Unconscionable Crimes & Unpardonable Sins
And so to the grand climax of the year’s movies, which I left until last for viewing partly from fear of disappointment. Martin Scorsese’s controversial remarks about the Marvelification of Hollywood conveniently avoided his own lifelong obsession with Italian-Americans arguing in bad restaurants. The initial unveiling of his long-gestating version of the Jimmy Hoffa story, ‘I Hear You Paint Houses’ / ‘The Irishman’ was dominated by discussion of the CG de-ageing process that provides the film with a few Polar Express-like moments but quickly comes to feel natural – or at least, a small price to pay for witnessing the climax of Scorsese’s career.
This is the director’s equivalent of the James Elroy quartet, a dense, repetitive stitching together of all relevant pieces in the puzzle of postwar US corruption linking the unions to the mafia, the Kennedys and Cuba. This time there’s something that was missing from earlier iterations – a sense of Scorsese’s self-awareness of his own need to connect the dots between big events and small men (always men). This time the process feels ultimately healing, filled with grace notes and rewards.
We’re in core Scorsese territory here, from the extended opening shot that echoes the start of ‘Goodfellas’, through to the frequently ludicrous conversations between illiterate, brutish men (there’s a great one about buying a fish) – but the spirit of Sergio Leone is also here in its elegiac, grand tone; this time the opening shot is not a nightclub but a care home, where Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) waits for death alone. He could take a secret with him, for he alone knows the fate of the much loved and reviled Teamster boss. Everyone else who knew (or cared) who Jimmy Hoffa was is now dead. Once an international name, Hoffa’s disappearance remained a much-discussed mystery. He had been played by Jack Nicholson in a 1992 biopic.
Careening back through the life of Frank, from amiable young lug lifting sides of beef to dirty-work hitman throwing freshly used guns into the river, we take De Niro’s side as he eventually becomes Hoffa’s number two simply because he seems a calm, neutral footsoldier while everyone else around him is – well, unstable would be putting it mildly. Over the next three and a half hours Frank’s life unspools to find the point where we hope he will develop a conscience, or something like it.
There are some exhilaratingly bizarre confrontations between the key players, all on fine form, with Joe Pesci a surprise, subtler and less jittery than in his ‘how do I amuse you?’ mode. It feels like a meeting of old friends, although the addition of Al Pacino as Hoffa is new for the director. He’s been toned down from his histrionic late performances, so when he finally lets rip here the outburst feels earned.
‘Schindler’s List’ writer Steve Zaillian surrounds Frank with a spectacular gallery of grotesques (including a near-blind strangler) who almost call to mind Dick Tracy’s villains, packing out the kind of scenes that need to be present; non-too-bright gangsters comparing signet rings, portly argumentative small fry being led off likely slaughterhouse piglets to lonely spots, cars being blown up at the touch of an ignition, waiting wives turning a blind eye as their men return home in bloodied shirts. Deaths are intense (Scorsese couldn’t film someone washing a cup without making it feel tense) but not gory.
Charges that Scorsese ‘can’t do’ female characters have always been false; his one so-called women’s picture, ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’, was a triumph that brought an academy award to Ellen Burstyn. Here the hard-faced chain-smoking wives know all too well what’s going on in the lives of their made men, but they also know which side their bread is buttered. The effect on their more clear-eyed daughters is made explicit as Frank’s favourite child slowly distances herself from her father and creepy Uncle Jimmy.
Although he has the most reticent role of the film’s males, De Niro is its centre, finally paying the price for his inability to feel – ironically, his fate is not to be blasted into eternity like most of his fearful marks, but to simply be ignored as irrelevant, his star burnt out by the crimes he cannot bring himself to own. And yes, it is a masterpiece.