At the Movies

Michael Wood

The camera proceeds down a corridor in a nursing home. It isn’t in a hurry but it is looking for someone. It veers slightly to the right towards an alcove, decides it doesn’t need to go there, and continues straight ahead. It turns left into a larger room and moves more confidently towards an old man in a wheelchair, seen from the back. The camera circles round him and pauses in the air close to his face – too close for any plausible human view. Martin Scorsese – this is the opening scene of his new film The Irishman – likes this kind of shot. At the beginning of The Age of Innocence (1993) the camera zooms slowly in to the face of a singer on stage at the opera. We see wrinkles, make-up, the line on the forehead where the wig begins. All very realistic, even real, but in reality only a person hanging from the ceiling like a spider could see what we are seeing on the screen.

At such moments the camera seems to be a sort of omniscient narrator, but is actually more like a privileged reader. We realise at once that the privilege creates interesting problems. What if a face or a scene we are looking at is using an alphabet we can’t read, or no alphabet at all? The question gets more and more intriguing as the new film unfolds. The old man is Frank Sheeran, a real-life gangster who died in 2003 at the age of 83. He worked for the mob in Philadelphia and was very close to Jimmy Hoffa, the more than charismatic leader of the Teamsters’ Union. Sheeran had been in prison for what he regarded as one of his lesser crimes (giving instructions for a man’s legs to be broken), and released early because of his health. He told his story to his lawyer, Charles Brandt, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, I Heard You Paint Houses (2004). The phrase is supposed to have been among the first words Hoffa said to Sheeran when they met on the phone.

Formally the film is Sheeran’s autobiography. He speaks to the camera, we hear him in voiceover, follow his life from army service in Italy in the Second World War to buying a coffin and talking to a priest. In practice, the film is mostly composed of dramatised flashbacks, where the past becomes the present and the future is temporarily forgotten. Scorsese also has the help of a technique he calls ‘youthification’, a form of CGI created by Pablo Helman which allows older actors – no, very old actors – to become the age the time of the action requires. The 76-year-old Robert De Niro gets to play the 40-year-old Sheeran, as well as the same man at 55 and 83. For the record, Harvey Keitel (b. 1939), Al Pacino (b. 1940) and Joe Pesci (b. 1943) also get to inhabit different times, though Pacino, as Jimmy Hoffa, doesn’t live so long. All of these performances are amazing, but I would single out Pesci for special mention. The angry guy of earlier movies – of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), for example – has become a suave, smiling fellow who doesn’t do anything violent. He is all the more sinister for being amiable, of course, but he understands the world as Sheeran/De Niro does not. Pesci, as Sheeran’s friend and protector Russell Bufalino, knows what everything costs, and he is willing to pay, and demand, the highest prices.

Scorsese and his writer, Steven Zaillian, introduce another timeline too. It involves two days in 1975, when Sheeran is driving Bufalino, along with their mildly rebellious but mostly ignored wives, to a wedding. We return again and again to the stages of this apparently anodyne journey. The trip, from Philadelphia to Detroit, turns out not be about the wedding at all, and not only because Bufalino has various stops to make along the way. We can guess about the stops but all we see are the envelopes, presumably full of money, that Sheeran or Bufalino collect. We have already been told by Sheeran that if you ‘want to know when to bribe a judge’, you should ‘ask Russell’, and that ‘all roads lead back to Russ.’ All roads in north-eastern Pennsylvania, that is.

The film is long (3 hours 29 minutes), and Scorsese, in a wonderful interview with Philip Horne (Sight and Sound, November) says how happy he and his great editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, were to be working for Netflix and not a movie studio. He was not, as Horne puts it, ‘under pressure to bring a film down in length’. It isn’t too long, but its length changes its mood and meanings, and makes it more disturbing. It’s as if the gangster movies I just mentioned had turned into meditations rather than action pictures.

This is not how the early parts of The Irishman feel. We see Sheeran in Italy killing prisoners of war. They dig their own graves and he wonders what they are thinking. Don’t they know what’s happening to them? They seem surprised when they finish the job and get shot, falling back into the pit. Next we see him in America driving a truck full of sides of beef. Well, full until he delivers the sides for a good price to the wrong people. He is tried for this, and not only goes free but gets to hear the judge tell the prosecution off for attacking a poor working man. He likes this because it is just how he sees himself. It’s a hard world and you have to be hard to live in it. He knows what the phrase about painting houses means before he hears it from Hoffa – it means bumping people off, the reference is to spattered blood. In one telling sequence we see him completing one of his first commissions and then returning home to learn that a local shopkeeper has treated his small daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina), roughly. He grabs his daughter and drags her back to the shop, where he beats up the man, smashes the shop door and tramples on the man’s hand. The girl stands by, not exactly shocked but certainly horrified. Later she sees her dad stuff a gun into a bag before he leaves the house late at night. When she asks where he is going, he says: ‘To work.’ Later, when no one is supposed to know that he has committed his most significant crime, his daughter quickly figures it out. Sheeran, telling the story, says she ‘disappeared from my life that day’. At this point she is a grown person (played by Anna Paquin), and even later, when he talks to another of his daughters at the nursing home, he still doesn’t understand what Peggy’s problem was. He was only trying to keep everybody safe, they just don’t know how dangerous the world is.

As Sheeran grows older, goes to work for Hoffa, becomes a union boss himself, the film turns to politics: Kennedy’s election, arranged by his father and his connections if the film is to be believed; the Bay of Pigs disaster; Kennedy’s assassination; Bobby Kennedy’s prosecution of Hoffa; a growing rift between the union and the mob. And with this turn the film itself moves from sinister mythologies (which are frequently realities too, no doubt) to knockabout comedy. We get Don Rickles making jokes about gangsters, a totally stereotyped Italian American (Tony Pro, very well played by Stephen Graham) complaining about stereotypes, Hoffa indulging himself with parodies of prejudice (‘Tony, which Tony? They’re all called Tony’). And in the broadest touch of all, a major, life-saving political settlement fails because one of the potential participants is late for a meeting and not wearing a suit. Hoffa can’t allow this kind of lèse-majesté. He wasn’t perhaps quite ready to die for his principle, but according to the story told in this film he did. Going into the details of his end in this version would be too much of a spoiler – there are some fine surprises and some dark questions in the film’s climax, the termination of the journey to Detroit – and it will be enough to say here that as far as history knows Jimmy Hoffa disappeared 44 years ago and his body has never been found.

What do we make of the turn from myth to comedy? The audience in the cinema where I saw the film for the second time weren’t just smiling, they were falling out of their seats with laughter. I think this is where the length of the film and the sense of a meditation play a role too. The sheer, delightful silliness of some of the later scenes, the mode of aggravated burlesque, makes the merciless killing that underlies it all if not more real, then more unmanageable, harder for the mind to lay hold of, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Conrad. I think Scorsese wants us to feel a sympathy for Sheeran that I, for one, am a long way from feeling, but what if both he and his daughter are right? What if the world is as dangerous as he thinks it is, and as fully devoted to power and protection and threat? And also, as Peggy must believe, unacceptable on those terms, and only made worse by our eager co-operation with what we imagine we can’t change?