This autumnal masterpiece brings the decade to a close with the final word on whether the director’s crime movies endorse their subjects.
Martin Scorsese’s crime films tend to follow a similar pattern: reveling in the subjective ecstasy of their protagonists’ wanton ids before sinking into the harsh reality of consequences and implosion, using early highs to make the eventual crash that much more harrowing. The Irishman nominally perpetuates this structure, but with a crucial difference. Its subject, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), narrates the film in the same memoir fashion as Henry Hill or Ace Rothstein, but Frank, introduced as a decrepit old man living in a nursing home, recounts his story from a place of misery. As such, Scorsese’s film emits a defeated atmosphere from the start, even when reliving supposedly pleasant memories.
This is evident from the moment that Frank, a lowly meat truck driver in the ‘50s, makes the acquaintance of some local mobsters in Philadelphia. In particular, he comes into the graces of Russell Bufalino, a boss played by Joe Pesci, who sidesteps the explosive energy he previously brought to bear for Scorsese in favor of the reasonable calm of a man who knows he has power and thus does not feel the need to assert it. Yet for all the authority that Russell and his superiors exude, we constantly see the gangsters meeting up in a small restaurant that is always nearly empty, occupied only by dons and the handful of soldiers they trust as they silently nurse drinks. Compare this sorry-looking joint to the full houses and raucous energy of the nightclubs and restaurants in Goodfellas, and immediately one feels the loss of even the most ironic glamor that pervades the director’s other mob movies.
Likewise, Frank’s escalation from minor thief to trusted hitman and even a union chapter president lacks the slightest thrill. Of course, Frank ends up taking home more money as a killer and puppet union leader, but we never get the sense that he becomes rich in the way that other Scorsese criminal protagonists either do or perceive that they do. Violence, too, is sapped of the frenetic tone it often takes in the director’s work; scenes of mafia hits are mostly done in long shot, with characters awkwardly speed-walking up to targets and putting a few rounds in their head before staggering away.
The cold tone of this brutality is exacerbated by the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, who marks his third collaboration with Scorsese with the same slightly desaturated colors and sharp lighting he brought to The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence. Here, he orients that style toward undercutting the slightest suggestion that there might be any contentment to be found in this life, visualizing the way that Frank’s soul leaks out of him with each act of barbarism. Further adding to the stark horror is the way that minor characters are identified not only with a chyron giving their name but a brief text description of the often grisly ways that they were murdered, instantly undercutting the often jovial tone of Frank meeting mobsters and crooked union reps with reminders of where such a life leads.
Eventually, Frank is assigned to protect Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the Teamsters president whose deep mob ties make him a target for various rival families. If De Niro plays Frank, an actual killer, with a muted reserve that makes his violence almost surprising rather than inevitable, Pacino gives the glad-handing Hoffa far more visible rage. Minor irritants are treated as unforgivable slights, compromise is verboten, and, as Jimmy angers more and more of the gangsters who put him into power, any attempt to reason with him is rebuffed for the sake of ego. Yet Pacino puts in his subtlest work in decades, hiding much of Jimmy’s temper and manipulations behind cajoling smiles and leering, intimidating eyes. Scorsese’s protagonists tend to be men who cannot let common sense get in the way of letting their egos and farcical social codes drive them to disaster, and The Irishman intriguingly makes that figure a supporting character, allowing both the audience and Frank watch a man refuse to break out of his downward spiral.
As Frank grows closer to Jimmy, the inevitability of what will befall the Teamster pervades the film with dread. Yet a certain level of drained sorrow is present even from the start. Scorsese’s other crime films have implicated the women in the protagonists’ criminal behavior, showing how they become intoxicated by it, but The Irishman devotes extensive focus on how Frank’s children grow up watching him commit acts of violence and are left disturbed and terrified of their own father, especially his introverted daughter, Peggy (Lucy Gallina). Peggy is so repulsed by her dad and his friends that she can barely stand to look at them, leading to unexpectedly sad scenes of Russell, who quietly admits that he and his wife cannot have children, trying in vain to win so much as a smile from the girl and resigning himself to being unable to shake her visible fear of him.
Scorsese’s crime epics always span significant lengths of time, but none make you feel the way time both drags on and suddenly rushes past like this one. The Irishman is, aesthetically, one of Scorsese’s more sedate films, but there are few moments in his entire filmography as jolting as the moment that the full weight of years is communicated by the sudden appearance of Peggy not as Gallina but Anna Paquin, an entire adolescence bypassed with an edit that immediately communicates just how much Frank has let his work take his focus away from a personal life that has moved on without him. Surprisingly, the film’s climax occurs with nearly an hour remaining, leaving the rest of the runtime to follow the emotional shockwaves left in its wake. The slow descent into purgatory, of Frank being left alive as his friends die and his family leaves him, is the most sustained act of emotional devastation that Scorsese has ever wrought, capped off by the most upsetting, tragic and hellish final shot of his career. The 2010s have seen some of Scorsese’s finest films, and this autumnal masterpiece brings the decade to a close with the final word on whether the director’s crime movies endorse their subjects, presenting the clearest articulation of the filmmaker’s moral sense since Bringing Out the Dead.