Tuesday, December 3, 2019

OSCAR WATCH: The Irishman

A decade ago, the BAMcinématek curated a series called "The Late Film", a collection of late career films from established auteurs. As described in the New York Times, the term refers to work that is "both familiar and strange, characteristic of the artist and yet markedly at odds with everything that preceded it." As I watched the latest from American master Martin Scorsese, the descriptor could not feel more apt. Among Scorsese's esteemed canon of gangster films, "The Irishman" expresses familiar themes in profound and revelatory ways.

In my review from over 5 years ago, I marvelled at Scorsese's direction of "The Wolf of Wall Street", impressed by its audacity and edgy, kinetic style. It felt like the work of a younger, maverick filmmaker, proving that he was still a vital voice in the contemporary film scene. Four films later, I am stunned once again by "The Irishman", which sees Scorsese reuniting with many of his most famous collaborators. This epic surrounds Robert DeNiro's titular character Frank Sheeran, as he reflects on a life of mob-related crime. From his younger years as a truck driver, to his subsequent rise up the ranks of the Buffalino crime family, his story is one of violence, greed and power. But in his dying days, the events of his life weigh heavily on him.

With this premise and the recognizable director and cast – including Al Pacino and Joe Pesci in supporting roles – you'd be forgiven for thinking this is just another Scorsese gangster flick. But "The Irishman" deepens the genre through a directorial approach that is more subdued and graceful. It feels in direct conversation with the aforementioned "Wolf of Wall Street", as well as the other iconic gangster narratives that came before for it. Indeed, while "Wolf of Wall Street" was accused of glorifying the debauchery of its immoral men, "The Irishman" is never gratuitous, filled instead with an undercurrent of regret. Though violence are central its themes, the film is more concerned with the impact rather than the act.

One particular scene stands out, where Al Pacino's Jimmy Hoffa, desperate to reclaim leadership of the mob-controlled union remarks to Sheeran that "They do something to me, I do something to them. That's all I know. Nothing else." Epitomizing the endless cycles of violence and revenge (also emphasized through frequent pop-up subtitles about various characters' future demises) it achieves a rare emotion for audiences in a gangster film – pity. And as the decades-long narrative of "The Irishman" plays out, this sentiment only deepens as the bodies pile up and families and friendships are irreparably broken.

The result is an uncommonly calm and contemplative gangster film from Scorsese, with the screenplay's themes amplified by impeccable acting - particularly the soulfully captivating DeNiro and the chillingly unflappable Pesci - and Scorsese's usual attention to detail. Oscar nominations are definitely on the table in the categories of Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Production Design and Best Picture. Admittedly, it's still not my favorite of the year, but I wouldn't begrudge any of these wins. It's truly exciting to see Scorsese continue to be so inspired and invigorated (this year he also directed the impressive documentary "Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story"). Unlike Frank Sheeran's life story, this film may be a late work, but it's far from a swansong.

1 comment: