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'The Irishman' review: The mob's greatest hits, in a somber key

The Irishman is a monumental, elegiac tale of violence, betrayal, memory and loss

A O Scott | NYT 

This is Scorsese’s least sentimental picture of mob life, and for that reason his most poignant
This is Scorsese’s least sentimental picture of mob life, and for that reason his most poignant

One of the canonical moments in the work of Martin Scorsese — and, therefore, in all of American cinema — is the two-and-a-half-minute sequence in Goodfellas sometimes known as “the Copa shot”. In a single, unbroken take, the camera follows Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta) and his sweetheart, Karen (Lorraine Bracco), from Henry’s car, through the kitchen and into the hurly-burly of the nightclub, accompanied by the sound of the Crystals singing “Then He Kissed Me”. For Henry, an up-and-coming mobster, the arrival at the Copa is a pure and potent dose of gangster glamour.

The opening shot of The Irishman, Scorsese’s latest long-form crime story (now on Netflix), evokes that scene and turns it inside out. Once again, the camera floats down corridors and around corners accompanied by a radio hit from the past. This time it’s the tune “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins, and we’re in a nursing home. We make our way past doctors and orderlies, our attention finally coming to rest in a quiet, nearly empty room furnished with institutional tables and chairs. An old man is waiting for us. Like Henry Hill, he’s going to tell the tale of his unsavoury associates and criminal doings.

But the mood is different this time around. The anecdotes, some of which are funny, some horrifying, are edged with a bleak sense of absurdity and shadowed by the rapid onset of oblivion. The next three and a half hours will feel like a long, final breath in fading light.

The man, whose name is Frank Sheeran — he’s the Irishman, played by Robert De Niro — has some information to share about something everyone used to care about, a piece of information that at one time could have gotten him and a lot of other people killed. Actually a lot of people did get killed. One of them might have been James Riddle Hoffa, the former president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “In the ’50s, he was like Elvis,” Frank says of the man who was his boss, friend and eventual quarry. “In the ’60s he was bigger than the Beatles.” In 1975, Hoffa vanished.

The Irishman, has a blustering, showboating, disarmingly tender Al Pacino in the Hoffa role. Frank, making his living as a truck driver in Pennsylvania after serving in World War II, becomes a soldier in the Philadelphia mob, working mostly for a local capo named Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Russell, whose cousin (Ray Romano) is a mob lawyer, connects Frank with Hoffa.

The business of graft, extortion and influence peddling occupies all these men, but The Irishman finds its emotional centre in the vicissitudes of their friendship. This is Scorsese’s least sentimental picture of mob life, and for that reason his most poignant. Hoffa, for all his windy belligerence, is also petty to the point of neurosis. He can’t stand it when an upstart Teamster rival, Anthony Provenzano (Stephen Graham), shows up late for a meeting wearing shorts. Hoffa ruthlessly focuses on money and power, unless there’s the possibility of an ice cream sundae.

I don’t mean that Pacino and Scorsese make Hoffa lovable, but rather that they render him at human scale. Russell and Frank, big shots in their own right, are small men too. In addition to checking in periodically on Frank in his lonely senescence, the movie repeatedly jumps back to a fateful road trip he and Russell took with their wives (Stephanie Kurtzuba and Kathrine Narducci), a journey as intoxicated with the banality of midcentury, middle-class married life as a John Updike story.

To watch this movie is to feel a circle closing. This isn’t the last film Scorsese will make, or the last film anyone will make about the Mafia in its heyday, but it does arrive at a kind of resting place. Not an easy one, by any means, since what The Irishman looks back on is a legacy of violence and waste, of men too hard and mean to be mourned. A monument is a complicated thing. This one is big and solid — and also surprisingly, surpassingly delicate.

© 2019 The New York Times

First Published: Fri, November 29 2019. 22:37 IST