Martin Scorsese is no stranger to the gangster genre. While his oeuvre stretches across almost the entire breadth of 20th century American cinema (no Western on there… yet), it’s no accident that he is primarily associated with his forays into crime film. They are the touchstones around which his career has been built and — fairly or not — how we view his contributions to the art form. And, as reductive as that sounds, it also seems to be the correct way to view The Irishman; as a culmination of Scorsese’s fascination and exploration of the genre and his own career.
It’s the backwards view of an older man, trying to make a summation of all he has experienced… very much as Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) begins to do after a decade involved with the Mafia. A lifelong Teamster and truck driver, Sheeran also confessed late in life to being a long time hitman for the Mob, one involved with many of its most famous assassinations and specifically with the disappearance of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). That was but one killing among many in the years following World War II as Sheeran became a confidant of Hoffa and high level mob bosses (Joe Pesci), giving him a first-hand view of the excesses of organized crime through the 20th century. Unfortunately, he never quite noticed how much all of that blood had begun to leech onto his soul, until it was too late.
From Mean Streets to Goodfellas to The Irishman, a straight line can be drawn through the increasingly-aging men who get caught up in the world of the streets and an evolving understanding of the prices they pay. More importantly, it shows the evolving understanding of the man behind the men, each a snapshot in time of Scorsese’s view of that world and his ability (or lack thereof) to see beyond himself. Means Streets (and in similar regard, Taxi Driver) is the young man’s reaction, full of violent longing and a swift end (because who wants to live to grow old?), while Goodfellas pushes with its director into middle age and leaves Henry Hill facing the purgatory of witness protection but leaves no indication what the man on the other side of that abyss might be like. Now an elder statesman in line with Sheeran himself, Scorsese is ready to face that final judgment and that judgment is not pretty. Taking all the vicarious pleasures antics of the gangster film head on — the need for respect, the easy resort of violence, the childlike requirement to fulfill all momentary impulses — and finds them wanting against the eternity that lies beyond death.
It does take The Irishman almost as long to get to that realization as Scorsese himself. Though it’s near three and a half hour runtime flashes by faster than a life during a near-death experience, it’s not always clear how vital it all is. In order to make Frank’s realization of the weight of his life’s (mis-)deeds register, Scorsese wants to inflict that life on us, flashing back and forth through Frank’s time in the Mob (nothing before that exists) with deliberation and no hurry. From a purely cynical viewpoint it gives Scorsese one last opportunity to roll around in all of the vicarious thrills of the crime story — planning a heist, carrying out a hit, doing what you want and getting away with it — even as he plans to undermine them.
There are some changes, some hints at Scorsese’s evolving view of all of this. Every male cast member’s introduction — except Hoffa — comes with a brief title card explaining exactly when and how they died, undercutting their quests for riches and power with the reality of what they actually bought for themselves. The use of the same actors playing the middle-aged and elderly versions of themselves (through some clever digital trickery) adds to that effect, as the wear and tear of the years plays out on their faces.
Pesci in particular is a standout, becoming more his true demonic self as his face becomes more and more skeletal. De Niro, by comparison, seems more to be doing a greatest hits of his older performances rather than finding something new, though that is not entirely on him. Frank, even if he is a prime actor in much of what goes on, comes across as an observer of all that is going on rather than an active participant. His scenes with Pacino, meant to build up the friendship between the men and play up the tragedy of Hoffa’s end, come off the same way with De Niro mostly watching Pacino rant and rave rather than any sustained byplay. For all the time we spend with these men, at the end of the day they mostly remain cyphers, even to themselves.
Which may be the ultimate point. Their quests for worldly gains and power are ultimately revealed as the most hollow of pursuits, viewed through the eye of an elder statesmen and the wisdom of a life lived. Is it the grand review of all that Scorsese has done in cinema and in this genre? It’s perhaps a bit too self-indulgent and not quite as self-reflective as it pretends to be. Does it give us a clearer insight into Scorsese’s view of these films and the individuals in them? Most definitely, and for that if nothing else, it’s worth its weight in gold.
THE IRISHMAN REVIEW RATING: 8/10
The Irishman is now playing in Los Angeles and New York theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix November 27th.