Martin Scorsese, as the world well knows, makes movies about Italian restaurants. Sure, he makes bloody crime films, too, but at some level he seems to be asking: what’s the difference? In Goodfellas (1990), a man crashes into a pizzeria, one hand shot to pieces, bleeding all over the place. He’s kicked out, and the film cuts to a platter of deli meats surfing through a crowded eatery. The gambling mastermind at the centre of Casino (1995) masquerades as a ‘Food and Beverage Manager’. Meanwhile, the film’s trigger-wild tough, played by Joe Pesci, opens up a classy night spot.
Restaurants are so common in Scorsese’s world they would be easy to overlook. Print the scripts. Have a look. Odds are the scene heading will read: ‘INTERIOR – RESTAURANT – DAY’. Two characters might be making a salad, talking about where to get the best red-wine vinegar, but what they’re really saying is: ‘so-and-so is about to kill so-and-so’. In Scorsese’s careful studies of mob society, there seems to be an intimate and inexpressible link between eating and murder, between a restaurant brimming with bodies and a man dying alone in the backroom.
The Irishman – based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses (2004) – rounds off fifty years of directing. It crystallises, into a brilliant diamond of a film, the abiding interests of Scorsese’s career: the prospect of redemption for the unredeemable, the cracking of bones and the breaking of bread, the sensuous brutality of the American mafia.
Scorsese’s ambivalent affection for mob masculinity finds its most challenging treatment in Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran, a role that no one could pull off like Robert De Niro. Sheeran is a heart-numbed thug. Remorseless to the end, he executes violence automatically. Only the classic Scorsese/De Niro pairing could find the human pulse of a character whose morals are as humane as a .38 calibre revolver. But Scorsese has never bothered with the reluctant criminal, having little time for the good-kid-gone-bad moralism of a Horatio Alger story. His characters can’t wait to ‘get into the life’. Sheeran buys his way into the mob through their stomachs, using his gig as a truck driver to hijack beef carcasses and deliver them to the mafia’s steak house. Before long he’s ‘painting houses’ – spraying walls with the ghastly pink of brain and skull. He is not a good fellow, yet this is his film; at its core, it’s a love story, as unlikely as that sounds.
The Irishman is, at some level, a movie about what the world afforded men at a particular time, and what kinds of attachments surprisingly survived. Notably, only one of Scorsese’s films has a female protagonist (Alice, from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974); even so, The Irishman is perhaps his most resolutely masculinist. While Goodfellas and Casino both explore the travails of mobster-wives, featuring memorable parts by Lorraine Bracco and Sharon Stone respectively, there is none of that here. Coming closest is Peggy Sheeran (Anna Paquin), Frank’s daughter. With minimal screen time and few lines, she places a compass point around which the film pivots. Its main arc, however, encompasses the surprising recognition of manly affection, nourished in a world of dispassionate harm. Perhaps no film has ever so quietly evoked the kind of love that might emerge between two men bound for the same homicidal terminus. In the epic scope of the film, this intimacy of brutality and affection is less a contradiction in terms than a contour of American history. At this level, the film outlines a historical period that has come to pass. It looks back on an age defined by the social-democratic state, where the US Army, the American labour movement, and the Italian-American mafia offered strong and strangely overlapping institutions of belonging, with deep, albeit dangerous and exclusionary, feelings of attachment. This is an era of intergenerational family living, in which atomised individuals were the exception, misogyny, homophobia, and racism were toxins in the water, and ethnicity implied affiliative civic membership rather than grounds for annunciating personal identity. The figure that cuts this historical edge of the film most sharply is that of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the charismatic leader of the Teamsters Union who mysteriously vanished in 1975. Pacino delivers his performance, predictably, with the caps lock on. Even his sotto voce might benefit from tapping the volume down. Some hamminess notwithstanding, Pacino’s dynamite-bright Hoffa allows Scorsese to look warmly at a time when an American labour leader was a household name.
Aside from its moral complexity and historical ambition, The Irishman is a magisterial display of editorial control. Thelma Schoonmaker has cut every Scorsese movie since Raging Bull (1980), and while her latest triumph will grab attention for its digital de-ageing process – which shaves about thirty years off the visages of Pesci and De Niro – there is something tremendously quiet, patient, and masterful about the film’s composition. As cinephiles never tire of saying, filmmaking is nothing if not the manipulation of time.
Schoonmaker and Scorsese can be conspicuous in this regard. Their halt-and-lurch pacing might dolly-zoom one minute and freezeframe the next. A case in point is the underrated Bringing Out the Dead (1999), about EMTs transiting a reckless New York City. Picture John Goodman at the driver’s wheel, letting out an extended slow-motion bellow that cuts right into a dazzling fast-forward time-lapse of the truck speeding through the New York night. In other places, like the opening of Casino, Schoonmaker and Scorsese make the distinction between scene and summary terribly brittle. The film’s still doing expository set-up at the forty-minute mark. In the hands of lesser editors, the outcome might be audience impatience, but Schoonmaker and Scorsese make it work. In The Irishman, two cutting-room masters hit the acme of their collaborative power, splicing multiple timelines into a seamless gem. All the flashback sleight of hand might be disorienting if it were not for how methodically it reinforces the character’s experience. And then there is the perfectly musicless twenty-minute climax, reminiscent of the painfully quiet chase sequence through Berlin’s U-Bahn in Wim Wender’s Der amerikanische Freund (1977).
The Irishman might produce as many reactions as it has viewers, and Netflix audiences could approach it, lengthy as it is, as a pauseable series rather than as a cinematic epic. For those, however, with an affection for gangster films, it will delight – reprising the big-screen collaborations of De Niro and Pesci; Scorsese and Schoonmaker. This is their swansong to a receding historical moment: of working-class immigrants, their mob-handed masculinities, and their unspoken affections for one another. Seeing it in the cinema might be like going to your favourite Italian restaurant one last time, before it closes.
The Irishman (Netflix), directed by Martin Scorses, is in cinemas November 7 and on Netflix November 27 2019.