Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has so many familiar Scorsese-isms—intoxicated tracking shots, doo-wop murder scenes, loose cannon friends who just can’t be saved—that it can best be defined by its absences. It’s not just that its color palette is more muted, or that its music cues are subdued instead of frenzied, or that it has a star as accomplished as Anna Paquin say almost nothing, just serve as a persistent symbol of conscience. It’s something central: namely, what makes its main character tick? Why is this the life he chose? It’s a much straighter question for Scorsese’s other career criminals. Ray Liotta in GoodFellas and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street got off on the privilege and material pleasures, neither of which seem to hold much interest for Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran. (He’s far and away the least hedonistic wiseguy Scorsese has ever built a movie around). The De Niro of Casino wanted to construct a stable business empire on top of the congenitally unstable world of the Las Vegas mob; the De Niro of The Irishman shows no such bigger dreams. Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets had the foolish hopes and limited perspective of a young man—a reason that, in The Irishman, wouldn’t cover much of its story, if any. So why fall in with the mob, and why keep going at it for a lifetime?
The closest direct answer we get is when Sheeran says that being part of the mob was just like when he was in the army in World War II: you got instructions, and you followed them. (All we see of his service is a quick flashback, where he quizzically but tellingly notes how POWs who were ordered to dig their own graves would actually do it). His mob is a system to adhere to, with structure, loyalty, comrades, and a sense of shared purpose. “Solidarity!”, as Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa says, for a post-war moment in America where people valued the collective more. This motive can tickle your brain, because more than any of Scorsese’s gangster movies (but less elegantly than The Godfather: Part II), the film ties the backroom dealings of organized crime to more reputable institutions like government, the military, and labor unions. It can also make Frank Sheeran a somewhat frustrating protagonist. There are long stretches of the film where he simply does whatever a Scorsese antihero would do: move up the ladder, bump off the inconvenient, trade one wife for another, etc. He’s about as passive as can be for a character who spends a movie killing people, and his narration of his own life is vastly more expository than reflective. And this vague tinge of removal makes the film’s strived-for grandeur initially elusive—at least until the last act, when it all pays off.
The same can be said for one of the film’s most publicized elements: the digital de-aging effects, which smooth out the faces of De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci in an effort to make them look younger. Scorsese has called the use of the tech “experimental”, and in experimental fashion, it’s partly successful, partly distracting, and with a lot of interesting side effects. It’s certainly not photorealism: in the early scenes, Sheeran seems less like a young De Niro and more like an old De Niro wearing a young De Niro mask. When he curb-stomps a grocer, you’re clearly watching an elderly man mimicking the physicality of a younger one. In the scene where they first meet, Pesci calls De Niro “kid”, and your guess is as good as mine on whether De Niro the “kid” is meant to look 25, 30, or 40. The result is not unlike highly stylized makeup, but the manipulation of the image itself adds a layer of unfamiliarity. But you adjust to it, and when De Niro’s movie-length flashback catches up to his age, it hits you not because he suddenly looks old, but because his oldness suddenly looks natural.
Admittedly, I spent most of the movie wondering if this was all working in practice as well as theory—that is, whether or not The Irishman simply reaches a cruising altitude of expertise and stays there, cycling through incidents in a way that’s not epic so much as long. There’s no shortage of engagement; with this cast and this crew, any given 20 minutes of The Irishman would place among the best moviemaking of 2019. (For all the attention given to Al Pacino’s first Scorsese role, special praise must go to Joe Pesci as a soulful, very un-Pesci-like mob boss). But the last half hour is among the most haunting and somber of Scorsese’s work. Scorsese is right to encourage viewers to stream his three-and-a-half-hour, intermission-free movie in one go, even if he’s spitting into the wind. By the end, the audience should feel the weight of time passed, and what all those absences start to mean when you have nothing left to do with your life but examine it—and not much time left to do so. It is a ghostly final act, explicitly tying together Scorsese’s spiritual concerns and gangster-romanticism like no film of his since Mean Streets. Where The Irishman will ultimately rank in his canon is an exhilaratingly open question. For now, I can safely say that it establishes the right to a legacy and a reputation of its own. And that, of all of Scorsese’s gangsters-brought-low, this is the one whose ending moved me the most.
The Irishman is streaming on Netflix, is up for a bunch of Golden Globes, and will be an Oscar juggernaut. And for the love of god, yes, he’s made a lot more than just gangster movies.