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'The Irishman' - Deconstruction

Updated on August 1, 2020

A mob movie. An epic crime-drama. A gangster drama. What comes to your mind immediately when you think of these things? Mob bosses in stylish suits with cigars and slicked back hairstyles, and violent gunfights, right? But what if I tell you that an old man in a nursing home, contemplating over his past deeds and sins could be miles better? Yeah, you read it right. Exciting, isn't it?

Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro are back together for a feature film after 25 years and boy, didn't we miss them? (technically 4 years; they worked together on a short film Audition alongside Leo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt) Scorsese's longtime collaborators Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel jump in the bandwagon too. Pesci had retired years ago and didn't want to be a part of this project initially. De Niro had to convince him and bring him out of his retirement. Thank heavens he did that. And guess who's the new boss in town... the Godfather himself, Al Pacino! This is actually the first time Pacino and Scorsese are working together. Surprising, isn't it? These two giants who were so instrumental in defining the crime genre, have never made a film together. It surprises me how these men continue to surprise us even after all these years, just when we felt that everything has been thought of and done and they can no longer surprise us.

The Irishman is based on the 2004 memoir I Heard You Paint Houses, by Charles Brandt.

This column contains major spoilers; continue at your own risk.

Scorsese vs Scorsese

The same genre; same director; the same main cast; and both are book adaptations. Comparison with the iconic GoodFellas is inevitable.

GoodFellas is fun, exciting, and fast-paced. It is all about greed, excess, and indulgence. These guys had everything - money, weapons, power - you name it, they had it. Or at least they had the power to get it. GoodFellas traces the growth of a young boy who romanticized the mob lifestyle and would rather become a mob boss than the President of the United States. It provides so much detail on organized crime and portrays the glamorous and luxurious lifestyle of these gangsters in a dark, breathless, and thrilling way.

The Irishman, on the other hand, is all about the men behind the scenes. It's about their lives, love, loss, regret, and betrayal. This movie provides extensive detail on its lead characters and vulnerabilities. This movie made its characters feel more human, somehow. I wouldn't call this movie slow; it's more of an emotional dissection of the lead characters. Scorsese transports us into their minds and makes us feel every single emotion they feel. Some scenes just hit you so hard, making you feel for these seemingly cold, ruthless men. This film, more than any other gangster film, brings out the emotions and vulnerability of mobsters who otherwise, always seem stone-hearted and frigid.

Which one was better? Well, I'll leave that to you.

Joe Pesci (left) and Robert De Niro (right) in 'The Irishman'
Joe Pesci (left) and Robert De Niro (right) in 'The Irishman'

Which movie did you like more?

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A lot can happen in a lifetime...

Flashback portions make a huge chunk of this film, with only a small part being set in the present. This movie follows 60 years of Frank's life - from the age of 20 to around 80. At the time of release, De Niro was 76 years old, Al Pacino was 79, and Joe Pesci was 76. Martin Scorsese didn't want other actors playing the flashback portions. Make-up and wigs only go to an extent; they made De Niro look younger only by 20 years. Scorsese didn't want actors wearing headgear and their faces marked by pointers, the usual de-aging techniques, as he felt they would hinder their performances. He wanted them to be their usual selves while acting. This required some extra-ordinary, revolutionary work from the VFX department. But they couldn't find the right financers and the project went through development hell and so many delays.

Enter Netflix. Enter Industrial Lights and Magic (ILM).

A huge lump of the whopping $160 million budget went towards de-aging tech. Years of footage of these actors were analyzed; apart from the standard cameras, two more witness cameras captured wider angles and collect infrared information, which was later used to create a sort of a mask on the actors' faces. This is serious de-aging we're talking about; not de-aged Carrie Fisher shown briefly at the end of Rogue One or young Robert Downey Jr. shown for a single scene in Civil War. Close to 80% of this movie features younger versions of the actors and all the effort was worth it for the most part.

Scorsese called this setup 'the three-headed monster'
Scorsese called this setup 'the three-headed monster'
Even young De Niro had that iconic frown on his face.
Even young De Niro had that iconic frown on his face.

At first, it was a bit disturbing - there was an eerily smooth gloss on the faces; but as the movie progresses, I got used to it. The de-aging was perfect for Pacino, Pesci, Keitel, and most of the actors; but for De Niro, not so much.

There is a lot of physicality associated with De Niro's Frank - he had to run, beat up others, kill people, and move swiftly. How much every young he looked, De Niro still had stiff shoulders and bent a little while he walked. I can't really blame the de-aging effects for this; he really did look young. But when it gets too physical, it just seems a bit off and didn't cohere well with his de-aged face. In the end, all of them looked the character's age but couldn't act the character's age.

Out of Order

The Irishman goes back and forth in time; a disjoint narrative. This narrative structure really elevates this film, which would have otherwise been pretty mediocre. Here's why.

At the heart of this film are emotions. Pure emotions. This film actually feels like 4 films or 4 different parts put together, each part having its own dominant and guiding emotion. For example, the narrator Frank Sheeran, in the first part, is at the top of his game, worrying little about how his family is getting affected by his professional life; the first part, in general, has a really light and humorous tone. In the second part, as he gets older, he begins to realize that his daughter is distancing herself from him and how his line of work is disturbing his family. The third part gets really serious and dark; opposing forces get stronger, Hoffa gets out of control and Sheeran has to betray him. The fourth and final part is very melancholic and gloomy - he is really old and in jail; his daughter is estranged and he is burdened with guilt and remorse. The only thing which remained constant at the end is that he was ever a soldier; he received orders, he followed them, and he got rewarded. Right till the end. Everything else about him changed in one way or the other.

With the emotions in focus, the transition phases become highly vital. Transitioning from one part to the next part would have been really difficult and blurry if a chronological narrative structure was employed. Every part is like a film on its own. The transition would have been really blurry and wouldn't have effectively conveyed the emotional weight of the movie. The sudden changes in the narrative are really effective in conveying the change of emotions and mood shifts. This narrative structure combined these 4 separate parts seamlessly. Apart from this, the narrative doesn't really complicate things, making it difficult for the viewers to make sense of what's going on; it does what it is supposed to do: makes the transition phases smooth and gives an overall polished look to the movie.

The issues... wait, what?

As for negatives, I want to address two things that most viewers had issues with.

The length. So much talk about the runtime during the time of release; maybe well deserved so. 210 minutes. That's 3.5 hours. Many people did not like that number. Me neither. I did not like that number a bit.

Too short. Way too short.

I could just watch Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sheeran and Russ Bufalino sit at a table and talk for at least an hour or so! That's how good the performances were. Heh, surprise. Initial comments before release were that this film would be too grueling and exhausting; reporters joked that the picture should be considered as a three-part mini-series. A Twitter user even created a 'viewing guide', with appropriate cut-off points, turning the long film into a '4 part mini-series'. They were probably right in their claims - only 18% of the viewers made it to the end in a single sitting on the first day. But honestly, it felt like a 2-hour 45-minute movie. That's how intense and compelling the acting and direction are; I just got pulled in and didn't even want to look away for a second. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian's screenplay is just brilliant; clever, entertaining, and engaging. The pace was perfect, and Scorsese's love affair with voiceover narrations and flashbacks has worked wonders here.

How did you watch 'The Irishman'?

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The second 'problem': the portrayal of women in Sheeran's life. The general consensus was that enough attention wasn't given to the women in Frank's life, namely his eldest daughter, Peggy Sheeran. So throughout his career, Frank thought he always protected his family, but his professional life was eating away at his family, bit by bit. Even though he acknowledged it, the soldier in him couldn't bring himself to do anything about it. He just followed orders, no questions asked. And that's why the attention given to the women was just right.

The whole story is being narrated by Frank Sheeran, who I feel, even in hindsight and retrospect, doesn't really understand or care to bother how he had really hurt his family. He narrates and confesses to the priests and audience; but even then, only his relationship with Jimmy takes center-stage. Though he cares for his family, he would have always chosen Jimmy over his family, if given a second chance. The platonic romantic relationship they share is one of the most intriguing aspects of the film. Even after all these years, it is Jimmy that matters to him the most; such was the bond shared by them. But it breaks Sheeran's heart when he realizes that his loyalty towards Jimmy was cheap. He let his circumstances take control of him. With all this taken into account, the time and attention given to Peggy make perfect sense.

One final rodeo...

The final shot
The final shot

The third act of the movie, or more accurately the last half hour was just heart-wrenching. All the people involved in Jimmy's killing are in jail, rotting away and dying; Frank's violent and sinful life has alienated himself from everyone else; he is all alone in a nursing home, living his last days in regret. He is confessing to the priest and the audience. This regret is symbolized in a powerful way and delivers the maximum impact when Frank tells the priest to not close the door all the way as he leaves his room. This is the last shot of the film; the camera lingers on Frank through the gap.

This is actually an emulation of one of Jimmy Hoffa's habits. In one of the earlier scenes, when Jimmy retires to his bed, he doesn't close the door to his bedroom all the way. This habit seems deep and psychological in Jimmy's case - he does this to defend himself. A man with so many foes, he doesn't want to be all alone and boxed-in, feeling completely powerless. The open door gives him a sense of power and control, making him feel more secure. But the disheartening irony is that he actually trusted his killer, Frank Sheeran, to make him feel secure and invulnerable. But for Frank Sheeran, the open door isn't something that makes him powerful or secured; it is an invitation. An invitation to his daughters; one more chance for reconciliation with them; a chance he knows that will never come.

Frank's emulation of Hoffa's open-door habit, wearing the watch which Hoffa gifted him, all these actions are loaded with meaning. These are symbols of his regret for killing Hoffa and his cheap loyalty towards him. This is one of the most important takeaways from this movie: loyalty is valuable if only it comes out of love and respect, and not from power or force. All these men seem so tough, but deep inside they are broken and fragile, afraid of being alone; this holds true the most in Frank's case - he is just cast aside and left alone. No one even cared to kill him.

As an audience, we come to realize all of this in the last half hour and it is very overwhelming to take in and process all of this at once. It is not just Frank's decline that is depressing and heavy; it is knowing that this might very well be the last Martin Scorsese film of this kind, let alone with De Niro and Pesci. De Niro and Scorsese are making Killers of the Flower Moon, yes. But it won't feel like the old times with the old gang. This feels like one last ride before time and age take over; one final rodeo before the door closes on them. Scorsese has assembled his avengers for one final show. We wouldn't have felt like this if Casino was their last collaboration. The Irishman cements their legacy.

With In the Still of the Night by The Five Satins playing in the background, and 'Directed by Martin Scorsese' coming up on the screen, a nostalgic wave just hit me. In a flash, all their previous opuses came to my mind. At that point in time, I didn't feel sad that this could be their last movie together; I just felt glad that I got to experience and be a part of their legacy.

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