Saturday, November 16, 2019


The song is familiar, but the mood is different. Here’s a tale told not in the first flush of a youthful thrill, but at an end where it can be quiet, contemplative, funereal. In The Irishman, Martin Scorsese returns to the subject of crime and its vast systemic corruption — the source of so many of his memorable, dazzling, energetic, probing films: Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street. But here it is at its saddest, and most somber. Even the Glory Days, where the Tough Guys are flush with money and our lead character is drawn into the club with praise and success, are presented as just some guys doing what they felt needed to be done for their jobs. One day after the other. A job is a job is a job. It may give you what you think you need, but at what cost? Scorsese has always hit these notes of moral perspective, of interpersonal ambiguity. Here the characters are aware of their compromises and the inevitable emptiness from the jump. It is told to us from the nursing home by an elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) whose lonely, ailing life places, with the sharply soft cinematography and cutting between three points in time, the futility that settles over the story. The bustling activity scripted by Steve Zaillian for the sprawling three-and-a-half hour film takes us from low-level mob enforcers in post-World War II Pennsylvania, to teamster hustling and negotiating in Chicago, to the halls of power in the Justice Department. Every step of the way — ascending a ladder of upward mobility from unionized truck driver, to mob enforcer, to a trusted helper for powerful men — Frank demonstrates a sense of duty and loyalty to his bosses and coworkers, whoever they may be. He wants to build his American dream, provide a secure life for his growing family. And yet the moral compromises of a corrupt system take his hard work and use it to consolidate the power of those above him, at the cost of his sense of self. His violence and his connections give him everything, and strip from him his certitude. He's digging his own grave.

The film, as elegiac as it is suspenseful, floats between the tangled, overlapping worlds of business, politics, and the mob in mid-20th-century America. Frank is able to navigate between them because they are, as the film portrays them, overwhelmingly similar worlds of backroom deals, underhanded tricks, and power plays. He’s drawn into the orbits of two men. In one he finds the soft, sinister, avuncular tones of a hometown mobster (Joe Pesci) who seeks to keep his friends and family close and comfortable, whatever the cost. In the other is the loud, brash, combative teamster president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), whose bellicose pursuit of power for the working man is also flagrantly consolidating power for himself. The interactions between these men are cleverly staged and entertaining sequences with an undercurrent of sadness. All three leads, delivering forceful, nuanced, humane performances, are skillfully digitally de-aged in the early going, and yet retain the gravely stiffness of age; as the effects fade away, it’s as if their true selves — tired, desperate, sad — are being exposed as life wears them down. As incident and characterization accrues, the film gathers its power. The whole weight of its runtime comes down upon the final sequences, where a line or two, or a significant silence, takes on outsized power. By the end, Sheeran understands the ways in which the hard work he did was all for naught, for which his support of a system was a work of quiet cowardice. He saw his soul eroding slowly and surely as he saw what was happening around him. He participated in it to eke out a meager middle-class life for his family, and in the end is left alone, reaching impotently for human or spiritual connection that his time on earth has slowly bled away. What a powerful portrait of regret and quiet desperation. Yes, how exciting to feel important, to be part of something, to build a good reputation — to network and negotiate and stand up for yourself and play a role in history where the people you meet might be on the nightly news tomorrow or a decade from now. But how sad if, in the end, the consequences leave you nothing and no one. It’s a rise and a fall, but here, from this character’s deathbed perspective and in the hands of a mature master filmmaker, it feels like falling the whole way through.

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