The Irishman ★★★★½

Essential Scorsese. Essential in that it’s a must-watch entry in Scorsese’s filmography, but also in the sense that The Irishman boils Scorsese down to his essence. It’s a reflection of Scorsese’s obsessions and achievements over the years, filtered through a fine sieve of wisdom and experience until becoming crystal-clear, refined, and, again, essential.

I watched The Irishman in tandem with Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino and that company provided a useful framework for tackling a second watch (the first time through I was unsure and unequipped to take it for all it is). What stuck out for me, aided by thoughts from critic Justin Chang, was the basic contradictions Scorsese wrestles with—the sacred and profane, the holy and the hell-bound. He’s fascinated with gangsters and their lifestyle, and can’t help but admire them in some ways, yet in The Irishman he takes a step back from his own admiration and takes a hard look at the fallout. He shows greater empathy for the lives surrounding these broken men, those who suffer so much because the gangsters can’t stop being so damn bad.

And why can’t they stop? About 2 hours into The Irishman, I got the strongest sense that these men are stuck in a cage, hurtling toward certain doom. The cage is custom, loyalty, obedience to mob rule, and fear. These men, seemingly so towering and strong, are basically puppets, helpless to do anything but follow the course they chose when they first made a deal with the devil. Could they have known what choice they were making at the time? Was there any way out? Maybe, but the movie suggests that the only exit is to face death, to be willing to let yourself be taken instead of continuing to kill. Of course, these people aren’t really up for that. When death inevitably comes, they fall back on another set of customs, those of Catholicism, with the hope that there will be some safety in that as they pass to the next world.

For our main characters, death comes slowly in the form of old age. And that’s the other part of the Irishman. Aging and approaching death are explored so thoroughly that I felt more than ever before my own mortality and an actual fear of dying. There’s no going out in a blaze of glory or riding off into the sunset here. It’s a slow decay and collapse. Scorsese explores this with amazing earnestness and never loses his thread.

A masterpiece, flat out.