Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB.
USA, 2019. Fábrica de Cine, STX Entertainment, Sikelia Productions, Tribeca Productions. Screenplay by Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Charles Brandt. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Produced by Troy Allen, Gerald Chamales, Robert De Niro, Randall Emmett, Gaston Pavlovich, Jane Rosenthal, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Irwin Winkler. Music by Robbie Robertson. Production Design by Bob Shaw. Costume Design by Christopher Peterson, Sandy Powell. Film Editing by Thelma Schoonmaker. Academy Awards 2019. American film Institute 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. National Board of Review Awards 2019. New York Film Critics 2019. Washington Film Critics Awards 2019.
Martin Scorsese returns to his familiar realm of tough guy tales for what is probably his best foray into gangland yet, leaving behind the self-aware stylistics of Casino and focusing solely on riveting, steady storytelling. That the narrative is perpetually compelling is a relief given the remarkable running time of this masterful experience, the three and a half hours revolving around the working life of an Irish-American teamster turned hit man for the mob (Robert De Niro) recalling his experiences from the perspective of his old age would be exhausting otherwise (the way The Wolf Of Wall Street was, actually). De Niro’s Frank Sheeran spins a complicated but bewitching yarn that describes his first meeting with Russell Bufalino, a soft-spoken Italian gangster who takes him under his wing, played in a magnificently controlled performance by Joe Pesci; where Scorsese reverses the show-ponying of his earlier films and avoids aesthetic indulgences, he also draws from Pesci the opposite of his turn in his most famous roles, eschewing all that profanity-laced verbiage and focusing on lengthy moments of powerful subtlety (the more Pesci stares quietly the more in control he seems). Sheeran is happy to go from errand boy to hit man for Bufalino before being put in the way of labour organizer and working class superstar Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who becomes fond of the easygoing Sheeran and makes him his closest bodyguard as he navigates his way through the murky waters of government politics and the operational needs of his own very powerful union. As Sheeran narrates this tale, he intermittently brings the story back to a trip that he and Bufalino take from their native Philadelphia to Detroit, a journey that makes up a second narrative frame and which eventually puts Hoffa’s fate at the centre of the fascinating myriad of characters and situations that populate this picaresque look at the seedy underside of the most famous moments in American history. Where we saw the drama of the Bay of Pigs invasion or the tragedy of the Kennedy assassination on our television screens, Steven Zaillian’s script tells us about the moving parts and the self-interest beneath the headline-grabbing moments, giving us Forrest Gump by James Ellroy as played out by personalities whose onscreen electricity is provided by their refusal to examine themselves. Scorsese has always had a brittle attitude towards his characters’ toxic masculinity in his most macho movies, he’s too good a storyteller for outright condemnation but his Catholic conscience prevents full approval of the violence and misogyny that these guys practice, here presenting his most critical look at the kind of obsession with maleness that alienates the protagonist men from their supporting women; by the time he reaches the end of his life, Sheeran suffers the consequences of his violent past with one daughter (played by Anna Paquin, who nails her few moments on screen) and is delivered the goods by his other (Jennifer Mudge), who tells him that everything he was working for in the name of protecting his children was actually a fiction he helped create and perpetuate for himself. What the great auteur wants us to know is that all our ideas of America are a lie, that conservatives long for a past that never existed and liberals believe in a future that is impossible, and he gives us these hard truths in the form of riveting drama whose only possible (and easily forgivable) flaw is in its casting. Watching De Niro and Pacino rule the screen for this length of time is easy, they are more on their game here than they’ve been in years, but buying them as Irish guys who say insulting things about their Italian colleagues is downright impossible to swallow (despite De Niro actually having more Irish heritage than Italian in real life). Scorsese demands far more from his audience in having these two play outsiders than he getting us to swallow the de-aging technology he performs on a number of actors, in de Niro’s case taking him back a few decades to even better effect than was recently done in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man. Kathrine Narducci is superb in her few moments as Bufalino’s impatient, chain-smoking wife.