Saturday, 16 November 2019

The Irishman

Although Robert De Niro is in the lead role, this film belongs to Al Pacino. His energy thrusts his character Jimmy Hoffa, into the centre of the screen for more than half this film's three and a half hour runtime! Joe Pesci's Russell is also a strong performance and Harvey Keitel reprises his Winston Wolf role from UK TV! This is an intense film that does not drag at all. Director, Martin Scorsese knows how to wring all of the creative juice out of an ensemble cast of veteran actors that are unlikely to appear together again on screen.

The characters are compellingly believable. Okay, so many of the actors are reprising roles they've played multiple times before but this film has an earnest freshness about it which makes the characters endearing. You can't say that about too many mob and gangster movies!

The way the story is told uses multiple narrative devices which blend seamlessly together to tell a story spanning several decades. It is very clever story-telling and a masterful piece of cinematic art - at the pinnacle of the art form. It will do very well in the awards ceremonies over forthcoming months.

The two main  ways in which the story is told are in flashback and also through a road trip. These intertwine like the double helix to give the film its DNA. It begins in the here and now and the purpose of the flashbacks is to show how Frank Sheeran (De Niro) - the titular Irishman came to be in a nursing home in his final years. As the flash backs and Sheeran's narration build to the climax, so the road trip emerges from its routine pattern to deliver a twist at the end.

The story centres around mafia mobsters running their rackets and the powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters - the truckers Trades Union in the USA and their charismatic leader Hoffa. In essence it is a morality tale told within an amoral world.

The leading characters, being 'good Catholics', are often seen in church, usually for baptisms in their ever expanding families. That contrasts sharply with a lifestyle centred on extortion, theft, assassination, bribery and fraud. Within the 'family' of each gang, there is a strict morality code of honour which if betrayed means death. So many of the conversations in the film were nuanced and by necessity obscured their real meaning by using euphemisms to avoid incrimination as orders were given for arson attacks, bombings and assassinations. Had I been a part of this world, I'm sure I would have missed half the cues and euphemisms and ended up with several holes in my head as a consequence!

Towards the end of the film some characters are seen with their priest as they seek to put their house in order but without feeling remorse or the need to confess their misdoings. They long for mercy from God in the life to come after living a life in the here and now in which no mercy was shown to those on the receiving end of their 'work'.

If asked "do you paint houses?" you are really being  asked "can you kill someone for me?" and the positive response is "yes and I do my own carpentry". The 'paint' is the blood that splatters the walls and covers the floors! Do You Paint Houses? is the title of a 2004 work of narrative nonfiction written by former homicide prosecutor, investigator and defence attorney Charles Brandt on which the screenplay is based. There are many wonderful one-liners such as, "A secret between three people is only safe if two of them are dead"!

This is a very masculine and patriarchal film. Women feature often but are portrayed as being quiet and subservient passive accomplices to the crimes of their men folk. As you would expect in an Italian-American subculture, families are extremely important. Saying thank you and showing proper respect are sacrosanct. There is a strict morality and high expectations surrounding how children are expected to behave and relate within the extended mob family - but killing people is okay.

Of course there is a lot of violence in this film - there has to be given the subject matter. The violence is always swift and clinical. Scorsese's Direction never lets the violent acts themselves become the focus of the story, they are simply nodes in a matrix of interwoven relationships that are unravelling.

There is much to lament and to be sad about as the film, like its ageing stars, it stumbles on its zimmer frame towards its conclusion. We know that Sheeran survives as the film opens with him in a wheelchair, white hair flowing, sitting in a corner of a nursing home telling his story. How many of the other characters survive with him at the end? The use of CGI technology to make the main characters appear more youthful to play themselves in the 1950's and subsequent decades and then to appear older at the end is subtle and unobtrusive. The sets are wonderful period pieces and the lighting, especially of characters faces, is sublime.

Despite the grim context of this film's story and the many splatters of paint, as you may have gathered, I really liked it. It is worth the investment of 3.5 hours of your life. You will enjoy great acting and an epic and engaging story. Do go and see it. I'll give it a 9/10.

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