When Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman premiered at the New York Film Festival, and then subsequently appeared on Netflix at the end of November, much digital ink was spilled over the film’s 209-minute running time. Scorsese, no stranger to lengthy productions, was going to release his longest one yet; on Twitter, with the characteristic flippancy that passes for opinions, many weighed in — why wouldn’t Scorsese cut it into episodes? Why did it have to be so long? Why would anyone want to sit through yet another gangster epic for three and a half hours? Snark abounded, with some of it suggesting that Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker was somehow asleep at the wheel. Those folks were telling on themselves — as if an editor’s job is to dictate the film’s running time. Working with Scorsese on each of his feature films since 1980’s Raging Bull, Schoonmaker’s contribution to The Irishman may be her finest effort: she shapes an epic that masterfully controls pace — accelerating and decelerating it at will; she expands upon editing techniques that have characterized her collaborations with Scorsese; she also creates notable echoes to Scorsese’s earlier films, creating a conversation with his and her body of work. Far from a failure, Schoonmaker’s editing is a triumph.
The Irishman’s 209-minute length is devoted to the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a working class Philadelphia truck driver who gets involved with local gangsters; he works for Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), first as a hitman, and then as security for Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank moves through post-World War II American history like a ghost, trying to mediate the growing tensions between Hoffa and the mob; after participating in Hoffa’s execution on Bufalino’s orders, Frank slides into old age, isolated and alienated from his family, left to die alone in a nursing home. One of the film’s framing devices, with Frank sitting in a nursing home recounting the story of The Irishman, gives way to a gangster-film signature for Scorsese, as Frank narrates through voice-over. Throughout The Irishman, Schoonmaker and Scorsese offer a visual component as well, with frequent cuts back to Frank in his wheelchair, talking to the camera — who he is addressing, if anyone, is unseen. He is really talking to the audience, of course, the ones who have come to listen to an old man’s story. It may be full of lies, it may be full of self-deluded rationalization, it may be full of regret, but it is the only story he has to tell. The other framing device follows Frank and Russell’s drive, with their wives in the backseat, to Detroit for the wedding of Bill Bufalino’s (Ray Romano) daughter. The Irishman slowly reveals that the trip is really a peace mission, an effort to broker a détente between Hoffa and the mob, whose working relationship has frayed badly, near to the point of violence. Schoonmaker and Scorsese intercut these framing devices with the narrative proper, eventually converging all three in the film’s final 20 minutes.
Sometimes, Frank’s story moves quickly, and at other times, it slows to a crawl. Schoonmaker’s editing, following from Scorsese’s direction, has always been remarkably packed with information. Their collaborations together feel packed with information — not only are the running times lengthy, each moment in the film is stuffed with ideas, emotions, character and story. They never waste an opportunity to use cinema to express something. Scorsese is often criticized for what is perceived as his excess, but careful study of his work reveals the opposite — his total commitment to narrative economy. Scorsese’s films are bereft of perfunctory piece-moving shots, simple images designed to get the story from one place to another. In his work, every image has been carefully selected and shot, and Schoonmaker’s control of pace maximizes the filmmaker’s narration. For The Irishman’s 209 minutes, Scorsese and Schoonmaker make a promise — there won’t be a second of wasted time.
An early sequence demonstrates their work in tandem. As a way to get close to a local mob boss, Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), Frank has offered to use his connections as a truck driver to secure some prime cuts of beef for the gang. Scorsese and Schoonmaker show Frank’s scheme almost entirely without dialogue, a chain of shots linked through significant pieces of information expressed visually. The scene begins with a close-up on a space-heater, with rough, working-class hands warming themselves in its glow. The camera pans to the right as the yard manager (Vinny Vella) complains about the cold. Frank is standing on the other side of the manager’s fenced window. The manager asks Frank, whom he obviously trusts, to take the metal seal for the truck’s lock out and put it on himself, owing to the manager’s reluctance to go out into the cold. Frank, sensing that this is his chance to lift a few cuts of beef, agrees. The cold motivates the manager’s decision to stay inside, so Scorsese begins the scene on a visual signifier of the manager warming his hands. A less efficient director would have let the line of dialogue alone suffice; audiences would have believed the cold, for sure, but the space-heater makes the detail come alive. The metal seal becomes an important prop. In close-up, Frank slips the seal up his sleeve, holding his arms next to the truck’s lock so as not to arouse suspicion; he rattles the door handle just to make sure it’s in place. Schoonmaker smash cuts to a wide shot outside Skinny’s bar, with the truck open and the cuts of beef being unloaded. The framing echoes a similar moment in Goodfellas (1990), when the gangsters use a local restaurant owner’s business as a warehouse for goods ordered on credit, sold at a cash discount on the street. After the sides of beef are wheeled into the bar, Schoonmaker cuts back to an identically framed close-up of the door handle, and Frank slips the seal out of his sleeve, then places it around the lock. The Irishman cuts to Frank and the delivery manager standing behind the truck — she has elided the trip from Skinny’s bar to the remaining beef’s eventual destination through the cut — where the manager inspects the seal. The close-up of the lock appears for the third time, as the manager clips the seal and opens the door. Scorsese once again refers to Goodfellas, the twin doors of the meat truck swinging open to reveal the hanging sides of beef — in his earlier film, the camera floated across the truck’s threshold and found a gangster, frozen solid, hanging amongst the cuts of meat. This time, Frank stands aside while others unload the beef, and slips a bit of cash into one of the workers’ pockets in wide shot with his right hand. Schoonmaker then cuts inside the warehouse’s freezer, where Frank pays off yet another employee, this time standing on his opposite side, creating a visual match. Scorsese’s camera follows Frank to the right as he walks towards the beef, and Schoonmaker cuts on action, following the snapping rhythm of the identification tags as Frank rips them off the hanging meat. He slides a few cuts along the rail to mask the inventory, then walks out of the freezer, wiping his hands. Schoonmaker secures the scheme with a medium close-up of an anxious Frank watching the delivery manager go over the paperwork; an insert of the clipboard, “25 pieces” written in bold letters, which the manager then circles, cinches the play. Frank takes his receipt and leaves in a wide shot, and Schoonmaker creates a bridge by cutting directly to Skinny’s bar in a close-up of his plate, where he saws a piece of steak. Schoonmaker and Scorsese have sewn the sequence together with two musical cues — the first is “I Hear You Knocking,” by Smiley Lewis, which carries over from Skinny’s bar and dominates the first half of the scene; Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man” kicks in just before the delivery manager clips the seal on the truck’s lock, on the precipice of the scheme coming to fruition, and then carries the narrative back to Skinny’s bar. As elsewhere in their filmography, Scorsese and Schoonmaker use editing and music to bookend the scenes, creating unity out of a series of images that are primarily focused on objects. This is how crime occurs, the scene argues — through process. The small details that show how one moral compromise at one moment of opportunity escalates into a series of others, an inexorable slide towards betrayal and murder.
At its fundamental level, this sequence might seem unremarkable — it combines elements of classical continuity editing with its reliance on match cutting and the principles of montage that associate ideas across time and space. In its fusion of continuity and montage, this sequence demonstrates that those two theoretical approaches to editing are not necessarily in opposition, but when employed together, can reinforce one another. However, it also illustrates the degree to which Scorsese and Schoonmaker are victims of their own success; they make complicated editing look easy. Another filmmaking team might not have chosen to begin the scene with a shot on the space heater to motivate the office manager’s reluctance to go outside; another filmmaking team might not have relied on the identical shot of the seal being hidden in the first, snapped on in the second, and snipped off in the third; another filmmaking team might have used more dialogue for support, or included voice-over from Frank explaining the scheme in all of its detail. As it is constructed, the sequence demonstrates total confidence in the images’ ability to express the narrative, the character’s response to it, time, space, themes and ideas. In its obvious echoes of Goodfellas, Casino and many others, it also places The Irishman in direct dialogue with Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s previous work to enrich each moment. Each shot in The Irishman carries an accumulation of meaning gained over not only the film itself, but the other films in Scorsese’s filmography.
At the level of the individual sequence, Scorsese and Schoonmaker are remarkably efficient, using each shot and the cut point to maximum effect. Again, it may seem twisted to praise a 209-minute film for its economy, but at the level of craft, that’s really what’s going on here. In another director and editor’s hands, 209 minutes would feel like an unrepentant slog, in the way that a 90-minute film can sometimes seem to last an eternity if it isn’t working. Comparatively speaking, much of The Irishman races by; it would not do so without Schoonmaker’s efficiency, working in tandem with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s carefully choreographed shots. In the editing room, Schoonmaker has built upon a technique that has long fascinated both her and Scorsese, which is the elimination of traditional boundaries between scenes. In most narrative films, the scenes chain together sequentially, building narrative through the order in which they occur. The discrete beginnings and endings of each scene contribute to the sense of causality, creating the perception that the events of each scene, like dominos, knock the next scene down. Throughout their collaborations, Schoonmaker and Scorsese have often worked to remove the scenic borders — overt indicators that one scene has come to a close and a second has begun are often taken away entirely. An example: after Frank has gone to work for Hoffa and their bond has deepened, the two men have a late-night strategy session in their lavish hotel room. Hoffa is already in his pajamas, and Frank lays his out on the bed while they discuss Hoffa’s vice president, Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba). Frank expresses skepticism over Fitzsimmons, but Hoffa is more worried about a volatile New Jersey union boss who is also with the mob, Tony Provenzano (Stephen Graham). “He’s a bad guy,” Hoffa says. The scene’s boundaries, however, are about to shift — Schoonmaker foreshadows the coming cut by bringing in a transitional sound first: a guitar player sings, “He’s the greatest guy” — then the cut to a new location, a busy union hall — “560 is lucky enough to ever have” –cuts to union men, with a handheld camera looking down at buttons with Provenzano’s face on them — “You’re a boy, Tony Pro!” — then, a cut to the anticipated entry of Tony Pro, walking down a hallway to meet his members, applauding and cheering. Schoonmaker not only smooths the transition between the hotel room (Frank and Hoffa) through the addition of music, she also creates a simultaneous clash, as Hoffa’s estimation of Pro (“a bad guy”) conflicts with his union’s (“the greatest guy”). But this is not even the most fascinating part of Pro’s introduction — this isn’t the first time The Irishman has shown him. He made a brief, nameless appearance 17 minutes earlier, sitting at a bar and smoking a cigar, celebrating the election of John F. Kennedy on television; the film has given Pro a soft introduction in the context of mafia figures who, in The Irishman’s telling of history, secured the White House for Kennedy, and then looped back around to introduce him more fully after Hoffa expresses his concern about Pro’s ambitions. In voice over, Frank provides more background information about Pro, while The Irishman first shows him giving a stilted, rehearsed speech to his union members, and then cuts to a scene in a car where Sally Buggs (Louis Cancelmi) strangles another gangster from the backseat. This is likewise a soft introduction to Buggs; Frank names the character, but at this moment, the film offers no indication that Buggs, and this specific backseat strangling, will play a major narrative role in The Irishman’s final act nearly two hours hence, when Frank will refuse to allow Sally to sit behind him in the car ride to collect Hoffa, recalling what happens to men who let Sally get the drop on them. In that moment, Schoonmaker and Scorsese trust that the earlier scene has made a strong enough impression — lesser filmmakers would have included a refresher, cutting back to a brief, perhaps soundless image of the garroting, even in a film with half The Irishman’s running time. But, Schoonmaker and Scorsese aren’t finished with this sequence: after a blackly funny aside that shows the strangled victim’s body shooting out the business end of a tree-shredder, they cut back to Frank and Hoffa in their hotel room, securing the passage of time through a clarifying detail — Frank is now in his pajamas along with Hoffa. Is this one scene? Or is it four? Or is it neither? Schoonmaker and Scorsese use their editing throughout The Irishman to blur these lines, taking on the effect of recalled memories. Remember, the film is mostly narrated by an old man sitting in a nursing home, and the non-linear shifts in narrative information reflect the scattershot nature of unreliable memories, the ways in which time begins to feel like one big puzzle where half the pieces are missing, rather than a sequential chain of events with clearly demarcated beginnings and endings, causes and effects. Though Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street rely on this technique to varying degrees, The Irishman represents their fullest experimentation with the idea; this should come as no surprise in a film that is obsessed with the idea of passage of time, constantly shifting forward and backward as it is in narrative temporality. It features both framing devices — nursing home Frank and the car trip to the wedding in Detroit — along with several flashbacks-within-flashbacks, such as the early moment when Frank and Bufalino share bread and wine and Frank reflects on his service in World War II. The resulting effect is a magic trick that literalizes what Frank will tell his nurse at the end of the film: “You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there.”
Though much of The Irishman moves at lightning speed (the careful attention to detail and narrative economy ensures total clarity, despite the sprint), Schoonmaker and Scorsese demonstrate their total mastery of on-screen pacing in the film’s final hour, which slows to a crawl. For the first two-plus hours, the running time is completely irrelevant, reduced to an afterthought in the wake of the sheer amount of story information given to the audience. Beginning with The Irishman’s biggest scene, the banquet sequence honoring Frank which brings together all the film’s major players amidst their rising tensions over Hoffa’s control of the Teamsters Union and the mob’s money, Schoonmaker and Scorsese slow The Irishman down. This is a risky bet — spend two hours of the movie racing along, and then, just when audience members may begin to get restless or check their watches, reduce the film’s progression to a crawl. What they sacrifice in speed, however, they gain in tension. The banquet is an operatic restaging of the climactic society ball from Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), and may be the longest isolated scene of Scorsese’s career. Here, Schoonmaker and Scorsese respect the scenic borders of narrative time, beginning the banquet and then remaining there for nearly 20 minutes of screen time. In The Irishman’s final third, it begins to adopt some of the qualities of modernist masterpieces like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), which draws attention to its duration through extended takes where little of narrative consequence occurs. Though Schoonmaker and Scorsese never fully minimize narrative, as in the example of slow cinema filmmakers, their quiet, contemplative approach performs a similar function because it foregrounds the passage of time. The film’s second framing device, the car trip to the Detroit wedding, acts as a marker of time throughout The Irishman, with Schoonmaker repeatedly checking in on the group’s progress, even using a map of the interstate system to chart their journey. Frank helpfully chimes in with markers of the distance, and Scorsese also includes road signs that bring Detroit ever closer. The road trip culminates in Frank’s solo mission from the Howard Johnson’s — where the travelers have stopped for the night — to Detroit by private plane, where he has orders from Russell to entrap and then kill Hoffa. Schoonmaker and Scorsese show the trip in excruciating detail. Frank first surrenders his sunglasses to Russell, and then boards the private plane. There is no music — just dread-inducing silence. Frank looks out the window, but otherwise rides in stillness. He disembarks from the plane to find a car waiting for him. Schoonmaker cuts to crucial inserts — the glove box opening, a gun inside, which Frank withdraws, and then a cut to his hand, upon which he has written the address where the meeting is. The drive is slow, with quiet shots of the car traveling through still neighborhoods. As Frank drives by the restaurant where Hoffa thinks the meeting is, Schoonmaker cuts to a shot taken from the window of Frank’s car, a passing medium close-up of the agitated Hoffa, who hates to be kept waiting, sitting in his own car. The moment suggests opportunity — Frank could warn Hoffa and stop the execution. He keeps driving.
When Frank arrives at the address written on his hand, he finds Sally Buggs waiting. He is reintroduced, after his first appearance during the strangulation nearly two hours before, in the house set aside for Hoffa’s execution, which is as quiet as a tomb; when Frank steps inside, Schoonmaker cuts to a close-up of Sally as he looks up from his task — cutting a piece of linoleum flooring so that Hoffa might easily be rolled up in it and his blood is kept from soaking into the wood. He menacingly stares into the camera before saying, “Hey, Frank.” Sally’s eyes are hidden behind tea shades, masking his true intentions. It is a testament to Scorsese’s ability to find humanity within these characters that later, when Sally is shot to death outside a social club, a close-up of his dead eyes behind the tea shades is one of the scariest and most haunting images in the entire film, a visual rhyme with Sally’s “Hey, Frank” close-up. Bullet holes riddle his face while Frank notes through voiceover that he was killed over a misunderstanding: he was seen going into the federal building, and then in a miscommunication, someone forgot to tell someone else why he was there. The gangsters mistakenly assumed he was there to testify against them, and sends Frank to kill him. While Sally’s vacant eyes stare into the camera, blood pouring out of his face, Frank says, “It was a bad hit.” The hit on Hoffa, too, will be bad, but not for the same reason. His adopted son Chuckie (Jesse Plemons) tardily arrives, waiting to take Frank and Sally back to the restaurant to collect Hoffa. Chuckie’s lateness gives rise to a much-discussed argument concerning a fish, which Chuckie had stored in the backseat before delivering it to a friend — this is why he was late. The car reeks of fish, and the backseat is still wet, disrupting Sally’s plan to sit there. Frank and Sally have a tense conversation over who will sit in the back, with Frank obviously remembering what happened to the unfortunate union boss who challenged Pro’s authority, and Sally eventually agrees to sit in the front. Cancelmi gives a remarkable performance in The Irishman, investing every one of the cagey Sally’s lines with potential duplicity. The conversation over the fish continues once the men are on their way, with Frank feeling safe in the backseat; Sally wants to know more details about the fish, and Chuckie’s confusion — to him, the fish story isn’t important — frustrates Sally further. Coming as late as it does, especially in the middle of such an intense sequence as the Hoffa execution, a number of skeptics latched onto this section of dialogue as evidence of Scorsese’s self-indulgence and Schoonmaker’s inability to edit. However, such critiques miss the narrative and tonal importance of the fish discussion: narratively, Sally needs to be able to explain what happened in case Chuckie’s delay somehow contributes to the hit on Hoffa going awry; tonally, the scene is funny, and lets some of the tension escape, but any laughter is just a nervous distraction from the dread of what’s about to come.
Recall the tripartite pattern that Schoonmaker and Scorsese used to track Frank’s theft of the meat in The Irishman’s first act: three shots of the seal for the truck’s lock — first hidden, second clipped on, third clipped off. The payoff comes here, as they rely on a similar structure of repetition for the Hoffa murder sequence, using three identically framed shots to escalate tension and echo the “process of criminal activity” idea that appeared in the film’s first 15 minutes. A high-angle shot looking down at a suburban street corner, the frame occluded by telephone wires, shows a car turning three times, at three successive points in the sequence. First, Frank’s car turns left as he looks for the address written on his hand. Second, the same shot shows Chuckie’s car turning right, headed for the bar where Hoffa is waiting. And third, the same shot once again shows Chuckie’s car turning left at the same corner, after they have convinced Hoffa to head with them back to the house. Repetition reinforces criminal process, but also serves as a marker of time; where the shots of the truck seal in The Irishman’s beef theft moved the scheme along quickly, these shots of the corner emphasize duration. Schoonmaker has used editing to express the same idea – criminal process — through different modes of pacing — fast, then slow — separated by nearly three hours of running time.
The pace slows even further as Frank and Hoffa arrive at the now-empty house where Hoffa will meet his end. Chuckie’s car pulls into the driveway, and Frank and Hoffa get out, walking up to the front door. Scorsese’s camera smoothly pans to the right as the car pulls in, dollies back and then pans to the left as the pair approach the house. Schoonmaker cuts inside the house as Hoffa approaches the camera, an inevitable recall of the moment in Goodfellas when Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) walks into what he thinks is his making ceremony, but turns out to be his assassination. Schoonmaker emphasizes the connection further by cutting to a shot from Hoffa’s point of view of the empty room — he sees the same thing that Tommy saw before his death. She cuts back to the medium shot of Hoffa standing in the foreground, but Frank has slyly drawn his pistol in the background; Hoffa turns back to go, and when he steps around the doorframe, Frank raises the pistol and fires. Here, Scorsese and Schoonmaker have deviated from their approach in Goodfellas by masking the moment of Hoffa’s death behind a wall, rather than the explosion of blood from Tommy’s head, taken in planimetric close-up. Schoonmaker’s collaboration with Scorsese has often relied on moments of shocking violence — in a lecture she gave in 2009, Schoonmaker remarked that Scorsese’s movies “aren’t violent until I’ve edited them,” a powerful assertion of her own authorial role. Theirs has been a long collaboration full of brutally violent killings: it began with the bone-crunching boxing matches of Raging Bull (1980); the crucifixion of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) in The Last Temptation of Christ (1987); Tommy’s execution in Goodfellas, of course, but also the murder of Billy Batts (Frank Vincent); plus a number of outrageous moments in Casino, including a gangster’s head being placed in a vice, but culminating in the baseball bat beating of Nicky Santoro (Pesci) and his brother in an Indiana cornfield; the pseudo-medieval warfare of Gangs of New York (2002), with its gouged eyes, plunging blades and burnt flesh; the suddenness of explosive gunfire in The Departed; the horrific visions of a man’s dead family in Shutter Island (2010); the monstrous rape and then gut-punch delivered by Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) to his wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) in The Wolf of Wall Street; all told, a collection of moments of shocking violence that demonstrates the films’ simultaneous interest in emotional brutality, both inflicted on the audience through the power of cinema. So, after all these moments of ugly, bloody death, why hide Hoffa’s execution in this climactic moment?
Because Schoonmaker already showed it to the audience. The Irishman is barely two minutes old when Frank, in his nursing home narrator’s seat, tells the camera that “I started paintin’ houses myself,” the film’s euphemism for gangland hits. Schoonmaker smash cuts to a close-up of a gun, raised and aimed off-screen to the right; the camera pans to the right, to reveal what the gun is pointing at, and when it comes to rest on the back of a man’s head, the gun goes off and the victim jolts, his hair flapping from the impact, a splash of blood flying off-screen right. She then cuts to a new shot of a wall, where the blood lands. The image of the victim is on screen for little more than two seconds — probably not enough time for the viewer, especially one recovering from the sudden shock on first watch, to notice that it’s Hoffa. This is another of Schoonmaker’s soft introductions, as she will do with Pro and Sally Buggs, and several other characters later in The Irishman. Some three hours later, there is no point to showing Hoffa’s execution in close-up again — the image is in the film, and, even at a subconscious level, hangs over The Irishman like a gun to the viewer’s head. This is the destination. Schoonmaker further emphasizes connection, though it will not yet be apparent, by cutting directly from the blood splatter on the wall to the invitation to the wedding lying on a dresser. Schoonmaker cuts in to one of Scorsese’s favorite techniques — the isolated insert, which shows the invitation with black bars on the sides, setting it adrift from mise-en-scène, a relic of Classic Hollywood filmmaking that the pair have used in The Departed (a funeral prayer card) and Silence (a painting of Christ), among other films. However, the shot after the invitation insert returns to diegetic space: a gold ring and a gold watch lie on the dresser with the invitation leaning against a jewelry box. Schoonmaker shows Frank slip the ring on his finger and then snap the watch on in successive close-ups; at The Irishman’s centerpiece banquet, Bufalino will bequeath him the ring, a show of his admission into a special club, while Hoffa will give him the watch as a symbol of Frank’s service to the Teamsters. These images establish Frank’s divided loyalties through carefully chosen props, but Schoonmaker’s cuts to these close-ups introduce them two hours before the film lets on how significant they are. The ring (Russell) and the watch (Hoffa) pull Frank in two opposing directions — in the empty house in Detroit, Frank makes his decision when he pulls the trigger. Schoonmaker closes the scene in the house with a lingering wide shot on Frank as he wipes the gun, sets it carefully on Hoffa’s body and lets himself out the door. Normal rhythms of cutting suggest that as soon as Frank closes the door behind him, the scene would end. Schoonmaker holds the shot for six full seconds after Frank’s exit, allowing The Irishman to sit with the consequences of his actions, forcing the audience to stare at Hoffa’s lifeless body. The cut to brilliant white that follows closes the scene’s loop, tying it back to the private airport where Frank took off. The camera watches the plane’s descent and landing from straight on; once its wheels touch down, Schoonmaker cuts to the plane, now parked in the identical position from which it departed, Russell’s car, with him waiting inside, totally unmoved since the film left him. When Frank gets inside, Russell wordlessly returns the sunglasses he confiscated. In wide shot, the camera pans left as Frank drives the car out of the airport, the matter settled. Schoonmaker smashes to one of the most emotionally electric cuts in Scorsese’s filmography — a wide shot, taken in slow-motion, of Bill Bufalino and his daughter walking down the aisle at the wedding, towards the camera, while The Irishman’s unofficial theme song, “In the Still of the Night,” by The Five Satins, accompanies their silent advance. The image is beautiful. There isn’t a trace of blood.
The Irishman feels so urgent, despite its leisurely pace. This is a film for now, when all seems like it is on the verge of collapse. After a violent confrontation between Hoffa and his rival Pro in prison, Frank confesses in voice over: “You knew right then it was all gonna fall apart.” The Irishman is about Scorsese’s definition of cinema slipping into oblivion as much as it is about anything in its narrative. It is a gripping story about the moral failings of a central character whose passivity and willingness to follow orders alienates him from his family and leaves him to die alone; it is also about the death of the kind of movie it is. The three-and-a-half hour runtime is a defiant final stand, an argument for slowly and methodically building a world populated by interesting, flawed people and watching it crumble. Schoonmaker and Scorsese’s engagement with their own work carries The Irishman into its bravura final act, when they begin to lay the familiar ground work for a conclusion, with Frank offering an epilogue for a number of the major characters whose fates have not yet been revealed. Schoonmaker’s facility with montage has often carried these final acts, offering quick glimpses of assassinations, arrests and alienation that seal their gangsters’ fates. However, Scorsese pulls a masterful bait-and-switch, using the audience’s awareness of his gangster epics against them, and continuing the film past the point at which his earlier efforts ended. Though The Irishman’s extended meditations on mortality and loss define it all the way through, the final 30 minutes offer some of the most tender, emotional and tragic scenes he has ever directed. A scene between Frank and Russell in prison, where the two very old men dunk pieces of bread in grape juice in the cafeteria, not only recalls a scene when the then-young men did the same in their mob restaurant, but also serves as a kind of living funeral for an on-screen partnership between De Niro and Pesci that has lasted nearly as long as their characters’ in The Irishman. Russell, his arm gnarled from a stroke, his top teeth missing, his face crinkled with the ravages of time, is a feeble shadow of himself, barely able to gum the soaked bread into his mouth. The slightly younger Frank looks on, seeing a future vision of himself. After Frank is released from prison, Scorsese quietly captures the mundanity of his lonely routine, which culminates in a late-night fall on a trip back from the bathroom. Frank, already using a cane, makes it halfway down the corridor before he can’t continue any further, and slides exhaustedly down the wall to the floor. Scorsese’s editor holds the shot while Frank lies on the ground, a moment of silence for the man he once was.
Schoonmaker echoes this lingering effect in The Irishman’s final shots. Earlier in the film, after Frank and Hoffa’s first in-person meeting, Frank stays in Jimmy’s hotel room on a cot, while the union boss takes the bedroom suite. After imparting some final wisdom for the evening, Hoffa withdraws into his bedroom, closing the double doors precisely, leaving them open a crack. It is a detail that seems to speak to Hoffa’s character, but otherwise passes without much notice. It creeps back in the nursing home, when the aging Frank, alone on Christmas in the final scene, will tell the priest who has become his confessor and companion, not to close the door all the way as he steps out for the night. Schoonmaker introduces what will be ‘s final image, a lingering wide shot taken from the hallway that captures the wheelchair-bound Frank sitting alone in his room, in deafening silence. Schoonmaker cuts in to Frank from a low angle, for one last close-up. He sits, in silence. There is nothing left to say. Schoonmaker cuts back to the hallway, where she will linger for six seconds — the same length as the shot held on Hoffa’s body after Frank left the house where he shot his friend — before cutting to black. As Hoffa was condemned to die alone, forgotten, so too will Frank. The black screen, with “In the Still of the Night” slowly fading in, holds for 15 seconds, an eternity, before “Directed by MARTIN SCORSESE” appears. Throughout The Irishman, Schoonmaker’s methodical approach, deliberate in its pacing, contemplates what life might be like when the work is over, friends are gone and family has declined. For Frank, very few people, if any, may still be there to listen. Times change. People change. Arts change. Audiences change. And “change” really means “move on.” It means “forget.” Schoonmaker and Scorsese’s collaborations — propelled by the director’s masterful command of story, character emotion and the camera, synthesized by the editor’s masterful editing — are unforgettable.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.
Categories: 2010s, 2020 Film Essays, Biography, Crime, Drama, Featured, Film Essays, Netflix Originals, Streaming Originals