity that an actor as talented as Anna Paquin is given little more than scowls and withering stares to elucidate the eternally complex nature of a daughter’s relationship with her murderous father.

It’s a good thing that The Irishman will be streaming on Netflix after its limited run in the movie houses because this is a banquet of a film that cannot be fully appreciated in one sitting. I for one will definitely be going back for seconds.

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