Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, The Irishman, was released on Netflix this past Wednesday. It’s about the life and times of truck driver-turned-mobster Frank Sheeran and his relationships with his family, Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa, and various figures in the northeastern underworld. I won’t go into any more detail than that because I don’t want to spoil people who haven’t seen it (yet – there’ll be a spoiler section below, I’ll let you know when it’s imminent). But I have thoughts about the movie.
One thing you may not know about me (since it’s never really come up) is that for most of my adult life I’ve been fascinated by organized crime. I don’t just watch movies about gangsters. I watch documentaries about gangsters, read books about (and even by) gangsters, read books about the cops who chase after the gangsters, and go to websites that report on what the gangsters are up to these days. And not just American mobsters but Latin American gangsters, Hong Kong gangsters, Mumbai gangsters, Russian gangsters, Nigerian gangsters, you name it. There are a thousand different varieties, and I’m interested in all of them.
I wish I could explain why. Overall, I’m about as timid a law-abiding citizen as they come, so, as embarrassing as it is, it’s most likely that I’m just living vicariously through them. That, or I’m attracted to the concept of another, secret power structure that exists alongside the legitimate ones. I’m certainly not the only one. Americans love stories about people who get away with it. And there is something to admire there. Some of the rackets these hoodlums come up with are fascinating. They have tenacity, ingenuity, and a healthy disrespect for authority that has a twisted sort of democratic spirit to it. One of my favorite bits of trivia is that, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, many locals call the drug smugglers “los valientes” or “the brave ones.” I can kind of understand that.
Of course, there’s a darker side to it as well. Gangsters commit not only easily digestible crimes, like smuggling marijuana, but also very unsettling ones, like kidnapping, extortion, and murder. The ones that are harder to live vicariously through. And this movie very much concerns that second category.
This is a bit of a change. Scorsese’s last “gangster movie” was, in a sense, The Wolf of Wall Street, about a firm full of crooked stockbrokers who used pump and dump schemes to defraud their clients of millions. Many critics accused the movie of reveling too much in the excesses of Jordan Belfort and his cronies, and glorifying their debauched lifestyles, their partying, and their enthusiastic drug use. It’s a criticism that I personally think does hold some water – and one that I suspect Scorsese himself took partially to heart.
But I predict that no such accusations will be made about The Irishman. The movie gives you some sense of the material rewards of being a criminal, sure. The characters eat at swanky supper clubs, wear expensive suits and jewelry, and drive nicer cars and live in nicer houses than they would have otherwise. But it also depicts a lonely, paranoid existence where, if you stick around long enough, your own family members will stop talking to you and you’ll eventually be asked to murder a close friend.
Is this an “authentic” mob movie? I wouldn’t know. I never actually joined the mafia (I failed the entrance exam too many times), but my decade-long infatuation with organized crime has, I believe, given me some sense of whether they’re getting it right or not. And so, by the power vested in me by my own self-regard, I formally declare this movie authentic. This will also serve as the official start of the spoiler part of the review, right below this video of Al Pacino and Stephen Graham arguing about traffic.
Concerning authenticity: at this point, I should mention that this movie is very likely based on a pack of lies. Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance is one of the most famous unsolved crimes in American history, and in 2004 a defense attorney named Charles Brandt released a book called “I Heard You Paint Houses,” which featured Frank Sheeren’s confession to not only Hoffa’s murder, but also another famous unsolved mob hit, that of “Crazy” Joe Gallo in 1972.
Those that know about such things say that, while Sheeran was certainly a criminal mixed up in various rackets, both union and otherwise, there’s no evidence that he ever killed anyone, much less that he committed the many murders depicted in the movie. So in that sense, it’s unrealistic. But this is a grey area in which I’m willing to accept the excuse of artistic license. If Frank Sheeran himself didn’t kill Jimmy Hoffa, most likely someone like him did.
Who? Take your pick. This is a world filled with people who do unspeakable things to each other, and in this case “unspeakable” is a word used literally. In one scene, Robert DeNiro’s Sheeran tries to warn Al Pacino’s Hoffa about the dangers of continuing to run for President of the Teamsters’ Union, and he says pretty much every variation of “they’re going to kill you” he can without actually saying the words. “It is what it is,” he says several times, confusingly. Then, later, “it’s not a threat. It’s the bottom line.” Pacino, who plays Hoffa with an arresting combination of courage and pigheaded obtuseness, gets the message – but he doesn’t really get the message. You see? Now I’m talking like they do. It’s contagious. Why are people who are willing to kill each other unwilling to speak about it in plain language? I think we know why, even if we can’t quite put it into words. We know it in our souls. These are shameful things these people are doing, better left unspoken of.
The movie’s climactic sequence, in which Jimmy Hoffa’s murder is arranged in excruciatingly detailed increments, is difficult to watch. In fact, “climactic” isn’t the right word, as it traffics more in awkward, growing dread than it does in excitement. It almost has the quality of a The Office-style cringe comedy, except instead of Jim playing an elaborate prank on Dwight, it features Sheeran luring his longtime friend Hoffa into an abandoned house so he can shoot him in the head with no witnesses.
And then there’s the denouement. Jimmy Hoffa’s body is disposed of by a pair of assistant hoodlums given the unglamorous but necessary task of cremating the body and disposing of the murder weapon. At this point, there’s still roughly an hour of runtime left, and we get to see the uncomfortable aftermath. Frank Sheeran’s health declines, and he’s put into a nursing home. One of his daughters, disgusted by his actions, refuses to even speak to him anymore, and another struggles to explain to him why. “You did all these terrible things,” she says, to a father who is unable to remember what remorse feels like. One by one, every major character in the movie dies, and the glory days of La Cosa Nostra – that august institution that gave us Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lanksy, and a baker’s dozen of other famous criminals – fade into irrelevance. Near as I can tell, John Gotti was the last mobster the general public cared about, and his movie bombed at the box office.
I can’t help but remember the opening sequence of Scorsese’s first mob movie, Goodfellas, which I’ll link below.
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” says Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill. I think I can say, that of all the movies I’ve ever seen, this is the one that made me the most glad that I’m not.
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