I See You Paint Houses: Through the Eyes of The Irishman

The Irishman doesn't attempt to show Sheeran's life as it happened, but as he remembered it.

Movies Features Martin Scorsese
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I See You Paint Houses: Through the Eyes of <i>The Irishman</i>

Based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt—which was based on the late-life confessions of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran—Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman documents Sheeran (Robert De Niro) rising the ranks in organized crime until he becomes the go-to hitman for Russ Buffalino (Joe Pesci) and ends up on protective assignment of popular union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), with whom the mob has lucrative ties. It is a movie that spans decades—except that it doesn’t. Theoretically, it spans the ongoing moment that exists in twilight-era Sheeran’s mind as he recounts his life to…? To Brandt? To a priest? Or, simply, to us?

In a November 11th interview with the Film Stage, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto explained the apparent imperfections behind the opening steadicam shot in The Irishman. It’s a feeble echo of the shot that opens Scorsese’s Goodfellas; what brims with purpose and vivacity in that film here just feels tepid and unsteady. Normally, Scorsese wouldn’t go for that, but Prieto said when they suggested some post-production means to stabilize the shot, Scorsese didn’t want it. He liked the bobbing of the shot—an implied subjectivity to us the viewers as we walk into the nursing home where Sheeran is wasting away. We find him sitting quietly as his voice-over speaks and then abruptly transitions within the shot to Sheeran actually speaking to someone (or no one in particular) off-camera. And then down the rabbit hole we go.

As a title, The Irishman implies a sense of objectivity: This is what the world outside Sheeran called him, designated him as—an Irishman working for a bunch of crime lords, doing horrible things. It is with powerful slyness, then, that Scorsese keeps the title of Brandt’s book as his title cards. Of course this movie on Netflix is called The Irishman, that makes perfect sense. And what also makes sense is that within The Irishman, framed by that opening shot of us walking to meet Frank, we find the other movie, the movie that shows us the twisted insides of a very internal character. We see, in first-person, the lines of a road rushing towards us, towards Sheeran. Intercut with that visual in almost Godardian fashion: I road HEARD road YOU road PAINT road HOUSES. I heard you paint houses: something Sheeran remembers—or at least believes that—Hoffa said to him when they first spoke. This fragment of a memory is titled into a book then into a movie. And this movie tries to show us not Sheeran or these events as they were, but as Sheeran remembered—or at least believed—them to be.

If the story stretches plausibility, so do the tales of many old men struggling at the end of their lives to find meaning and importance in what they’ve done and who they were. Sheeran’s violent acts are far from glorified; they’re cold, blunt, and utilitarian. Sheeran never fancied the violence, but you can see that there is a basic satisfaction from his viewpoint in that he felt like he was just doing what he had to do. He had his orders and followed them, in the army and in the mob; he was a dutiful tool used by powerful men. Sheeran’s mind knows this even as it tries to position him as a central figure in the greater narratives that weave around him. And isn’t it true that we’re all the centers of our own stories?

Much has been made of the digital de-aging techniques and their shaky illusion in making us believe we are watching younger versions of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino. A lot of time and money was spent on them, and some have wondered why not just cast younger actors. But it’s like that opening shot; whether or not the imperfections were fully intentional, they still fit with Scorsese’s core intentions. For one thing, the through-line of what Scorsese is trying to achieve with having the same actors in these same roles across several decades would not have the same effect if he used different actors for the younger years. He wanted the characters to look already world-worn early on (something VFX supervisor Pablo Helman has alluded to a couple times, most recently in a December 15th interview with NPR) and there is an impact towards the end of the film in seeing these same bodies and faces completely falling apart.

The biggest common detraction seems to be that while the digital effects on the faces work well enough and are not too distracting, what is off-putting is seeing these younger faces painted onto bodies that still move like old men. But when understanding the framing of this film as showing us Sheeran’s story as he thinks about it—not necessarily as it was—we begin to feel the ways in which these technical “flaws” work towards the film’s artistic goals. Sheeran can mentally paint younger faces (“I See You Paint Faces”) on himself and his compatriots, but he can’t fully remember what it is like to really be young, old age and disease have seeped too long and deeply into his bones at the time of his telling. As is so often the case with our memories of others, what we often remember about them is how we saw them last, so the Hoffa that Sheeran remembers best is the Hoffa that Sheeran took to a house to paint, and his memory of Russ Bufalino will always be colored by the wintry, post-stroke Russ that Sheeran remembers shakily asking, “Is this the good grape juice?” That sad vignette is echoed earlier multiple times in the film, Frank and Russ breaking bread and wine together.

This extrapolation of the “unreliable narrator” device is like a filter over every frame of the I Heard You Paint Houses film that is not Frank in his nursing home, telling his story. The young are never truly young. Subtitles cut in whenever a lively new criminal is introduced, letting us know exactly how ingloriously they died. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing carries us with great precision back and forth through time, as Sheeran’s tangled narration tries to find its footing. There is a moment where Sheeran starts to repeat the best route to Detroit, and suddenly we’re back in the same context that started his reminiscence, back on the road with Frank and Russ and their wives on their way to a wedding that marks the time period for the film’s climax. It is a telling moment, Scorsese flashing his hand. This is not a true crime story. It is not some mafioso epic. It is an existential examination and reckoning. Time and death and Sheeran’s own narcissism and decay close in on the entire film, like a shroud.

Much, too, has been made of the relative silence of Anna Paquin as the older version of Sheeran’s daughter, Peggy. When Peggy is young, Sheeran explains to Russ that Peggy is just shy. It sounds like Sheeran trying to convince himself. As we watch the girl Peggy, her stares at her father carry immense moral weight, weight that he can’t even seem to understand and yet still feels convicted by. At one point she is shoved by a grocer she works for and Sheeran takes her with him, forcing her to watch him beat the grocer in the street with awkward blows and arthritic kicks. As the older Peggy, Paquin asks one pointed question at her father, and it cuts through the air like a knife into Frank’s calloused conscience, releasing some of the abscess. Peggy later removes herself entirely from his life, and we see the full reveal behind her seemingly passive agency. It wasn’t completely her silence—it was Sheeran’s mind, in reflection, personifying her by her later absence. And with that the film shows you his pain, a pain he would never outwardly communicate.

In its final half hour, I Heard You Paint Houses gradually becomes The Irishman, as if by force of entropy. We see the stages of Sheeran ending up in a wheelchair. We see him buy a coffin for himself. He meets with a priest and throws a literal Hail Mary at a life filled with grievous sins. Even if Sheeran was following orders all the way to Hell, he’s not beyond trying to reach out for some grace, even when he has little remorse over his past. If the film was just The Irishman, we would feel next to nothing for Frank at this point. But because it is also I Heard You Paint Houses, we are put right in the middle of that island that is the man, into a space where it is difficult not to be taken by some shred of empathy. That is the power of cinema when it shows instead of tells, and when it’s made by master craftsmen: It bridges impossible divides. All the more devastating, then, when we’re standing on the far end of that bridge at the film’s close, outside of Frank’s mind, seeing him through an open door (as Hoffa left his door cracked open for Frank, or at least as Frank imagined Hoffa did) in an inversion of the closing shot of The Godfather. Frank Sheeran is not the godfather, or even a godfather at the end of this film. No mythos or self-delusion left, just a lonely old man, waiting to die.

There has never been a gangster film quite like The Irishman. In its coda, it becomes not just an excellent addition to Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a necessary one. The ruminations begun in the likes of Mean Streets and Goodfellas here find their completion and, beyond even that, their universal resonance. This was the endgame all along, tropes (and CG-painted faces) slowly fading into reality. The story and the truth, intertwined, until the story becomes the truth, and the truth is simply, cruelly, beautifully: “It’s what it is.”

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