I watched The Irishman (onscreen titled I Heard You Paint Houses) over the Thanksgiving holiday on Netflix, and I’m trying to plan another day in which to sit down and re-watch this 3 1/2-hour monstrosity of a film in the most amazing of ways.
A film that director Martin Scorsese, ostensibly about the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa and the confessions of Frank Sheeran, has been wanting to work on and make for a while, is fascinating in that not only has it created a loud and ultimately (at least to me) off-the-mark discussion about filmmaking, length, material, and themes, but it has actually woven itself already into the threadwork of American media and culture in how it is representing an interesting aspect of American life though Scorsese’s usage of ostensibly crime fiction as a lens to observe the messiness of that increasingly-hard-to-define and hard-to-find ethereal belief that in the wake of the US’s rise to world power has become a two-faced coin we scramble for, the American Dream.
The film works well as a gangster flick, a historical drama, and a sense of the inner workings of time periods that get focused on, but here are instead as simply chapters (and background noise) of a narrative that ultimately focuses on relationships and interactions between men who are part of both a larger circle of issues and themes but also are increasingly-smaller and smaller cogs of machines that grind forward with or without them. Politics, violence, families straining at the bars, and just how much you have to do to get to what you think is the final goal, a goal that can keep feeling like it’s moving away faster and faster from you while you get slower and slower.
In the end, the scattered and hard-to-understand end that has no neat wrap-up, we’re left with nothing but a lonely existence that not only is meant to show us just how this sort of life Sheeran has lived leads you to, but also how insanely-shallow and base-driven a criminal “class”, if such a thing honestly exists, actually is. The film reminds me heavily of the director’s other film, Casino, also a sprawling examination of a shallow life that collapses into a mess of broken shards, leaving a man lonely and isolated, arguably the same (if not worse) as where he started.
On a personal sense though, I also think about watching this movie with my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother, young people when the story of the film was going on, who in being parts of immigrant and working-class communities who had actually intersected and interacted with the world of the Bufalino’s and the Philly and New York criminal underworlds, even in tangential minuscule ways. And yet, it feels like a natural thing of course. Of course my grandfather, a waiter in Philadelphia at the high-end hotels back in the day, would have crossed paths with mobsters and teamsters who would hold meetings and conferences. Similarly, of course my grandmother, a Greek immigrant in New York in the 60’s and 70’s, would have once intersected with the relatives of “Pete The Greek” Diapoulas, one of the infamous Joe Gallo’s bodyguards.
My relatives came to this country as refugees and immigrants during and after World War 2, a spectre of violence and trauma that even seeps into this film too, and they came of age as Americans as civil rights, the middle class, suburbia, the mob, post-modernism, and inevitable clashes between children and parents became seeped into American culture and what it was to be American. On one hand, you had people struggling to get by against capitalism, against bigotry and WASP-ishness rampant in the early 20th century in the US, especially after WW2, and on the other you see pathways that ask for violence but promise rewards, riches, and fealty and fraternity in a way that can seem soothing and calming in a way that seemed to not exist in a post-war America, especially for men.
I watch a film like this and I think hard about how these people, in their callous cruelty and almost-purposely disingenuous sighs about how this is the only way to do things, are also trying to carve out their own American niches. They had their friendships and brotherhoods that felt real to them but were built up on a skeleton of theft and violence and brute force against those who stand in the way of material wealth, so in a way it’s really just about the continued reinforcement of those same depressing capitalistic teeth and claws that have ground men and women down. The only difference between it and the mechanisms of “legitimate” society is, honestly, the distance to which each side goes to maintain the lie, and how willing you are to indulge in it as well, a willing participant in a system that never cares about you or what’s going to happen to you. Sheeran and Bufalino go with it, go with the toxic violence and the false assumptions about the way of things, the ignorance of and trampling of those who don’t follow their way with no regards for the consequences to come.
Jail, your friends’ blood on your hands, the dissolution of a way of life that could never last, loneliness, death, and waiting for nothing and no one to ever come for you.
The end of The Irishman made me immediately think of the end of Casino in how whoever De Niro is playing is just left stranded, stranded alone and dying and in an retirement home after a life of violence, or stranded back in the mid-tier position doing what he was doing before he had a taste of power and prestige picking petty winners for the mob. There’s nothing, no resolution, no lesson, only regret, and honestly that nothingness and frustrating non-end to a narrative that purposely tries to be choppy and tries to make you feel conflicted about who to root for is what makes the film work. We aren’t here to root for anyone, we’re observing this story to see a dissolution of a man, a narrative about terrible things done under the incredibly-shallow veneer of friendship, and that sort of messy non-ending is something that art honestly needs more of.