The Man Who Painted Houses
What is cinema? Is cinema only cinema when you’re watching it in a movie theater? While their methods have changed throughout the years, ultimately a sculpture remains a sculpture and a painting stays a painting. Most of the arts have resolutely remained themselves, but cinema has a kind of protean quality, whether its worshipers choose to admit it or not.
Consider that the first movie theater opened June 19, 1905, in Pittsburgh. 96 seats were dragged into an empty store located on Smithfield Street, and when it opened, admission was a nickel. At their height, theaters bore the more grandiose nickname of movie palaces. Women in glittering gowns and men in sharp suits took their seats and, as the lights dimmed, they prepared themselves to watch what the Chinese called “electric shadows.”
These days, cinema is different. It’s in yet another moment of change. While over 1.3 billion movie tickets were sold in 2018, theater attendance has been dropping steadily. Why? Some people say that the quality of films has dropped and that they were better in the good old days.* Others opine that the theatrical experience has become too expensive, and they choose to view movies through streaming services at home or on mobile devices.
If cinema is a religion, Martin Scorsese is one of its high priests. One of the duties of priests is to provide a degree of continuity to the religion, to keep it moving forward in the face of change. As much of a cinematic purist as Scorsese is, he recognizes the necessity of change. That’s why he partnered with Netflix, and that’s why he embraced technology utilized within the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it was all to bring his latest film, The Irishman, to glorious life.
We’re introduced to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), reaching the end of the road. It’s all come to a room in a nursing home, a wheelchair, and a reflection on his legacy. What did it all mean? Was it worth it? Did he have any kind of impact whatsoever on the course of human events? Oh yeah, you could say that—and Frank decides his story needs to be told.
It all begins in 1950s Philadelphia, where Frank drives trucks for a meat packing plant. Why does he start selling sides of beef to gangster “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale)? Is it for a side hustle? Is he attracted to the thuggish glamour of the mob guys? Whatever his reasons, more and more beef ends up in Mafia-owned restaurants, and more and more of Frank’s time is spent doing small favors for them.
In its way, the law catches up to Frank, and his company accuses him of theft. Union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) gets him off, mostly because Frank refuses to name names. That gets the attention of Bill’s cousin Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a quiet and deliberate man who happens to be a Mafia kingpin.
As time passes, Frank’s star rises in the underworld. As a soldier in World War II, Frank learned to kill, and he puts those skills to use as a hitman. He makes the acquaintance of Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), a crime boss known for his conciliatory nature. Perhaps most importantly, Frank becomes close with Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), and Hoffa’s raging egomania gradually forces Frank to make some very difficult decisions.
I know for a fact that The Irishman is a masterpiece. Is it Scorsese’s best film? Well, that’s where things get tricky. Considering that the vast majority of Scorsese’s work has been made at such an astoundingly high level, I’m not sure that it really matters. What does matter is that, at three and a half hours, Scorsese hasn’t simply made another gangster movie.** Instead, he’s made a film that’s an elegy of mob movies, a summation of his own films, and an examination of how crime and “legitimate” business intersects to affect the tide of history.
Maybe in the preceding paragraph, you saw the sentence mentioning that the film is three and a half hours, and you were tempted to give the whole thing a hard pass. Don’t, because Scorsese’s pacing is mostly excellent. It may not move as fast as The Wolf of Wall Street, but Scorsese is a master of setting up and paying off moments of humor, tension, and tragedy. I specifically point to the last hour, which features some of the strongest direction of Scorsese’s career. He delivers a mythic tragedy, showing us the consequences of violence and how it can reverberate through life like ripples in a pond.
Odds are if you’ve heard anything about The Irishman, it’s the de-aging technology used on the cast. We’re following people through decades of time, and CGI has gotten to the point where it can nearly equal the skillful application of makeup and hairpieces. Initially, it’s a little weird, and there were a few times I thought De Niro looked like a character in a video game cutscene. Give it time, and you’ll get used to it.
Steven Zaillian wrote the screenplay. He’s been a screenwriter for over three decades, and he knows how to write in Scorsese’s voice while upending some of the more obvious clichés found in mob movies. De Niro’s Frank serves as our narrator, and he proves to be a wildly unreliable narrator at that. He behaves almost like an innocent bystander to his entire life, and even when he recounts murders committed, they’re treated like random events that just happened to him. Zaillian and Scorsese cover very deep themes, yet they always remember that humor is one of the deepest aspects of human behavior. The film is absolutely crammed full of moments of dry humor. Watch for the fish conversation in the car, and you’ll see what I mean.
The cast is an embarrassment of riches, even when they don’t always get to do much. Harvey Keitel is always a welcome sight, and in his limited scenes, he brings a quiet menace to the role of Angelo Bruno. Speaking of limited scenes, let’s take a moment to talk about Anna Paquin’s performance as Peggy, Frank’s daughter. Within the entirety of the film, she probably has less than six lines. Is this due to institutional sexism in a male-heavy film? No, because Scorsese has a track record of providing women with strong roles. Paquin gives such a strong performance that dialogue, by and large, would be wasted. She tells you everything you need to know about the resentment and growing horror she feels toward her father through facial expressions and the positioning of her body.
Most of us came to know Joe Pesci from his role as the psychopathic mobster Tommy DeVito. He proves yet again that he’s not a one-trick pony with his skillful performance as Russell Bufalino. Pesci is perpetually quiet, courtly, hyperaware. Al Pacino plays his opposite, but this isn’t just another shouty performance. His Jimmy Hoffa is passionate, witty, and congenitally unable to keep his mouth shut. It’s the best work Pacino has done in years, and I wish he’d gotten a chance to work with Scorsese sooner.
Then there’s Robert De Niro. Take a look at his filmography, and you’ll first notice that he’s delivered some of the greatest performances in the history of acting. You’ll also see long stretches of mediocre movies with the occasional quality film thrown in for variety. After his supporting role in Joker earlier this year, I hoped De Niro would continue his streak of good work. Hoo boy, does he ever. As Frank Sheeran, he’s the quiet rock that the rest of the cast revolves around, content to let louder men like Jimmy Hoffa take the spotlight. He pretends to be less intelligent than he actually is, and there are more than a few moments where he gets out of a jam by acting a little slow. His eyes tell us that he’s not missing anything while revealing very little about Frank’s inner life. We’re never quite sure if Frank is a sociopath from the beginning or if he’s repressed his emotions over time. One thing that’s for certain, Frank doesn’t know himself.
The great blessing and tragedy of humans are that time moves on, whether we like it or not. Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci are in their twilight. The days of the movie palaces have almost come to an end. Cinema will endure, though. It will transform into something, a form that may make it unrecognizable to its original adherents. You might watch The Irishman on your TV, iPad, or smartphone. That viewing experience might not be what was originally intended. Look closer and regardless of the screen size and shape, you’ll see a rarity in cinema—a masterpiece.
*Song of the South, a wildly racist Disney movie, was also the highest-grossing film of 1946 and made over $300 million by 1986. That alone proves the good old days were never that good.
**A number of crime reporters have claimed that the real Frank Sheeran made everything up. It’s irrelevant, considering that The Irishman is a story, not the definitive story. If you’re interested in learning the facts of this sprawling epic, this article is an excellent place to start.