If you are a die-hard fan of The Marvel Cinematic Universe, you may be engaging with Martin Scorsese right now for different reasons. His repeated emphasis on the fact that Marvel movies are ‘theme park’ films may not have gone down well with a generation that is increasingly fascinated with the genre of the superhero.
And yet, for people watching ‘The Irishman’ on Netflix in India, one cannot but agree with Scorsese’s reasonable claim that narrative films are being encroached upon, as it were, by a repetitive and familiar template of film-making where psychological nuances and subtleties somewhat take a back-seat. The timelessly relatable components of human relationships are apparently sacrificed on the altar of a ‘make-believe’ world that promises enough entertainment but is still far removed from authenticity and verisimilitude.
With a production budget of $160 million (about ₹ 1,150 crores), a gripping story, and a phenomenal cast, the 26-day theatrical window that Netflix agreed to simply deprived Indian audiences of the unforgettable theatrical experience that this gangster film could have provided.
A mainstream production house is what Scorsese would have ideally preferred. Once that option was foreclosed, a 209-minute epic of riveting mob drama was his way of setting the equation straight. Based on Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses (2004), the film delineates the story of Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro) and how his upward social mobility from a truck-driver to a reliable bodyguard was closely connected with the fate of Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino), the notorious leader of the Teamsters who mysteriously disappeared in 1975.
The other important character Russell Bufalino, who is ably portrayed by Joe Pesci, introduces Sheeran to the world of organised crime and the two instantly hit it off. When Jimmy starts posing problems for the Mob, Sheeran is forced to kill him; something which also irreversibly alienates him from his own daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin).
On the surface of it, ‘The Irishman’ does give the viewers a ‘been there, done that’ feeling since Scorsese, De Niro, and Pesci have had a similar outing with the gangster classic Goodfellas (1990), while the energy and the rant that Pacino brings to the screen after a very long time, is unmistakably reminiscent of his role in Scent of a Woman (1992). But it is the retrospective registers of the film and the age at which these four legends have collaborated that the movie acquires a more tempered and contemplative hue.
Scorsese’s chef-d’œuvre is a quasi-philosophical take on the hubris of power and the wisdom of hindsight. When Bufalino tells Hoffa that some people think that he might be ‘demonstrating a failure to show appreciation’, the latter replies, ‘Nobody threatens Hoffa’. It is this blinding pride that allows him to treat Tony Pro (played by Stephen Graham) with disdainful contempt even as he turns a deaf ear to Sheeran’s repeated and earnest attempts to broker peace between the two. In addition, Peggy’s increasing estrangement with her father is in a way an ethical index that measures the immorality of his actions, thereby lending him a larger perspective on life itself.
De Niro’s performance as Frank Sheeran is restrained and impeccable while the de-ageing technology that shaves 40 years from the three major characters redefines the idea of make-up in a world of computer graphics and booming technology. The scene in which Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) is killed by Sheeran appears as convincing and lifelike as any other murder sequence in De Niro’s earlier films.
Pacino plays Hoffa with elegance, subtlety, and sophistication. His vibrant speeches recreate the enduring appeal and popularity that Hoffa enjoyed at the height of his career. As someone who is usually accustomed to playing the quintessential hothead, Pesci, too, delivers a compelling portrait of a tactful and poised mob boss.
Scorsese’s film is a haunting account of loyalty, remorse, and self-preservation. Despite being close friends with Hoffa, Sheeran has to make an impossibly difficult choice of killing him. His unwavering allegiance to Russell is in that sense also about picking a side to safeguard his own interests and priorities. But the levelling principles of time and old age do not spare him either as his frequent meetings with the priest amply demonstrate.
At a meta-textual register, ‘The Irishman’ is Scorsese’s own attempt to create a vivid and arresting conclusion to his long-standing association with the gangster film. At 77, he has witnessed the changing dynamics of the film industry that has resulted in a kind of marginalisation of non-superhero cinema. His own discomfort with this marginalisation is both a matter of personal choice as well as a larger concern about the homogenisation of theatrical experience. As such, ‘The Irishman’ is a welcome relief from the overabundance of ‘theme park’ films.
Still, Scorsese, along with De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, is doing this at a point in his life where he realises that it is a rare cinematic exhibition of compulsive content, hypnotic direction and breathtaking performances. The gangster film as a popular choice of contemporary cinema may not be an ideal yardstick with which one can compare the staggering box office success of Marvel movies since they are completely designed for different viewers. But one immediately distinguishes the latter from the kind of movies that Christopher Nolan made while dealing with Batman or the one that Todd Phillips directed with Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker.
In both these cases, personal conflict and psychological depth are never considered pointless or incidental with respect to the main plot. In other words, a cognitive rendition of human existence becomes an indispensable part of the cinematic vocabulary. Viewed in this context, ‘The Irishman’ is a poignant rumination on the futility of violence in the larger scheme of things and how criminals obsessed with power can only make a mark through brute force. It is definitely one of the finest works to have emerged in an era of formulaic content, limited attention span, and ‘theme park’ rides.