“The Irishman” isn’t the only film Martin Scorsese has made this year. Earlier in 2019 the music documentary “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” rolled out and while grandiose the film was littered with what you could kindly call alternative truths.
“The Irishman” dwells in the cavern of alternative reality but that’s not really a bad thing. Joe Pesci as mobster Russell Bufalino and Robert De Niro as teamster activist Frank Sheeran headline. Al Pacino steals the movie with his portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa.
There’s a moment in “The Irishman” where we encounter the real-life character David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), a part Pesci played in Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” The scene occurs when Sheehan, on a mob assignment, delivers artillery to a group of Cuban rebels and their CIA handler Howard Hunt (Daniel Jenkins) whose character name is Big Ears.
There are very few character nicknames but when you hear them they ring out: Brows, Deadbeat, Sally Bugs, et al. This isn’t “Goodfellas” or “Mean Streets.” Scorsese’s tone is markedly different. Serious character study replaces over the top histrionics. People still die but it’s two in the head – not being beaten to death with a baseball bat or getting your head crushed with a vice.
Scorsese is going for an epic depiction of segments of the underworld from the 1950s to the present day. Only by the time we get to the present day everyone is dead except for Sheeran, and he’s so old he’s fallen and he can’t get up.
The much talked about de-aging effects blend seamlessly with time shifts. Standing out are De Niro’s blue eyes (not his real color) that make his features dynamic even in old age. The steel blue stare could also be a metaphor for his cold bloodedness.
Perhaps the most artistic decision Scorsese has made was to go with rock music and instrumentals from the 1950s with some bleed over from the late-1940s and early-1960s.
Even in his earliest films like “Mean Streets” (1973) or “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974) Scorsese was whipping out “Street Fighting Man” or “All the Way to Memphis,” for their dependability as recognizable music cues as well as their ability to propel his narrative.
It’s like Scorsese wants to purposefully be meditative in his selection of music as well as the pace he gives to his lengthy narrative.
Perhaps not oddly Scorsese uses cues from previous movie soundtracks with the repeated use of music from “The Barefoot Contessa,” composed by Mario Nascimbene.
Another segue way involves the “Jackie Gleason Theme” composed by Gleason himself, which is accompanied by the tracking across water shot into Miami that was the opening frame of Gleason’s popular 1960s television show. (David Fincher uses a similar water tracking shot in “Zodiac” only into San Francisco accompanied by the music of San Fran band Santana.)
Scorsese even has Steve Van Zandt lip synch Jerry Vale a warbling popular singer from a past era who himself appeared in “Casino” and “Goodfellas.”
Original music for the film by Robbie Robertson uses the harmonica as a lead instrument. “I Hear You Paint Houses,” also the subtitle of the film, offers up Van Morrison (an original Irishman) with vocals albeit buried in the mix.
The storytelling isn’t linear. “The Irishman” brackets the story with a road trip involving Sheeran and Bufalino and their wives. The road traveled was where the two men met decades earlier at a Texaco when Sheeran’s truck broke down. Now years later they are stopped on the same stretch of highway only this time to let the women take a cigarette break. Bufalino doesn’t allow smoking in his car.
The destination seems to be a wedding in Detroit but in reality the real purpose is the more sinister murder of Hoffa.
Over the running time the audience is introduced to plausible theories on everything from John Kennedy being elected with help from the Mafia to Sheeran’s being the bogus man on the Joey Gallo murder at Umberto’s Clam House in the Little Italy section of New York City.
Just before the latter scene there is an establishing shot of Manhattan that shows the Twin Towers. However, those buildings didn’t officially open until a full year after the Gallo murder.
The point being that memory can’t be trusted. As Sheeran opens and closes the film in scenes set in a home for seniors he keeps running the events of his life in his head. Scorsese has made a film about a man searching for answers and redemption where none can be found.
The Irishman opens exclusively this weekend at the Landmark River Oaks and the Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra.