Wednesday, 18 December 2019

The Irishman

The Irishman
Martin Scorsese, 2019, USA
screenplay:Steve Zaillian

When I first saw the trailers for Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’, proudly displaying its CGI de-aging/aging, I started referring to it as “Scorsese’s ‘Lion King’.” Or perhaps his SCU (Scorsese Criminal Universe… okay, I’ll stop now). The point is, on first impression I thought it horrible. Even now, I can't shake the feeling of the faces being unnaturally airbrushed, but that's me. I've heard some say they didn't notice and others saying it was awful, so it's surely subjective. MichaelKoresky says: 
“Throughout The Irishman, we’re encouraged to look for signs of aging, for signs of decline and deceleration, all as means to figure out where and when we are.” 

But you’re more likely to be thinking how distracting or not the uncanny valley is. In practice, sometimes it looks like the cut scenes from games. In context, the story is riveting and the film so well executed that even though you’re aware of the CGI – and make no mistake, it has a digital FX team any superhero film would envy – it doesn’t distract from the narrative.

Based upon Steve Brandt's book, 'I Heard Yout Paint Houses', it proves a nice endnote on the underworld films Scorsese is so well known for, bringing in the old crew and faces for what surely is the final time. Almost all the faces are recognisable from a wealth of gangster films, and there’s also Stephen Graham holding his own against Pacino. Here is better interaction for Pacino and De Niro than ‘Heat’, the former barely being restrained from chewing any scenery in sight and the latter evoking that chilly mix of indifference and stoicism that signifies very little behind the veneer. On the other hand, you could judge the actors as having fallen into parodies of their personas: shouty and gurning respectively. And De Niro never really looks so de-Aged. It’s Joe Pesci that truly stands out, playing against the type we’d expect, calm and calculating rather than the wild card.

It begins exactly as you would assume: long tracking shot over a nostalgic golden oldie pop hit. And it won't be the last time it employs this Scorsese standard. It's long and deliberate: it’s sprawling and epic and inevitably conflating the history of the underworld and politics with the Jimmy Hoffa story. This is the kind of ground that James Ellroy eats for breakfast.  It’s all tinged with a little grey, a little drained – no differing colour-schemes to designate different eras here – and indeed there is feeling of everything being dialed down. Here are these scumbags going about their daily business of crime, corruption, extortion, executions, executions by mistake, etc.  Every now and then, the film brings up text to tell us about the violent deaths of the based-on-real-life characters. And then characters get old, in prison together aging and seemingly never reflecting upon the nature of their lives. De Niro's character goes to confession because he thinks that’s what he’s meant to do, but he doesn’t really feel regret and contrition.

What he does regret is his failed relationship with one of his daughters. She sussed him out early on, when he violently attacked a man who had apparently shoved her. Over the years, she’s always looking at the news reports of mob violence and then at him and putting two-and-two together. The silence of this character – played by Anna Parquin in adulthood – is the point, rather than perhaps signalling a deficiency of female characterisation as with ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’. The silence is the condemnation that cannot be reconciled.

But there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen already. We know Scorsese can do this in his sleep, although there is none of the flash and fizz that captures the initial allure of gangsterdom as in ‘Goodfellas’. Rather, it becomes increasingly compelling as it gathers detail and story. This is a film of and for old men, reflecting over the crimes of a life. There’s always the tug of death, and eventually details and people will be forgotten. There’s no reckoning, more resignation. It certainly feels like a swansong for a genre Scorsese helped to define.

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