THE IRISHMAN: I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES (2019, Martin Scorsese)
When Frank Sheeran hears that his daughter was shoved by a local grocer, he marches down to the corner and kicks the guy out of his own window and then breaks his hand against a concrete curb with his shoe. But he doesn’t do this alone — he makes a point of bringing his daughter with him. And Scorsese directs this scene with one simple shot: the camera is planted on the street in wide angle, not moving. We see Sheeran and his daughter arrive at the market; Frank leaves her outside, enters the grocery, then we see the guy through the window, he gets rustled out by Frank, the glass breaks, loaves of bread go flying, and then the curb assault begins. Frank’s daughter is watching the whole time, standing in the exact spot to get the best view of a bloody, mangled hand by her own dad’s doing.
This unshowy but effective scene is THE IRISHMAN in a nutshell. Scorsese’s camera does perform its notorious gliding moves now and then, but his style is muted in old age. A far cry from the manic, staccato rhythms of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, this is a contemplative, often quiet film with long takes and subtly gorgeous compositions. And this shot says so much — Frank does not shield his children from his crimes, as much as he thinks he’s protecting them. He comes from a world where you pass along the ethics of this life. If you push a little girl, you get what’s coming to you. As for us in the audience, we’re Frank’s daughter — Scorsese has given us a front row seat to the violence, so we learn everything these people do. Everyone has secrets, but nothing is in the shadows.
Scene after carefully written scene, this heavy, titanic epic feels like a career stamp for Scorsese, who has made an instant American classic with the dexterity of CITIZEN KANE and the weight of THE GODFATHER. It looks into the heart of an executioner and finds a complicated life filled with regret, remorse, and betrayal. By going specific, it speaks universally. Taking place over about 50 years, it draws parallels between world wars and inter-gangland rivalry. Presidents of countries are like presidents of unions. Power corrupts, fractures friends and families, and leads to the unavoidable violence endemic to human nature. And those who survive are burdened with the scars their sins carved on their souls — they are on crutches, in wheelchairs, suffering all kinds of disease… their skin wrinkles, faces encrusted, limbs weak. These enforcers of justice in the mob try to play God by determining when people are killed and by what. But death comes for us all, by a bullet or by old age, and the longer we live with what we’ve done, the more we’re haunted by it. This is why Frank needs the door cracked open a little bit. He sits with his back to the wall. And because he lives on his schedule (and robs others of their own), he’s the one going into a funeral home and buying his own coffin — and even asking for a discount.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t zoom out even further and mention some meta-issues. Martin Scorsese recently published a brilliant, mournful, profound op-ed in the New York Times about the film industry at large. He’s right that it feels like this kind of film is becoming a dinosaur; an anachronism. Brad Grey was the head of Paramount until 2017. He made bold choices and gave great filmmakers rope to make artful Hollywood studio pictures. He green-lit Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION and Darren Aronofsky’s MOTHER! He had a great relationship with Scorsese and after making films like SHUTTER ISLAND and SILENCE, he started on THE IRISHMAN. But his films started tanking. He got pushed out of Paramount, and died months later of cancer at age 59. Paramount then dropped domestic distribution rights to THE IRISHMAN in February 2017, and only Netflix stepped in to save the production (they also bought ANNIHILATION in December of that year).
Was Grey the last studio head who would take risks? Will the future be, as Scorsese says, “perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption, [lacking] something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist?” Perhaps. Most of you reading this won’t see this galvanizing cinematic wonder on the big screen: you’ll see it on your TV screen thanks to Netflix, the only company who would pay the $159 million price tag. Is it a feedback loop? More people watch this on Netflix, so Netflix does more of them and studios like Paramount don’t? Perhaps. And, even worse, perhaps that’s for the best. Last night, when I saw this in one of Los Angeles’ nicest theaters, the crowd was a disaster. The back row of dude-bros were a loud mess. Dropping beer glasses, threatening to beat up other audience members, and cackling at every gunshot. One of them had to be kicked out halfway through. If that wasn’t enough of a distraction, there were the dozen other people who couldn’t bear to go three and a half hours without pulling out their phone to scroll through emails, social media posts, or text their friends, thus blasting the rest of us with Apple’s bright blue light. As I’ve said before, the threat to cinemas isn’t technology or cinema itself: its people. You can blame Netflix, you can blame Marvel, you can blame economics itself. Our biggest problem is other human beings. THE IRISHMAN is a nice thing. Movie theaters are nice things. This is why we can’t have nice things.