5/10 So, don’t tell anybody about this, but I think Martin Scorsese might be a little nervous about dying.
In I Heard You Paint Houses — marketing title The Irishman — an elderly Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro), nearly dead in his Philadelphia hospice, tells all about his years as a hitman for the Bufalino crime family. After coming home from World War II in 1945, Sheeran takes a job as a truck driver, doing crimes for extra money on the side. Boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) himself takes Sheeran under his wing, eventually introducing him to union head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Sheeran becomes a mass murderer under Bufalino and as Hoffa’s bodyguard.
Over time, it becomes clear that Sheeran is not only a highly unreliable narrator, but an extremely disorganized one. The film focuses on the mundane day-to-day details of his life and relationships and spends very little time on his crimes, the filmed version of an 83 year old man dithering aimlessly and endlessly about details that are important to him and him alone. Every now and then, the frame will freeze, and a manner of death will pop up next to a character – this is the film’s way of fitting all of Sheeran’s murders in when few of them are depicted onscreen.
Because so little of the story is actually depicted, this is one of those movies where it’s important to know what it’s about before you see it. In the mid-century, organized crime had a heavy influence in trucking unions, and Hoffa was in bed with the mafia from the start of his political career. Hoffa controlled the union pension fund, which he allegedly loaned out to the Bufalino family to finance their criminal enterprises. He was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery and fraud related to the pension fund in separate trials in 1963 and ’64, but was pardoned by Nixon in ’71.
Hoffa disappeared without a trace in 1975. On his deathbed in 2003, Sheeran confessed to killing him on Bufalino’s orders along with dozens of other murders both solved and unsolved, but this is almost certainly not true. Several of Sheeran’s claims in this confession, on which the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” is based and from which the film is adapted, have been proven false, and in many other cases, such as the attested Hoffa murder, there is either no evidence or evidence that doesn’t match his story. It is speculated that Sheeran, who was found guilty for 11 charges of labor racketeering in 1980 and as such was certainly involved with the Bufalinos to some degree, was spinning a fantastic tale in order to push book sales because he had little else to leave his family.
So, there’s several different layers of story being told at the same time here. There’s the fictionalized Sheeran’s account of his life playing out onscreen, there’s the correction of that version of his story in those opportune freezeframe moments, there’s the much larger schemes of Hoffa and Bufalino playing out in the background and there’s the reality that the real-life Sheeran made most of his involvement up. In fact, I Heard You Paint Houses seems to select his most famously false claims to put onscreen.
The layer of storytelling closest to the surface, the fictional Sheeran’s fictional account, is the most influential on the experience of watching The Irishman, and it’s a bit of a dead show. Sheeran’s telling this tale from an old folks home, and I feel like I’m in an old folks home watching the movie.
One of the big deals with The Irishman was they spent a Scrooge McDuck’s worth of money on digital deaging so that De Niro, Pacino and Pesci could play their characters over the course of several decades, but the actors themselves are old in every scene. They visibly struggle to remember their lines, chew with their mouths open and probably smell terrible. Given the pedigree of the personnel involved, I would assume that every stutter and every smack is intentional, but they’re doing it when their characters are supposed to be in their 30s and 40s. These guys just don’t have the level of control over their voices, faces and bodies that acting calls for anymore.
It’s kind of like Goodfellas with all the joy sucked out of it. You’ve got a lot of those signature Scorsese gangster movie hallmarks — lots of tracking shots, lots of freezeframes, lots of narration work from the main character — but instead of exuberant performances from Ray Liotta or Leonardo DiCaprio, you’ve got a 76 year old De Niro doing his best.
Even the flow Scorsese usually adds to his movies through soundtrack feels like it’s gotten old. The first hour or so is presided over by the type of lazy country you’d expect to hear in an antique shop, and then it stops, and we spend most of the movie with little-to-no non-diagetic sound. It seems like somebody tried to score it and then got distracted and stopped.
As for the technology itself, guys, just use makeup. Just use makeup. It looks like you’ve made Robert De Niro do an entire movie behind history’s most expensive Snapchat filter. You get used to it, but — and I wrote about this at length for Gemini Man — makeup artists have been making people look younger for decades, and they’re still much cheaper and much better at it than computers.
At least, unlike Gemini Man, The Irishman has great reason to insist on using the same actors to play younger men. This is a movie from the memory of an 83-year-old man, and in his memory, they were all always like that. Even their adult children reflect Sheeran’s memory — his daughter Peggy moves instantly from the teenage Lucy Gallina to 37-year-old Anna Paquin. Like any parent, he thinks it happened overnight.
Scorsese isn’t generally thought of as a self-insert type, but he’s clearly inserted himself into I Heard You Paint Houses, and it brings up questions. Is he Travis Bickle in 1976, roaming the urine-soaked New York City streets alone? Is he Henry Hill in 1990, having lived the dream and doomed to spend the rest of his life as a shmuck? Is he Frank Costello in 2006, long the master of his environment but having second thoughts after a lifetime on top? He’s certainly Frank Sheeran in 2019, and old man telling spectacular tales of personal grandeur that he himself doesn’t seem to be sure are true.
This might be more acceptable from Scorsese if it weren’t such a big deal, but The Irishman is a huge deal. It’s a massive coup for Netflix to get someone of Scorsese’s stature to make a movie for them and says awful things about the movie industry as it stands that they were the only ones who would give Scorsese what he wanted. Pacino is working with him for the first time, which is a big deal, but he’s 79 years old and has lost his fastball. Pesci came out of retirement to do this movie after being offered the part a reported 50 times. He doesn’t look good. He looks like he needs help getting up and down the stairs now.
And then Scorsese put his foot in his mouth about the MCU and now all the people who’ve convinced themselves that Marvel movies are art are up in arms about it.
It was barely an off-hand remark when he said it, and anytime someone’s trying to differentiate movies by using “cinema” as a qualifying phrase, it’s going to be pretentious at least to a degree, but can we stop and be frank about this moment in movie history for a second? If you were Martin Scorsese, and you’d personally ushered Hollywood from the Studio Era to this golden age of auteurism in the ‘70s, only to see the Studio System essentially reestablish itself, behaving as a monopoly, treating movies as branding opportunities to be made by hired guns and pushing creative voices to the fringes of Hollywood, systematically undoing your life’s work, you’d be pretty raw about it too.
And then, to see that this assembly-line slop has things called “fandoms” that will come after you on social media and boycott your movies over it! I mean, imagine being so invested in a fictional property that you feel like someone saying it isn’t the highest of art is a personal attack, and feeling that strongly enough that you would respond in kind. I can’t fathom lacking an identity so severely.
But the final blow is being pushed to Netflix yourself, told after 50 years that you’re no longer as commercially viable as these new movies. And what cinema can you make under those circumstances?
Cinema is timelocked. You cannot pause to move the laundry or rewind if you missed something or fast forward through the bits you think are dull. It will move in its own time, and you can go and fuck if you think that’s too long. Cinema is not consumed with Lo-fi beats playing in the background and Facebook up in the other monitor, the blinds drawn open to enjoy that rare bit of autumn sun. It is the only source of light or sound in the room for the duration. Cinema is a communal experience. It is not consumed from the comfort of your own home, it is consumed with two or three friends or lovers and a hundred strangers, all of them laughing and gasping and snogging in time as they develop their own relationship with the movie and you develop your relationship with the crowd. Netflix offers none of these things.
I Heard You Paint Houses is so focused on the mundane elements of Sheeran’s life that I walked out of the movie not understanding what I’d just seen. I didn’t understand who Hoffa or Bufalino were and had only a faint understanding of what their scheme was. Sheeran shoots some people, but I rarely know who or why.
Maybe if I hadn’t watched it in a theater and had subtitles, I’d have been able to understand what was going on better, but in a crime movie you need to understand what crimes are being committed, and after watching this for three and a half hours, I feel like I don’t know what happened. I feel like nothing happened.
At the end, Sheeran’s nurse clearly doesn’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was, and is only pretending to humor her patient. I don’t know who Hoffa was either. When the priest asks Sheeran if he feels anything, and he says he does not. And I don’t either.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.