The boys are back.
Cards on the table, The Irishman was the film I was most excited about this year. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker comes close, but a movie directed by Scorsese, starring Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci was always going to be the Niagara Falls of mouth-watering prospects.
Anyone who really loves film and was of an age in 1995 cannot fail to have been electrified by the first on-screen meeting of Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. That diner scene remains thrilling to this day. Just two guys talking respectfully to one another, with an intense undercurrent of explosive violence. So much said and done with so little. A director just allowing two incredible actors to do their thing.
That scene has echoed through cinema ever since, most obviously in the films of Christopher Nolan. It is, of course, a big shame that both actors (especially DeNiro) have understandably entered a late stage period of shoring up legacies for their families rather than cinema, paying more attention to their income than the quality of their output, and their second pairing together, Righteous Kill in 2008 was a dreadful disappointment.
So, there was some trepidation going into this, but with Scorsese in charge and Pesci being coaxed back on to the screen, you’re in safe hands. Of course, how much you enjoy it depends on your tolerance for three and half hours of deeply unpleasant men smoking in dark rooms, interspersed with callous, bloody murder. Yep, we’re in Christmas movie territory…!
Look, you know what you’re going to get. You could say that if you’ve seen one gangster film, you’ve seen them all. More accurately, if you’ve seen The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, then you’ve seen every gangster movie or gangster TV series made before or since. Like many Scorsese films, this is essentially a character study of a psychopath. There has been some discussion about the silence of women in this picture, but Scorsese (just like Michael Mann, director of Heat) generally makes films for and about men, violent, often repellent men. The role of female characters in this film is to hold a silent mirror to the routine triviality of the men’s vile behaviour. Ironically, one of the most casually brilliant scenes in the film, where Scorsese expertly uses your experience and expectations of film against you, involves a woman sitting alone in a car.
So, how are DeNiro and Pacino together? Well, there’s nothing here quite like that scene in Heat. That’s fine, it’s a different film, we’re a quarter century removed now, and these are very different characters. Pacino manages to get through without doing the ‘HOO HAH!’ thing too much, but it works fine for his character, Jimmy Hoffa. The fact is, to paraphrase the Dark Knight, maybe you either die a movie legend, or live long enough to become a parody of yourself. DeNiro does his breathing thing a lot. They’re both so intense it sometimes feels like being trapped in a toilet cubicle with an angry, drunk granddad. On other occasions, watching them sit in cars together begins to feel like a weird, sweary version of Grumpy Old Men, just with a lot more people being shot in the face. They also share hotel suites together in pyjamas. There are people in some parts of the internet who will love that.
We can’t go on without talking about the digital de-aging. Yes, it’s distracting. It doesn’t ruin the film, by any means, but you can’t help but be acutely aware of it. In some ways, it’s a showcase. Much like how Terminator 2: Judgement Day moved CGI on to the next level after The Abyss, you can feel the same thing happening here when you compare it to Rogue One. In that film, it was a mistake to put Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher’s digital faces in the light too much. Here, the actors spend a lot of time in broad daylight and the improvement of technology in three years is clear. It doesn’t always work. Mark Kermode already pointed out that the de-aged faces still sit on what are obviously the bodies of old men – it’s clear in the way they move. Joe Pesci’s head looks alarmingly disconnected to the rest of him on several occasions. It can be bloody disturbing. There is a great horror film waiting to be made with this stuff. Mind you, having said that Joe Pesci is a scary man at the best of times. Al Pacino winds up most closely resembling his previous character of Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy, when he was buried under a ton of latex prosthetics and make up. And Robert DeNiro’s eyes are waiting. Urghh…. What in the name of all that is holy is going on with that? I had just finished the excellent Resident Evil 2 remake on PlayStation before watching this and the graphics are superb. Yet in the final cutscenes of the full ending of the game, it stood out to me how Claire Redfield’s eyes looked really wrong. Whenever anyone mentions the ‘uncanny valley’ between a real human being and a synthetic approximation of one, it’s always the eyes I think of first. When you’re playing a computer game, that is much less of a problem and you can just appreciate how good the graphics are, because fundamentally these are avatars, there to represent a real person rather than mimic one. But as soon as you take that technology and paste it on to a real person it becomes viscerally unsettling.
DeNiro’s digitally de-aged eyes were the most distracting thing in the film for me. At no point did they seem to belong to a human being. And it was impossible to look at them without wondering how on Earth the technology worked to keep trying to track his eye position and overlay them with CGI. They were the least convincing eyes I’ve seen outside of politics. It wasn’t such a big deal for other characters, who kept their own natural eye colour, but apparently Frank Sheeran had piercing blue eyes, so they decided to mimic that in DeNiro. It does need to be stressed just how much of an improvement this is over Rogue One, but it obviously has a way to go.
One final thing about this – it seems okay to me use this technology to make a decade spanning opus with two of our greatest living actors, but the recently announced idea of digitally resurrecting James Dean seems ghoulish, greedy, pointless and inherently wrong.
In every other respect, the acting, direction, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing, the music (great to hear Fats Domino on the contemporary soundtrack in the year we lost him and the original music is perfect, too) it’s a masterpiece. Scorsese makes this look so easy. I mentioned the casual brilliance of an individual scene and it applies to the whole film, too. He instinctively makes everything work as simply and effectively as only a hugely experienced auteur like him can.
It’s funny too, in it’s own right. It’s a serious subject, sure, but don’t expect it to be po-faced or grandiose. Pacino is a naturally funny man and a few of the scenes will likely make you chuckle, such as a comically angry and extended conversation about fish.
So, The Irishman. If you’re a Scorsese, DeNiro or Pacino fan, you’re going to love this. It’s just great to be back with the boys. If not, then it’s not going to change your mind and you should probably find a better use of three and a half hours of your life.