Wednesday, October 16, 2019

THE IRISHMAN - BFI London Film Festival 2019 - Closing Night Gala

Who killed Jimmy Hoffa? Does anyone care? Martin Scorsese sure does. He spends three and half arse-numbing hours answering who and why. We only put up with this because it's Scorsese. And even then barely just.  If created for theatrical release, then this film is just too long.  It could easily lose twenty minutes of its opening hour and thirty minutes of its closing hour. Once Hoffa's dead, do we really care about his assassin's lonely old age?  I would argue that the indulgence Netflix afforded Scorsese is a hindrance here.  It has allowed him to be baggy where a conventional studio would have demanded a sub-180 minute cut.  Still, this is a Netflix release so I guess people will watch this at home over a few evenings. If so, that's a shame because Scorsese is at the top of his game when it comes to his visual style, choice of music, kinetic editing, and brilliant evocation of mood and era.  This film really does deserve to be seen on a big screen, for all the physical discomfort that arises.

Of course, no-one really cares who killed Jimmy Hoffa anymore.  I don't know many people of my generation who know how powerful he was in 1960s America, or the mystery surrounding his death, let alone those younger than me.  Scorsese's screenwriter Steve Zaillian seems to acknowledge the problem a couple of times in his screenplay, as aged up versions of characters try to explain to younger interlocuters that Hoffa was the second most powerful man behind the President - a powerful Union leader who could make or break a political campaign, and whose multi-billion pension fund could and did bankroll the mafia. He disappeared in 1975.  Everyone acknowledges it was a mafia hit.  You don't threaten mafia funding and survive. But the precise facts around who did the job remain unsolved. The Feds have their suspicions. But we'll never know. This film, however, posits a theory based on the late-in-life confession of long-term mafia hitman Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran.

And so this film tells us the story of The Irishman, beginning with not one but two framing devices. The outer device shows us Sheeran (an aged up Robert de Niro) narrating his sins to what we'll later find out is a Catholic priest - his sole visitor in a nursing home, given that Sheeran has alienated his family.  This reminded me a bit of AMADEUS - having the murderer confess, but not particularly seek atonement, to murdering a man who was purportedly his friend.  Because Sheeran wasn't just a mob hitman - he was also sent by the mob to be Hoffa's protection. Their relationship was one of trust and intimacy, even sleeping in twin beds like Burt and Ernie. It certainly makes the killing emotionally brutal.

The framing device within the framing device is watching Sheeran on a road-trip from Philly to Detroit with his mentor, mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and their wives. This is meant to be a trip to a wedding, but it becomes apparent in the final third of the film that Bufalino is going to call on Sheeran's higher loyalty to him than to Hoffa, by making him kill Hoffa personally. "I have to put you in this" he says.  

And then finally, we get to the meat of the film, which is a linear re-telling of Sheeran's story from the time he met Bufalino to his life in the nursing home. He starts of as a truck driver who steals for the mafiosi, then starts driving for them, then "painting walls" aka murdering people, and providing protection for Hoffa. The fact that Sheeran even makes it to the nursing home is already a gag, as time and again, we see darkly humorous subtitles telling us how various mafiosi were brutally killed shortly after the action we're witnessing. Sheeran is literally the last man standing.

The resulting story is - as I said - baggy in its first and especially final hour - but when it's solidly in the meat of its 1960s and 1970s storyline it's as pacy and compelling and stunningly put together as anything Scorsese has ever done.  The way in which he frames a shot, or explicitly moves a lens as if its our eye panning a room, or jump cuts from a violent shot to a stylish lounge scene - the way in which he uses incidental music - it's just another league from the other films at this festival, or on release, period.  The performances are also tremendous, and I have to say the subtle use of CGI de-ageing tech is an absolute success.

For me, the star of the show is Joe Pesci. His performance is so quiet, so powerful, so menacing, and so controlled.  He can condemn a man to death with the slightest, barely noticeable, nod of his head. It's also interesting to compare him with Harvey Keitel as the even more powerful Angelo Bruno. He barely says a word in the entire movie. The two characters are quiet, understated and petrifying.  Contrast this with Al Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa - perfect casting as Hoffa needs to be (at times) bombastic, to contrast with the mafiosi's quiet menace. Hoffa's problem is a complete lack of self-awareness. Even when they're all turning on him, he just doesn't get it. He still obsesses over "my union".  He doesn't understand he sold it to the mafia years prior.  But this isn't one of those pastiche Pacino large performance. Sure, Hoffa has elements of that. But he can also be quiet and fragile. There's also a lovely contrast between Hoffa, who's downfall is that he's so emotional, seeing the benefits of that in a beautiful family life. He's even close to Sheeran's daughter Peggy (lovely facial acting in an almost wordless and thankless role).  By contrast, Peggy instinctively withdraws from her father and Bufalino.  They are left alone.  As for De Niro, his performance is strong, as we come to expect, but his character is in some ways the least interesting of the "big three". I would nominate Pesci for the awards, every time.

In smaller roles, and I really can't state this highly enough, can we get some awards love for Stephen Graham as the dangerously explosive mafiosi Tony Pro?  There are a couple of scenes where he has to go toe to toe with Pacino's Hoffa at his most powerful and domineering and my god, Graham's Tony Pro gives as good as he gets.  Graham is in no way outclassed by Pacino, and Pacino is pretty fucking classy.  Best Supporting Actor? No doubt.

THE IRISHMAN is rated R and has a running time of 209 minutes. The movie played New York and London 2019. It opens in cinemas on limited release on November 1st in the USA and November 8th in the UK, and will be released globally on Netflix on November 27th.

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