The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★

This will be a long, slow journey, with many stops, cigarette breaks, and detours into the past. It opens a vein into the expanse of history, and traces the smaller capillaries of the every-day worker; it bursts with splinters of violence, and lulls with the intrusion of tired time.

Despite the length, The Irishman moves fast between its times and characters— sometimes too fast. While the tone builds an aging, elegiac ode to the gangster movie, the scenes skitter forward, perhaps peppered with growing holes of a failing memory. And despite being seeped in somber haze, the constant movements and cutting can sometimes give the film a sense of contradictory energy. Although moment-to-moment the film might not be able to always linger, as a whole it hangs heavy in thought, slowly unfolding more and more as it grows old in the mind.

Old Frank Sheeran is a storyteller, slumped in his chair, countenance creased by experience, eyes heavy with accrued time, directly facing the audience. His voice-over starts the film, and carries over through much of it's length. Voice-over is much maligned by style guides, but here Scorsese uses it to emphasize the role of story-telling, and to remind the viewer that this is Sheeran looking back over his life, feeling out the past, giving it shape in the tactility of his words. Sometimes it does become a bit over-bearing, a tad over-used— but as our only access behind Sheeran’s inscrutable expression, his words are crucial keys to his character.

The square, grainy screen of the television is also positioned as a story-teller. It spouts stories from the background, and people gather around it in cafes, living-rooms, or bars. It feeds the hungry eyes around it with snippets of the political climate— from the cuban missile crisis to JFK’s assassination. The immediacy and severity of these stories is carried so well that, for a second, I felt myself there, in an old diner, hearing the shattering news for the first time. And between these two tent-pole events, the spread of the era is draped with a myriad of other, smaller, details and always convincing elements.

It may seem like this extensive look into the past is conveyed through a series of flashbacks, but that wouldn’t be wholly accurate. These aren’t sudden memories of the past, but a re-evaluation of it; it is the past mediated by the present. Old Frank is the one telling us this story, so we see what he’s familiar with. Secret meetings, brief eruptions of violence, and a code of respect, honour and unforgiving retribution. His family is barely seen— and it’s almost as if, as he’s retelling this story, he comes to realize how much they weren’t a part of his life, how much his constant cloud of deceit excluded himself from them.

The narrative strand of a road-trip to Detroit carries the most central weight. Frank is driving, while the infamous Russell Bufalino snoozes beside him. This road trip taps into one of the oldest metaphors: that life is a journey. It is here that the past draws itself onto the highway, and the future sketches itself vaguely across the distance. As he quietly drives, Sheeran is seen passively, as he usually is. But driving is not a passive role; the driver is the one who has the most control, whether they know it or not. Throughout the film, Sheeran is that stony, unreadable presence sitting in the back of a room, or standing by the far wall. He’s shown as passive because he looks back and remembers himself that way, caught in the eddies of larger, more wild and eccentric personalities.

He’s a pawn— or at least considers himself to be one— and he doesn’t appear to be aware of the full influence he’s exerted on history. This stems from his time in the military, which had stamped its lessons indelibly upon his his mind. Not only did it desensitize him to death, but it taught him to follow orders. It’s a culture of discipline and hierarchy, one that has faded and grown old in out current time. But it’s also not just isolated in the fields of war, for the culture of the mafia uses a similar ideology. Sheeran’s higher-ups in the army use the exact same equivocating language as his higher-ups in the mafia. It’s the language of power: the sort that makes its intentions clear, but disguises itself by skirting around the truth of the subject. This attitude comes to affect, then entirely define Sheeran as a character. First, in the military, he is forced to deal out death, to the point that it becomes easy, even trivial for him. But he disguises the truth of this under a placid demeanour. Then, later, he keeps killing— because others realize how easy it is for him, and they turn this to their benefit. It’s not until later, way, way later, when Sheeran begins to feel the gravity of death, as it finally begins to peek over his horizon. He sees the searing fire of his past violence like a distant star, its light only visible after decades of travel. For even light must grow old. And, sometimes, even the brightest of events must travel for years and years before they can be truly seen.

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