The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★

Martin Scorsese Ranked
2019 Ranked
Netflix Originals Ranked

I’ve always had a strange relationship with Scorsese. For a long time, I didn’t like his most celebrated works and I’m still in the process of reevaluating them. Much of that, I think, has to do with the fact that I watched some of them too early on in my life. Crime has never been a favorite genre for me so watching films like Taxi Driver or Goodfellas when I was barely dipping my toes in the world of film, was maybe not such a good idea. For some, it may have worked out fine, but I’m definitely not one of them. I was more of a Wolf of Wall Street and After Hours guy and, honestly, for the most part, wasn’t too interested in his films anyway. But all that changed along the way. As I learned more and watched more films, I also started to get a greater appreciation for Scorsese and what he, through his films and his preservation work, has done for film as a whole. It took some time to understand what he was doing with his work, but it ultimately dawned on me. Scorsese’s films were these unique things that would only get better with time. Even as I’m writing this, after having just seen The Irishman, I’m dreamily thinking back to Goodfellas, that, at first, only barely managed to grasp my attention and now only grows into a bigger and better film the more I think of it.

And it is exactly in that passage of time that Scorsese’s latest finds its strength. His films, and especially his gangster epics have been massively preoccupied with death in one form or the other but never like in The Irishman. Here the film and with it its main character Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), slowly, over the course of a densely filled life build up a strong fear of death. It maybe doesn't appear so clearly in the first three hours of the film but in its final stretches (which, for the record, maybe one of the most touching finales I’ve ever seen in any Scorsese-film) The Irishman turns into something almost ghostlike, a haunting specter of the violence and crimes that formed a man’s life. Before that last half hour, the film is definitely an entertaining and sprawling epic the likes of which we have come to expect of him, especially in this latter half of his career.

Frank Sheeran tells his life’s story from the comfort of his own little place in the retirement home where he spends his remaining days. In beautiful Scorsese-fashion, he immediately breaks the fourth wall and starts his lengthy tale, just like Henry Hill or Jordan Belfort did. We fly through the early days, we see Sheeran work his way to the top, in the meantime gaining allies in Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and eventually Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Pacino completely runs away with the role of Hoffa as he turns it into the great comedic center of the film. A big part of Sheeran’s story is how he befriended and eventually unfriended Hoffa and how this rocky relationship influenced his family life and other work relations but it definitely isn’t all of it. Another large part comes from the equally intimate relationship he has with Pesci’s Bufalino, the man who helps him set his first steps in the world of crime. Things start with stealing meat but quickly grow into the jobs we’re expecting of a hardened criminal. Pesci gives a surprisingly timid and sinister performance, one which I greatly prefer over his Oscar-winning role in Goodfellas. Instead of stealing the scene with audacious screams and erratic behavior, he shows to be a mastermind of control both in the narrative of the film as in the performance itself. This is the performance where one look could be enough to kill you. It really feels as if his gaze has the power to do such things. And Scorsese makes full use of this as, when the final part of the film hits us and Bufalino sends Sheeran to do the one job that his life has been working towards ever since they met, Pesci doesn’t even have to do much more than observe how De Niro steps on a jet and flies towards his destination. He barely says a word. We just see his shadow sitting in the car, all the way from inside the plane. He’s unmoving; he is completely in control and it’s absolutely amazing!

Along the way, as the three-and-a-half hours of The Irishman fly by, the film gradually becomes quieter and quieter. Of course, the old age of the characters has to do with this but it’s also Sheeran’s mindset that’s been slowly corrupting over the course of several decades. After living in such a careless world of killing, it is now him who is getting scared of death. After all the things he has done, he now succumbs to the fear of being shot in the head when he walks around the corner. His fear takes on nearly existential proportions - that last half hour could’ve just as well been Bergman directing a crime epic. De Niro’s character may not voice his fear outright but you can feel it in the subtext of his dialogue. His conversations with two members of the FBI who try to squeeze some final answers from a crippling octogenarian; his monthly prayer-session with the local priest who tries to evoke even the slightest bit of remorse in him; hell, he even goes to buy a coffin and a burial space, just to make sure he is the one in control over this final death and not someone else. He wouldn’t give them the pleasure, even if there probably wasn’t anybody left to kill him anyway.

It’s a brilliantly calm and haunting final note to the story of man’s life where death was so ubiquitous and all-consuming that it took the entirety of it to turn back around on him and haunt him for the rest of his days. Sheeran basically created his own ghosts without ever really being aware of it, but as he is left all alone at the end of his life, it perhaps finally dawns on him what he has done, what his legacy is. For better or worse, some things only become clearer with age.

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