The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★½

Perhaps the most well-known thematic trend characterizing Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking output is found within his crime movies. From Mean Streets to Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs Of New York or The Wolf Of Wall Street among others, he has always gravitated to big characters with pronounced and compelling arcs, as well as sprawling narratives with epic scope and scale to match. But now having seen his latest effort, The Irishman, I think the time has come to readjust my perspective, as it seems to me that Scorsese’s thematic interests run much deeper.

In fact, even though this decade-spanning biographical look upon the life of one Frank Sheeran, a union activist and a hitman for the Cosa Nostra, fits perfectly within a pre-assembled critical stencil and lends itself to being reviewed in the context of the aforementioned big crime epics for which Scorsese is probable the most well-known, it is markedly different in many respects which ultimately led me to uncover the theme that runs through most of Scorsese’s movies. It turns out that while there is some genuine interest in looking closely at the lives of Henry Hill or Jordan Belfort, and even manufacturing lifelike caricatures like Ace Rothstein and Bill The Butcher, both of whom were based on real people to an extent, I may have been looking at these movies from an incorrect angle. That’s because what Scorsese seems to be really passionate about is the examination of how the criminal world interacts with the regular world, be it through influencing changes in society, abusing its vulnerabilities, and assuming the role of the invisible hand that lurks behind the curtains of mainstream politics. All of a sudden, this perspective and this vaguely defined theme is found to encompass much more than these sprawling epics, but happens to include Taxi Driver, The King Of Comedy, Cape Fear, Bringing Out The Dead, and The Departed. And The Irishman seems intended as the definitive account of this complex tri-phasic dynamic between politics, society, and the criminal underworld.

Once one’s perspective is appropriately adjusted, the tone of the film makes much more sense because – at least initially - The Irishman presented itself as unnaturally subdued and withdrawn. This is of course a by-product of my own expectations fortified by Scorsese’s preceding efforts, but it has to be said definitively that this film is not meant to deconstruct the grandeur and the madness of Sheeran’s character or to assume the Herzogian perspective of awe at just how ridiculous, complex and nuanced this man’s life was; his life is a pretext to have a systematic look at the interplay between the criminal underworld, the mainstream politics in its various incarnations and society at its most immediate level of the institution of the nuclear family. To achieve that the film mostly abandons a classical three-act structure and opts to use a set of two nested framing devices to help it flow like a river of time.

I think this is the best way to see this film as. It is not interested in advancing any sort of plot nor is it really keen on exploring a complex character arc. Instead, The Irishman uses its protagonist as a conduit for Scorsese to assume a more holistic perspective on life, to which he is perfectly entitled especially because he has led a long and interesting life himself. Therefore, I am of the opinion that Scorsese’s newest effort shouldn’t really be filed together with his flashy biopics and mob epics, because it is a totally different beast. Sure, it is assembled using the constituent parts of those very stories, but its aspirations define it as at best tangential to Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf Of Wall Street. The Irishman is a contemplative odyssey you could be taken on if you ever bothered to ask your grandparents to tell you something about their lives; it ebbs, flows and most importantly takes its time to construct a powerful picture of America as it evolved during the latter half of the twentieth century and to de-romanticize the archetypal gangster by revealing his flaws, shortcomings as a father and removing any shred of celebrity we have learned to associate with criminals. And in doing so, Scorsese also managed to turn this piece into an extended letter of immense gratitude addressed to Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for being such forceful presences breathing life into many movies he chose to direct.

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