The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

More on this later hopefully - but the social significance of Scorsese's gangster pictures is perhaps underwritten, and with the exception of the DiCaprio films (though perhaps a case can be made for Gangs) these are all situated at a very specific time in 20th Century America, a period where whiteness is only just beginning to accept ethnic "subgroups" such as Italian, Irish, or Jewish into conventional American culture (we literally see the moment that begins with the election of Kennedy in Irishman). In 2019, there is a perhaps justifiable tendency to group all these categories together as "white" but Scorsese is also not making a contemporary film, it's set predominantly between the 1950s to the 1970s, specifically the time of his own coming of age. This is specifically the last generation of ethnic white Americans where it could be deemed plausible to have to enter gangs in order to assimilate into culture, while still retaining a sense of personal identity. It's for this reason that Scorsese's gangster films (and also De Palma's) went beyond cinephila and entered the cultural lexicon upon their frequent television broadcasts - these are often films about immigrants and/or their first and second generation offspring. And while the faces and races may have changed, the social codes remain much the same (this is also why John Ford remains interesting) and more often than not you can see something you have observed or even relate to. I presume The Irishman may be the last of Scorsese's films of this nature - unless he makes gets to make his Sinatra film: Irishman, Casino and Goodfellas round out a sort of trilogy where we study these ethnic mobs assimilate into and impact American culture, Goodfellas and culture itself, Casino and the American economy, and Irishman with the American political system at a federal level. Sinatra would be the last chapter: the mob and the entertainment industry. One can also argue perhaps that Gangs of New York works as a sort of prologue to this subject, while Wolf of Wall Street is a sort of epilogue - mafia methodology having now fully integrated itself into standard American business practice.

Yet, even if The Irishman does almost complete a circle Scorsese began crafting in 1990, it's a masterpiece not for this alone but because it is also a film which expands its breath into what Mr. Scorsese's frequent collaborator DiCaprio has effusively described as "a movie about looking upon what you've left behind and squaring up with all of it, but for me, what's more astounding about this film, in my mind, Marty transcends his own signature genre and creates a film that methodically transforms itself into an exploration of our very own universally shared mortality."
Without fully jumping into DiCaprio's surprisingly eloquent hyperbole, The Irishman is also part of a bigger narrative, the chapter which comes after Silence - a film literally about finding the will to have any hope in the world.

I'd underrated this on my first watch, especially the last portion of it - but I'd argue this really opens up on the second viewing (if not more), like some of the greatest movies ever made. This is a epic, tragic and genuine masterpiece, maybe the ultimate late work. You need to see it multiple times in a way - otherwise you would never notice that its Jimmy Hoffa getting shot within the first 5 minutes of the movie, and that literally the entire film is a "build-up" so to speak, to this single moment, finally given to us coldly and almost casually. Whatever sense of nostalgia there is here is almost a ruse - this is probably Scorsese's coldest work, an "ideas" film like Silence but perhaps even more sophisticated because it tricks you into thinking it isn't conceptual until the very end. Even if that political section is covered a la the other films in this "trilogy" it is the first time you cannot argue that gangsterism is romanticized. Almost every moment in this movie exists for the purpose of context for Sheeran's betrayal of Hoffa - Irishman/I Heard You Paint Houses has a subtly schematic structure with the purpose being to identify each and every moment in Sheeran's life that he believed lead to that specific moment of Hoffa's killing, every action and every choice. The films alternate title (and I assume Mr. Scorsese's preferred one) "I Heard You Paint Houses" is first and only heard in Sheeran's first conversation with Hoffa, one of three explicitly key (perhaps even more, since this is an enormous film) moments like these - the others being Sheeran noting that the second time he meets Buffalino his life would change forever, and the first time Hoffa and Provenzano have an altercation in prison - which Sheeran notes in his narration "We should have known that was the moment it would all start to fall apart." It's not for nothing that the film is narrated by Sheeran in the early 2000s, well into old age and nearing death - the terror of The Irishman is the one single decision that could ruin the lives of oneself and others, and as such the extended coda only makes this clear, as Sheeran tries and fails to make amends with his daughter and is wracked with guilt for his remaining years, all based on this one moment. And spending much of those years digging into memories, trying to figure out what exactly went wrong, and how - realizing it's not the terror of the single decision, but of each one which lead you to that choice.

The Irishman covers many things though I'd better leave the political aspects of this for another time, because how complicated they are would take forever to write - maybe save it for the next viewing, lol. But it would seem that the political interweaving throughout this film follows a similar trajectory - Frank's war exploits leading him to the mob, the mob-assisted election of Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs invasion happening on the periphery, the mafia's financial stake in Cuba which Castro threatens and succeeds at ending, the Kennedy's turning to Hoffa and the unions once their coup fails. But I'm also no expert - maybe an American should write that. Regardless, in it's broadest sense, The Irishman is a terrifying and ruthlessely deterministic work that actually plays side-by-side with Silence in an interesting way: more than Wolf of Wall Street, Irishman is partially the polar opposite of the 2016 film, one that might confirm that Scorsese holds a brutal, borderline Darwinian vision of the world where no matter which side you are on, good or evil, left, right or centre, there is one fundamental law and it is that the strong will always defeat the weak - a worldview that Scorsese perhaps holds but does not necessarily endorse and moreso than ever here. Instead, it's the first time Scorsese has managed to reach the realm of Greek Tragedy which he so often speaks about. This also clarified Silence for me in a way - of course Scorsese would need religion, how could he have any hope in the world as brutal as this?

The finale of this film isn't just powerful and philosophical because of the deterioration of everyones bodies, but there's also the first entry of religion into a film that, had I not known who directed it up to that point, I would be almost certain that the director did not believe in God. Even as a non-believer I found myself almost in admiration of Silence's final shot, true or false it was genuine and honest. The shock here is that merely a film later, Scorsese himself seems uncertain. We almost get a bit of foreshadowing in a late conversation between Sheeran and one of the younger of his four daughters - it's a powerful moment in terms of the character relationship, but it's also almost profound, because we can see that these two characters hold two completely different visions of the world - and Frank is unable to recognize the fault of his own vision, turning the Frank's desire for forgiveness into a matter of perspective. The entire world seems to change in Frank's remaining years - the first time we ever see a woman of colour in the film is while Frank is having his blood tested in what seems his last days. He cannot recognize her world, and she cannot recognize his. But why would she even want to, for that matter? The last shot itself is perhaps the complete reversal of Silence - there the camera tracked towards Rodrigues's hand, and we see the cross (in a coda that had nothing to do with the source material and was of Scorsese's own invention). This time the camera stays far away from him, peeking through a doorway as a man who has never showed interest in God in his entire life has a prayer read for him. This time, there's no subjective plunge - no cheating like the end of Silence this time. The priest leaves, and it's just Sheeran completely alone, having wasted his entire life with no one around to even mourn him, and the existence of God in question, only now because this man has all the time in the world to think, having never second guessed a thing in his life beforehand.

For all the talk of the performances (and they are completely and justifiably applauded, so no need for me to explicate on anything here) I gotta give Robert De Niro a shout out - like yeah, Pesci went full beast mode too, but the intelligence of De Niro's acting I think has become something we now too vastly underrate, perhaps because he hasn't necessarily been working at his full capabilities since maybe the mid 90s? He's the king of understatement, the master of blink-and-you'll miss it acting: watch how subtly he explicates on Frank's lack of education - he's quite "dumb" for lack of a better word, takes everything for granted and only wants to be liked by people with more power than he. He's a willing pawn, part because he isn't too bright, and part because this is also an example of a very specific first and second generation immigrant experience - wanting to please the fellow countrymen that took him in. Watch the pride Frank has when he takes on the union job at Hoffa's insistence, or how subtly the "comic" moments reveal this - like when Keitel's Angelo Bruno (the only person I wish we got more of) points out that he has interest in the washer place only to lead Sheeran to complete confusion even though the statement is completely obvious, or when Sheeran first speaks to Hoffa over the phone, and oddly states to Bufalino that Hoffa reminded him of General Patton. I would assume it is conditioning, but Frank is literally incapable of thinking outside of a certain vision of the world, whether it be mob capitalism or even American individualism. It's Frank's refusal to think about what he is doing that gets him to where he goes.
The terror of The Irishman isn't that the film is schematic, but in its insistance that life itself is schematic - perhaps it is also because of Frank's lack of education, but watch how easily he is manipulated by Pesci's Machiavellian Bufalino: of course Bufalino would convince Bruno to spare Sheeran's life, because 20 years later he's going to ask Sheeran to kill his best friend, Jimmy Hoffa. But there's also the moment, of course, where Sheeran viciously assaults a shopowner in front of his young daughter, becoming the moment which defines their relationship. Of course they would never speak to each other. The Irishman is a profoundly dark movie which sees life as a mere domino effect. It is what it is.

Irishman essentially (and finally) ties up the two poles of Scorsese into one: the one that clearly adores hanging out, socializing etc, and the isolated young boy watching the world from his window. I come out of it admiring Scorsese more than ever, more than even when I was a young teenager discovering his work for the first time. I've found myself even questioning some of Scorsese's films and positions (but for an artist which you hold dear, I personally believe that is a healthy relationship to art which doesn't necessarily mean you're taking them for granted) but now I find myself wanting to watch them all over again. As an aside, I noticed how the structure of the film (Scorsese is the king of tastefully borrowing, after all) is cribbed from Bertolucci's The Conformist - a filmmaker who he once described as the only contemporary he studied as much as the old masters.
Mr. Scorsese's advanced age makes me think about how devastated and passionate he was last year when Bernardo Bertolucci died, and they're both essential for similar reasons: while the former perhaps took politics more seriously, they're both super cinephiles who through the power of cinema, were able to reach some of the most complicated emotions, emotions that no other filmmakers in the mediums history were ever able to reach.

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