Among the greatest living filmmakers in the world, Martin Scorsese has defined American cinema for a generation. His work has encompassed family melodrama, historical fiction, comedies, musicals, and psychological thrillers, but it is his concern with crime that has defined his career. In The Irishman, the master director has made his definitive, perhaps even final statement on the consequences of a life lived in violence.
With The Irishman, Scorsese offers us his first truly autumnal film – a picture about age’s slow, inevitable decline. There are the signature dolly shots, the period pop music, the bursts of brutality, but there is also a frail melancholy we have rarely glimpsed in even his statelier films. Compare Goodfellas opening line – “For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”, to that of The Irishman – “When I was young […] I was one of a thousand working stiffs. Until I wasn’t no more.”
The first we see of protagonist Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is not of a kid cut out in his first Italian suit, nor of a sexy young gangster impressing girlfriends at the Copacabana, but kitted out in beige chinos and surrounded by the lifeless grey of nursing home walls. Even the flashbacks to Frank in his relative youth depict a clapped-out teamster in his late thirties, stuck in a dead-end job. When he meets mafia boss Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci), gangsterism offers Frank a different route, but far from the glamour of Goodfellas or the glitz of Casino, the destination remains the same.
Much has been made about the film’s use of digital de-ageing on De Niro and co-stars Pesci and Al Pacino as union boss Jimmy Hoffa – both giving their best performances since their respective heydays. And it is indeed impressive and largely seamless. Its greatest value, however, is not to fool us into thinking that we’re watching Casino-era Pesci and De Niro, but to remind us that we are not. No matter how many wrinkles are smoothed from the faces of these men, we are being told their stories by a narrator at the end of his. There is no hiding that De Niro, in his posture and his movements, has the body of a 76-year old man. Literally and metatextually, we are watching age masquerading as youth.
The terrible sadness of The Irishman – the violence that is dished out so casually as to be almost accidental, the routine betrayals, the inevitable futility of it all – is underscored by Frank’s dogged refusal to reflect on his passive choices. The recurring motif of an open door is the film’s key image, particularly in relation to Frank’s emotionally distant daughter Peggy – the rightly-vaunted Anna Paquin – who in a near-silent role forms the film’s emotional core. Much has been made of her lack of dialogue, and more time spent with her and her father as they fail to connect may well have enriched the picture.
Nevertheless, Frank’s failure to communicate with her is essential to the film’s thesis and as someone who has let life happen to him – happy to follow orders and get rewards, as he puts it. He has done terrible things in the service of himself and his comrades, but Peggy’s absence is the conspicuous hole at the centre of Frank’s story, proof that the wages of sin are not always paid in blood. It’s a truism that criminals always end up either in jail or dead: no such glamour for Frank, who is instead left in his nursing home, telling a tale not of sound and fury but of supplication and half-bent cowardice.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm