The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★½


Feels like Scorsese’s rebuttal to anyone who’s (wrongly, imo) accused him of romanticizing criminal lifestyles. Perhaps the most transparent and veritably bleak depiction of the mob we’ll ever get, right down to fine details e.g. the frighteningly casual, almost matter-of-fact manner in which most of the on-screen executions occur, or the constant subtitles appearing over random gangsters, showing the date of death and exact - often gruelingly excessive and unglamorous - method and location of their demise (not just key players either—people that occupy bit-parts and minor roles, highlighting the extent to which seemingly everyone is “involved” and inevitably doomed, for one reason or another). Pesci plays his aging capo with subversive restraint, emoting more through subtle facial expressions, hardened eyes, and nuanced body language than a career’s worth of belligerent bellowing and motormouthing. (There’s something infinitely more intimidating, too, about quiet confidence than brassy hotdogging.) Pacino’s just being Pacino, but Pacino being Pacino is entertaining enough, and his undertones of cockiness - naively asserting himself as invincible - allow Scorsese to fashion a reasonable (and unexpectedly stirring) elucidation of Hoffa's untimely disappearance—just like the German soldiers who dug their own graves, Hoffa was standing in the middle of his and still thought he’d be able to escape. The final forty-five minute chunk deserves a spot near the top of Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s (already impressive) collective résumé, capturing a man pinned between legitimate friendship and lethal obeisance—Frank repeatedly trying (and failing) to talk sense into Hoffa is painfully heartbreaking, figuratively watching a comrade hammering nails into his own coffin at the hands of foolish pride and ego—who, even when choosing the latter, is condemned to live the rest of his life under the never ending compression of conscience and guilt, to say nothing of the knowing judgment and eventual ostracism of family as he careens toward his own pitiful, lonesome coda. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t, and that’s the brutal truth of this brutal path.

But for well over two hours, I couldn’t convince myself that I wasn’t watching a modest, sweeping genuflection of Scorsese’s earlier mob pictures (namely GOODFELLAS and CASINO in totality, but also RAGING BULL and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET in part); a different (and refreshing) vantage point of relatively similar material that, while occasionally riveting, felt unavoidably recursive, the aforementioned high-points not quite striking enough to completely rationalize the monumental runtime. (Though many of the tangential paths are amusing for one reason or another, I’m questioning now how critical they truly are, if at all, and at what point economy begins to trump depth.) Also found myself continuously distracted by the de-aging effect, unable to accurately pinpoint how old certain people were supposed to be within various timelines (esp. De Niro and Pesci), and conceded that no amount of computer-generated makeup could hide the distinctive movements of men in their seventies (the scene where should-be “young” De Niro beats a shop owner is the most glaring example). Conversely, Pesci’s geriatric acting is possibly the pinnacle of his career, and De Niro’s woeful hobble at the bank as his daughter callously rejects him for the final time sets up a miraculously haunting closing shot.

After one viewing, I don’t think this is Scorsese’s masterpiece (by a long-shot, actually), but for an established filmmaker to give us something this good at a point this deep into his career, we should all be ecstatic. (I’ll admit when I’d first heard about this film over a year ago, I thought it was going to suck. Shame on me for not having a little more faith in the man who created one of my favorite films of all time.) A raw, uncompromising glance at the endless wake of casualties that permeates the mafia, whether you’re shot in the head eight times in your own kitchen or left to rot alone in a nursing home until your heart stops beating, what’s the difference anyway?

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