NOVEMBER 19, 2019
MARTIN SCORSESE’S 39th feature film is about a minor figure in union history named Frank Sheeran who helped introduce the group of unions known collectively as the Teamsters to organized crime. Scorsese was born in 1942, while Sheeran was in the Army with a dislocated shoulder waiting to get shipped to North Africa. When Scorsese was watching movies in his parents’ apartment because his asthma prevented him from playing outside with other kids, Sheeran was driving trucks in Philadelphia and picking up extra cash by killing people for the Bufalino crime family. In 1973, Scorsese released Mean Streets starring Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel and began an ascent that made him synonymous with American motion pictures. In 1975, Sheeran killed Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa. He wouldn’t tell this to anyone until right before his death from cancer in 2003 in a nursing home outside Philly. Why did he wait so long to confess? Hoffa’s disappearance beguiled the Americans news media for years; his missing body became an icon of things permanently lost. By the time Sheeran was in a talkative mood, his family had mostly abandoned him and the members of Bufalino family to whom he answered had all died. Perhaps the better question is why did he say anything at all?
The answer, I feel, has more to do with Scorsese than perhaps even the director knew before he agreed to adapt Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, all about Sheeran, with his longtime muse De Niro back in the lead role after a 20-year absence from Scorsese’s cinema. De Niro’s presence also raises a number of questions. How was a 74-year-old actor supposed to play Sheeran during the prime of his life, when the story is largely set? How was Scorsese going to make all this happen, living legend or not? And furthermore, why would he want to?
Fear of death and refusal of old age in movie-making are as old as the moving image itself. Movie stars date appallingly young, and directors sew bone-deep terror of mortality into their images. Film critic André Bazin famously defined the ontology of cinema according to its “mummy complex,” its embalming of time and space. And true to form, something uniquely bizarre occurs when film directors near the death at which they’ve been thumbing their nose by preserving slices of life for one and all to experience. The “late film” has become a class unto itself: what happens to your work if you know this will be one of the last times you point a camera at someone and yell, “Action!”?
A trio of films released in 2012 — Raúl Ruiz’s Night Across the Street, made when the director was 70; Manoel De Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow, made when he was 102; and Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, made when he was 89 — are perhaps the best recent examples of the late film. They flaunt technological realism, fearlessly placing actors in front of blue screens for long dialogue scenes as the backgrounds shapeshift in fanciful directions. Here a character is at a phantom train station created by computers, there an actor walks inside the barrel of a gun. They exist in a state of autumnal melancholy, as their directors, having lived long enough to finally do whatever they please with the moving image, can only do so knowing this might be the last time they try.
One of the earliest examples of the late film was pace-setting in its peculiarity. Prolific studio hand Allan Dwan retired 20 years before his death at age 96, and his final film was the bizarre gangster film Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961). In the film, Ron Randell plays a gangster named Eddie Candell who flees police custody and winds up on an atomic testing site in time to get caught in a demonstration. When he wakes up, he’s impervious to bullets and so decides to reorganize the syndicate. The image of a square-jawed hood taking bullets in his leather jacket is something American film has never been able to top or advance beyond. Almost 70 years later, they’re still making sequels to James Cameron’s The Terminator, the ultimate leather-clad fantasy, released three years after Dwan died.
Scorsese loves Dwan’s cinema and has gone out of his way to let the public know it. He mentions him in his 1995 documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, and he’s helped organize retrospectives of his work on several occasions. The image of the death-defying madman has also haunted his work, from Travis Bickle surviving the hail of gunfire that closes 1976’s Taxi Driver to Howard Hughes surviving plane crash after plane crash in 2004’s The Aviator, to say nothing of 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. As he’s aged into making late movies of his own, Scorsese’s interest in the men who can’t be killed has only grown. Frank Sheeran is only the latest, and his body is the battleground upon which the mummy, the deathless man, flaunted technology, and the paradox of the late work finally collide.
Scorsese, it turns out, wasn’t sure how he was going to make De Niro look young enough to play Sheeran as far back as his days as a GI. Then his production team informed him of new technology that could effectively de-age De Niro (as well as Joe Pesci, then 74, coaxed out of retirement to play Russell Bufalino, and Al Pacino, then 77, who plays Hoffa when we meet the organizer in his late 40s), without him having to wear cumbersome motion-capture appurtenances that would interfere with the performance. His production team was half-right. They were able to place a smooth-looking De Niro simulacra onto the actor’s aged body, creating a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of borrowed time. They also digitally altered the appearance of his feet to hide the fact that the diminutive De Niro was never as tall as Sheeran’s six feet and four inches.
Before Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa, the oddest and most beautiful distortion of reality in a Scorsese film was the image of a wooden Jesus that appears to father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) in a puddle in 2016’s Silence. The face of Frank Sheeran makes that scene seem measured in its ambition by comparison. He isn’t exactly resurrecting people, but that’s the idea. The uncanniness of the de-aged trio should hurt The Irishman, but it doesn’t. If anything, it’s difficult to imagine a more conventional approach suiting the movie. It’s a series of shaggy dog stories told by the elderly Sheeran in the nursing home in which he eventually died, which means that everything we’re seeing is an old man’s best recollection of events he’d never told anyone until his functions were starting to fade. When we remember the parents of our childhood, for example, it’s harder to picture them as they were instead of the last time we saw them. The Irishman, for better or worse, replicates this phenomenon, capturing the awkwardness that results when our long- and short-term memories fight it out.
The sight of Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci’s waxen features and elderly body language paddling hard against the current of time occupies the mind as forcefully as Scorsese’s narrative, even as it’s one of his best. He and editor Thelma Schoonmaker have slowed from the breakneck pace of their past crime pictures to allow the flow of Sheeran’s memories to guide the story. Even still, the film covers a heroic amount in its three and a half hours without losing steam.
Sheeran starts his story with a lengthy description of the highways that he, Bufalino, and their wives took to a wedding — Scorsese’s way of introducing us to the mind of the man with whom we’re about to be trapped. He’s the kind of old timer who gets hung up on traffic, which means this story will not be told in any order, nor get where it’s going in any kind of a hurry. Almost immediately, Sheeran rewinds the story so that we understand why the drive to this particular wedding turned out to be the most important event of his life. Sheeran’s life of crime started with him stealing frozen steak from his own trucks to serve to made men in Philly, which turned out to be fortuitous for two reasons. The mob grew to like Frank and started entrusting him with bigger, more violent errands, and it introduced Frank to his union lawyer, Russell’s cousin Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano), who also represented Hoffa. Though he hadn’t driven a truck in a few years, Frank was still a card-carrying member of the Teamsters when Hoffa called him one night after Bill and Russell vouched for him. Hoffa was having trouble with a dispute with some cab drivers: would Frank fly out and help?
Sheeran and Hoffa became fast friends. Hoffa, practically a rock star, was the only friend of Sheeran’s that his family liked because he made the violent ex-trucker seem legitimate: he even promoted the woefully unqualified Sheeran to president of his local union branch. Sheeran was the only friend of Hoffa’s who would tell him honestly what the mob wanted from him. Sheeran’s daughter Peggy became so enamored of the union leader she did a school project on him wearing a “Friend of Jimmy Hoffa” pin. Hoffa was Sheeran’s ticket to real life, away from violence, toward something legitimate. That’s why the film practically snaps in half when Russell tells Frank on the way to that fateful wedding that Hoffa won’t stop trying to break the mob’s stranglehold on the union and that he’s pissed off his last boss. They want him dead, and they want Frank to do it. The pacing slows; the soundtrack goes quiet; De Niro’s expression drops and never again picks up. The movie is no longer a snappy, violent picaresque. This is now a film about a man asked to kill the one person who meant something to him. Frank Sheeran is suddenly as old as he looks.
“Thus, by providing a defense against the passage of time, [the photographic image] satisfied a basic psychological need in man, for death is but the victory of time,” Bazin wrote. That’s how it was supposed to be for Frank Sheeran. He was going to keep providing for his family and live without questioning anything until time finally beat him. The murder threw off the plan. His daughter Peggy, who so admired Hoffa, stopped talking to him, and it ate him up inside. The rest of the family drifted apart when he finally went to jail for racketeering along with practically every member of the Bufalino family.
The scenes of De Niro and Pesci in prison, giving their best performances, hair gray, hands shaking, are more than simply haunting. They carry with them the memory of their robust performances in early Scorsese films. To see them frail and dying stings your sense of what’s finite, what should be allowed to change. Then the film keeps going. Frank buys a coffin; he has lengthy conversations about the best place to be buried; and he talks to a priest who can’t get him to admit he feels sorry for anything he’s done. The only thing Scorsese doesn’t film is the moment he finally confessed to killing Hoffa, the only reason we’re hearing this story at all.
This is a reckoning only found in late works. Scorsese guides the mobster hero he grew legendary mythologizing to his final, lonely resting place in a sterile nursing home. It’s one of the great final acts of self-critique. If there were ever any doubt that Scorsese was hedging his bets by glorifying and condemning the actions of the criminally deranged, there are none anymore. The green screen youth finally fades away, and we’re left with an old man on either side of the camera watching the other work for maybe the last time. They can only cheat death on camera. Even the reunion of De Niro, Pesci, Keitel — the mafia milieu — feels like an attempt to ward off the darkness as much as recapture the old magic.
Most Dangerous Man Alive (which would also be a fitting name for The Irishman) ends with its impervious criminal finally disappearing. The only thing that stops him is more unholy technology. Rival gangsters set a trap for him that saps him of his atomic power, and he turns to dust. He’s beyond bullets and fire. Sheeran had to confess to Hoffa’s murder because Hoffa made him and then he unmade him by vanishing. Without Hoffa, who would remember him? If he didn’t tell everyone, he, too, would have just disappeared. In so doing, he could make sure that those times, when he was more than just a disappointing dad, when he was a soldier, would live on after the cancer took his body. Bullets didn’t kill him but if cameras didn’t capture his story, had he ever lived?
Bazin, again: “To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life.” Martin Scorsese hasn’t fooled anyone. De Niro doesn’t look anymore like young Frank Sheeran than Scorsese looked like Vincent van Gogh when he played the painter for Akira Kurosawa in his own late film Dreams (1990). You may not believe what you see in The Irishman anymore than you would in Most Dangerous Man Alive, but it was never just the illusion that mattered, it was the attempt, the knowledge that some guys with cameras tried.
That’s what he loved about those Allan Dwan pictures when he was a boy: it didn’t matter if he believed it; he wanted to. Scorsese did everything to prove he could, to prove it was worth trying. He built New York from scratch in Rome for Gangs of New York (2002); he recreated the Hollywood that produced the movies he loved as a boy in The Aviator; he made us love monsters and clamor to see men filled with bullets we knew wouldn’t kill them. He put Jesus on a cross and in a puddle; he made his gangsters and then watched them age and die useless; and he snatched away appearance and put it away neatly in the flow of time. He made a harrowing rumination on death and decay that feels as fleet and pulpy as a B-movie about an atomic gangster. No one can cheat death, no one can stop the body from aging, but Martin Scorsese got close.