Still from The Irishman. | Netflix
John Semley,  December 10

The Leftovers

There's no opulence in The Irishman, just the slogging ugliness of time

Still from The Irishman. | Netflix
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In 1951, Memphis businessman Kemmons Wilson set out with his wife and five kids for a family road trip to the nation’s capital. En route from Tennessee to Washington, Wilson was repeatedly let down by the poor quality of the interstate-adjacent room-and-board. And he had an idea: a chain of motels, which prize utter predictability. Inspired by the 1942 Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire Christmastime musical, he devised a name for his chain. He called them Holiday Inns.

This model for standardized lodging that left visitors pleasantly unsurprised inspired plenty of comers. Among them was Howard Deering Johnson, who, in 1954, began converting his nationwide chain of turnpike soda fountains into hotels. Like the Holiday Inn, Howard Johnson’s was valued for its sameness, quickly becoming the standard for ubiquitous motor lodging. And it’s here, in an otherwise nondescript “HoJo” somewhere between Toledo and Detroit, in July 1975, that Martin Scorsese sets The Irishman’s most terrifying, edifying scene.

In an all-but-empty industrial hotel kitchen, Philadelphia mafioso Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) orders faithful hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) to take out meddling labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). He issues the decree in the subtle-but-not-so-subtle way mob bosses in movies usually do, in which nothing is explicated, but everything is understood (“It’s what it is,” serves as the film’s repeated, cryptically tautological refrain). Buffalino does this while casually gussying up a standard issue Howard Johnson’s green salad with his own expensive vinaigrette, which he presumably brought along with him. Personally tailoring a menu item at a chain hotel restaurant known for its standardization is an exercise of power somehow even more profound than ordering the murder of high-profile union boss.

And there’s no sweeping, grand camera movement like in Goodfellas, in which wiseguys strut through a secret back entrance and through the kitchen. There’s no eye-in-the-sky omniscient voice-over, as in Casino, which diligently lays the scene. There’s no explanation of how Buffalino muscled into the kitchen to redress his salad. He’s just there. The world, to paraphrase both Scarfaces, is his.

Similarly ubiquitous is De Niro’s titular triggerman. Based on Charles Brandt’s true crime book I Heard You Paint Houses (which doubles as an onscreen subtitle of Scorsese’s film), The Irishman develops Sheeran as a self-fabulist whose own story weaves in and out of modern American history, like some homicidal Forrest Gump. In their fateful phone meeting, Pacino’s Hoffa asks Sheeran point-blank: “Would you like to be a part of this history?” And yes, he says, he does. “Whatever you need.”

Personally tailoring a menu item at a chain hotel restaurant known for its standardization is an exercise of power somehow even more profound than ordering the murder of high-profile union boss.

Sheeran’s there in World War II, blankly participating in the Geneva-violating summary execution of German POWs. (Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver’s alienated anti-hero, was a product of Vietnam. Here, Scorsese and screenwriter Steve Zaillian, boldly suggest that a similar process of soul-deadening afflicted even the wartime heroes of the so-called “Greatest Generation.” Put another way: if Goodfellas’s Henry Hill “always wanted to be a gangster,” Sheeran merely regards gangsterism as a fitting milieu for the bloodlust and sociopathy nurtured in the American military.) After ingratiating himself among Philly’s Buffalino crime family, Sheeran assists in rigging the election for Kennedy and in arming the anti-Castro forces who swept the Bay of Pigs. He helps consolidate the power of the Teamsters union as Hoffa’s man-at-hand. He takes out Colombo crime family heavy “Crazy” Joe Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco) and, yes, plays a key role in Jimmy Hoffa’s 1975 “disappearance.”

“Time,” wrote the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene in the introduction to The Alexiad, “in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things, and drowns them in the depths of obscurity . . . But the tale of history forms a very strong bulwark against the stream of time, and to some extent checks its irresistible flow.” Frank Sheeran is such a self-styled bulwark. He is like a character in a DeLillo novel, who willfully takes an active role in the shaping of history, attempting to divert the indefatigable cascading of time.

Even more than the mob, or the Teamsters leaders, or RFK’s crusades against both, time is nemesis in The Irishman. When Sheeran is shepherded to his first face-to-face with Hoffa, he’s advised to never keep him waiting. Because for Jimmy Hoffa, we’re told, “time is of the essence.” And, fitting the theme, The Irishman develops a theory that Hoffa’s fatal break with the ranks of mafioso control resulted, in part, from Teamster-associated wiseguy Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) arriving late to a sit-down. Elsewhere in the film, new characters are introduced with onscreen titles, providing not just their names and affiliations, but how and when they’ll meet their (typically grisly) ends. The film itself attempts to roll back the tides of time by employing much-much-publicized digital de-aging techniques to believably depict De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino with period-appropriate skin-matting across The Irishman’s full historical sweep. While initial scenes of De Niro (and Pesci especially) in early middle age feel eerily uncanny, rendering them somewhere between Playstation 3 characters and da Vinci’s grotesques, the eye quickly adjusts. And the performances—from De Niro’s laconic affability to Pesci’s restrained menace to Pacino’s high-wire Hoffa—more than cover for any digital deficit. (One might gamely argue that the inability of digital effects to sufficiently cover for the casts’ telltale markers of age only further serves The Irishman’s themes of inevitability.)

Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, his editor and colleague for half-a-century, adopt a shaggy, twisty structure. Flashbacks nest within flashbacks, weaving plots and incidents together en route to an extended, breathlessly tense centerpiece, which unfolds without the cathartic violence and rock ’n’ roll jukebox needle drops one might expect. On the whole, The Irishman doesn’t adhere to the ferocious propulsion of precedents in Scorsese’s gangster cinema canon (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, etc.). A few sumptuous sequences shot in super slo-mo (a technique exploited to excess in The Wolf of Wall Street) feel utterly out of place, as if the film were intermittently trying to reassert its status as a Martin Scorsese Picture. The Irishman is it at its best when it feels pallid and meandering. In this register, it seems to cut deliberately against its director’s crime film classics. Where, for example, the well-connected mobsters in Goodfellas treat a prison stint like a private resort vacation, The Irishman’s incarceration scenes are given over to slumped men with rotten teeth and diseased colons. The opulence of organized crime is nowhere to be found in The Irishman, replaced by a slogging ugliness that is intermittently enlivened by some raucous party scenes or images of De Niro gulping mucky chili dogs.

This wooly, low-key quality snaps into focus in The Irishman’s last act, which follows Sheeran’s long shamble toward death. Many of Scorsese’s protagonists are, in turn, humbled. Goodfellas’s Henry Hill is shuffled into Witness Protection, forced to live out the rest of his life “like a schnook.” Casino’s Ace Rothstein goes from running a major resort-hotel to running a modest sports book. The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort is busted, and reduced to shilling his story in motivational speeches for conference rooms full of sad-eyed Australians. Frank Sheeran faces no such stark chastening. Absent any redeeming moral lesson, and capable of only faintly apprehending the full breadth of horror he has visited on those closest to him, Sheeran’s fate proves even more undignified.

The Irishman is it at its best when it feels pallid and meandering.

As friend and foe alike are subsumed in time’s relentless rush, Sheeran survives. He buys a plot in mausoleum, scores a deal on an emerald green casket, and, motivated more by rote than genuine remorse, receives absolution from a chipper Catholic priest. Estranged from his family—especially daughter Peggy, played by Anna Paquin, whose role as Sheeran’s muted moral conscience is one of the film’s more belabored elements—he is alone, arthritic, and obtusely hard-hearted to the last. He wiles away his waning days in a nursing home, waiting for his time to come. In Howard Deutch’s Grumpier Old Men, Burgess Meredith’s frail, midwestern horndog attributes his long life to God forgetting about him. De Niro’s Sheeran is a similar figure: a remainder in the complex arithmetic of history, God’s lonely man.

Scorsese has cited Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s semi-autobiographical novel Journey to the End of Night as an influence on The Irishman. For Céline’s misanthropic narrator/surrogate, age reveals “the degree of rottenness” merely getting by in life demands. “There’s no master about it,” he moans, “no more room for fairly tales; if you’ve lived long enough it’s because you’ve squashed any poetry you had in you.” Unlike Céline’s world-wearily wizened surrogate, The Irishman’s Frank Sheeran is, at the end of his days, only faintly capable of apprehending the full extent of his cruelty. Any sympathy The Irishman stirs is not in service of its psychotic title character. Rather, it emerges in the basic recognition that we all, in due course, will drift away into the flow of time and, as Princess Komnene put it, “slip away into the abyss of oblivion.” It’s an idea that feels especially salient in the culture of contemporary filmgoing. As a friend pointed out online, much like Quentin Tarantino’s recent Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, The Irishman unfolds not like a nostalgic paean to some bygone era, but as an elegy for cinema itself: an art that feels increasingly drawn towards that consuming abyss of oblivion. And Martin Scorsese stands—increasingly self-consciously, of late—as a bulwark against such a crummy fate.


In 1994, in his Village Voice review of The Lion King, critic J. Hoberman declared Disney “America’s official culture.” The feeling was echoed a year later, in the concluding voice-over of Casino. “The town will never be the same,” Ace laments. “The big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland.”

The ongoing drama between America’s official culture and Martin Scorsese, one of the great American artists, has been well-documented. In short: Scorsese told Empire magazine that Disney’s Marvel comics blockbusters are “not cinema.” Marvel directors expressed their sad-sack dismay at the remarks. They were followed in turn by Disney CEO Bob Iger, a multi-multi-millionaire many times over who desperately desires to be respected and not merely well-remunerated. Scorsese doubled down in the Grey Lady’s op-ed pages, calling Marvel’s billion dollar movies fundamentally risk-averse. Marvel Studios’ be-capped honcho Kevin Feige refuted this charge to The Hollywood Reporter, claiming, “We killed half of our characters at the end of [Avengers: Infinity War].” (That these characters were, pretty much to the superman, revived in the subsequent Avengers: Endgame only strengthens Scorsese’s argument.) Even more to the point, Scorsese wrote of contemporary popular cinema that “everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, re-vetted and re-modified until they’re ready for consumption.”

That Martin Scorsese is correct is a given. But what interests me less is the giddy drama of an old master dressing down films and filmmakers that have an undeniably deleterious effect on the culture of films and film-going, as how The Irishman itself articulates the same tension animating the Marty v. Marvel back-and-forth. And it goes back to that subdued, ominous scene unfolding against the brushed steel backdrop of a Howard Johnson’s industrial kitchen.

That certain viewers fail to comprehend the difference between the expression of personal peccadilloes and the mandates of a mega-corporation, between art and commerce, speaks to the very breadth of the abyss Martin Scorsese stands against.

As in Casino, The Irishman suggests that an element of criminality—or rather, an element of what criminality represents—is essential to the American experience. And this is not just because, per the mob movie cliché, gangsters and capitalists offer two complementary models of the Algeresque dream of self-ennoblement. Rather, it’s because criminality manifests a fundamental disrespect for the very idea of an “official culture,” of a closed system that can operate unopposed. In Casino, Las Vegas is made to seem more vital under the sway of mob rule, precisely because gamblers flocked en mass to contract a contact high from its criminal element. (The modern corporatized Vegas celebrates this history with its mob museums and tourist-baiting “speakeasies,” which are in fact just normal bars.) The Irishman strongly suggests that American middle-class life was better when Hoffa ran the Teamsters, whose unscrupulousness served both the self-interest of union bosses and the workers themselves.

The ad hoc, often brutally violent manner in which the Teamsters, the mafia, etc., assert their authority seems, by today’s standards, almost quaint. Old fashioned racketeering is downright homey compared to corporatized forms of exploitation practiced by the modern capitalist-as-gangster. Think of scene in The Sopranos when Patsy Parisi attempts to shake down a chain coffee franchise, only to be spurned by a manager who explains that the diffuse corporate structure makes extortion essentially impossible. “It’s over for the little guy,” Patsy moans. It’s played as a joke. But is he wrong?

Granted, the rush towards an increasingly corporatized, homogenized experience of American life may well negatively impact entrepreneurial mafiosi attempting to secure protections rackets. But it also affects the whole culture. In a world where everything is Starbucks and Walmart and Disney movies and generic Howard Johnson’s hotels, where the experience of life is determined in board rooms by parties purely interested in bolstering their bottom line, where pretty much every aspect of existence increasing feels, in Martin Scorsese’s terms, “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified,” the individual feels superfluous, a Frank Sheeran-styled leftover. The same is true of popular filmmakers attempting to ply their trade in a climate that, more and more, seems not only inhospitable to anything like art, but contemptuous of it. Even more than his searing Times op-ed, The Irishman, warts and all, mounts a persuasive case for the preservation and cultivation of such individual artists.

As to the specious claim that Martin Scorsese—with his uncredited voice-overs and sly cameos, his recurring cast of confederates, and his re-articulations of themes of faith under duress—constitutes his own “franchise,” well: that certain viewers fail to comprehend the difference between the expression of personal peccadilloes and the mandates of a mega-corporation, between art and commerce, speaks to the very breadth of the abyss Martin Scorsese stands against, onscreen and off.

John Semley is a writer based in Toronto. His most recent book is Hater: On The Virtues Of Utter Disagreeability.

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