A meditative saga on death that has perhaps the greatest opening and final shot in Scorsese’s oeuvre.
Starts with the Doo-Wop music drop (and back his debut and Mean Streets Doo-Wop is as important to Scorsese as rock and roll) “In the Still of the Night” by the Five Saints tracking shot as the camera glides through De Niro’s nursing home. It is death coming in for De Niro’s character. There are religious symbols (saints and priests) along the way in the nursing home— and it is also Scorsese flipping the Copacabana shot from Goodfellas– which may be cinema’s greatest single shot. This isn’t about getting swept up and thrilled, this is the opposite.
It’s not quite the accomplishment The Age of Innocence is with the use of color, specifically Green and Red—but the green food fair truck in the opening, and Peggy almost always in green is no mistake. De Niro’s character picks the casket the color of… yes— green. It is Scorsese’s 50 year obsession with sin (red) and Eden (green) and it’s in the Copa shot, it’s certainly in other works like Age of Innocence– and it’s here. The car that eventually picks up Pacino’s Hoffa for his assassination—red. These are not mistakes or coincidences.
As a said the film is a reflection on death. It’s not just the last hour of reckoning that wallops you (and it does)—throughout the entire film there’s a preoccupation with how these characters, the people in this life (Scorsese’s life as a director of gangster films) come to their end… Scorsese catalogues the deaths here…. there are titles about how characters died throughout the film. It’s a fantastic film form. The first is a great freeze on Keitel.
I don’t think it’s quite on the production design level of Tarantino’s 2019 Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but the period detail is worthy of praise. I love the Cadillacs, the steakhouse, the Italian restaurant with little wine glasses.
Paced but never uninteresting— the full weight of a life lived has to weigh on you for the last hour to have its full effect. Scorsese uses duration, size (this is a sprawling ensemble that touches much of the 20th century epic and sweep) to do this
Anna Paquin’s role is symbolic in many ways like Chastain’s mother in Tree of Life or Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. She’s more than just De Niro’s characters’ daughter- she’s God— watching. It’s also a bit odd that Paquin (a great actor) plays a silent character—very against type. She’s usually so verbal (The Piano, Margaret).
Pacino is perfectly cast. Pesci says in the text: “he likes to talk doesn’t he?” This is his first film with Scorsese. He’s animated here, making speeches and stubborn as a mule. It’s stark contrast to De Niro’s stoicism (De Niro is largely a vessel, an observer). If De Niro outduels Pacino ever so slightly in Heat, I have to give Pacino the edge here. I think he’s superior.
Pesci though, may come off ahead of even Pacino. He’s brilliant here. It’s a major add to his all-time resume (which is not quite on the level of De Niro or Pacino). He’s the opposite of his Tommy in Goodfellas or Nicky in Casino. He’s not a volcano. He’s pensive, calculating—he’s playing chess- closer to Pacino in The Godfather II and Pesci has some of the best lines in the film like “It is what it is” and “He has no choice”. “I don’t need two roads coming back to me.” “We did what we could for the man”. It’s a superb screenplay—one of the year’s finest.
As I said above the last hour is the best hour of cinema in 2019 (from what I’ve seen). The sequence of De Niro in the car wash. Washing away the sins… wow. Potent.
Sobering and confessional.
The cracked door final shot is a jaw-dropper. Perfectly framed like Ozu’s Late Spring or Tokyo Story
The narrative vehicle involves talking to the camera and a flashback within a flashback (not dissimilar to the nesting doll opening of The Grand Budapest Hotel). We start with De Niro talking to the camera in the nursing home and then we go to the Wild Strawberries-like road trip and then go back again. Dense.
The film has so much that connects to Goodfellas, Casino, Wolf of Wall Street. Many of Scorsese’s films have the rise and fall. The high-life of sin and the crashing fall to hell and penance. This has no rise, no charm, no fun, no Rolling Stones. It is a lifetime of following orders and skirting responsibility and then a long slow realization and reckoning leading to a lonely death… yikes. Haha – cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto talked about the style mirroring the energy of the characters on screen
The de-aging. I don’t think it 100% works but I don’t think it’s a major deterrent. Watching Pesci call De Niro “kid” bothered me a little. Haha.
There are some stunning tracking shots- there’s the barbershop assassination at 23 minutes in (that glides over to the flowers for the actual killing). The camera glides into Umberto’s Clam House at 104 minutes as well.
The titles that show up to let you know how these characters died has relation to The Departed with the X’s—the mise-en-scene informing you (which is from Howard Hawks’ Scarface)
Very religious- like almost all of Scorsese’s work. Baptisms, Weddings—references in the text
Peggy (Paquin) is almost always in green. And she doesn’t like Pesci, but loves Pacino… like the devil and saint on De Niro’s right shoulder and left (Faust). De Niro also gets both the gold watch (Pacino) and the gold ring (Pesci) on the same night. Obviously he chooses Pesci.
Many comparisons to the war and Hoffa as General Patton. There’s a lot here as well to unpack.
Long-time music collaborator of Scorsese’s- Robbie Robertson (from The Band) has a strong harmonica theme here that moves the dense narrative along
The guns on the yellow bedspread is certainly a nod to Taxi Driver
There’s a fascinating entire character study film within The Irishman and it’s the story of Jimmy Hoffa. The ice cream, the obsessions (often hilarious) with tardiness and wearing shorts, the obstinacy, charisma and complex sense of right and vendettas.
the dialogue sequences with De Niro, Pacino and Pesci (just 3 time masters of acting) with top-shelf material is something to behold. It is more like The Godfather saga though than the cocaine-infused zip of Goodfellas or Casino.
So there are many moments that blew my hair back… the opening, the closing (I’ll get to more in a second) but none is better than the setting of the frame at Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romono) daughter’s wedding and the slow-motion shots after (the only other slow-motion is the shooting at the Columbus circle). It’s a gorgeous frame set-up and total stylistic wow moment with the religious detail in the background. It also has duel meaning—it is a funeral for Hoffa (the reason for the road trip), and it gives us the pairing of the song about death “In the Still of the Night” that opens the film.
In the final few minutes we get the procedural on death. Selecting the casket. The selection of the spot for him to lay to rest (another really beautiful setting of the frame by Scorsese)
And the final shot— one of Scorsese’s greatest single shots. The door cracked open, perfect frame – wall art in a museum (just like the Bufalino wedding frame) and De Niro telling the priest “don’t shut the door all the way” and the meaning and reverberations of that shot and line. Stunning
A Must-See for now- top 5 of the year quality easily and could go higher with more time and viewings.