Believe it or not, it’s been nearly 30 years since Martin Scorsese made GoodFellas, one of the auteur’s least disputed masterpieces. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. Joe Pesci won Best Supporting Actor.
Scorsese’s name has been mentioned in a lot of film criticism lately, and not just because he’s teamed up with streaming giant Netflix to make the year’s premier awards season juggernaut. (And not just because he’s been lightly dissing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, either.) Todd Phillips’ controversial, ultra-divisive Joker is a knowing homage to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy. (Scorsese is credited as an Executive Producer of Joker, too.) It’s fascinating, and more than a little depressing, to realize that the only way a major studio would back a gritty drama about a violent misanthrope today is to wrap it up in comic book mythos. Are adult dramas dead? Is Joker the death knell of real cinema? Maybe!
So thank God for Netflix, the unlikely savior of good, old-fashioned adult-oriented epics on the big screen.
For now, anyway.
The Irishman is the story of Frank Sheeran, a — you guessed it — Irishman who nevertheless gets wrapped up in the Italian-American dominated mob scene, eventually leading to a gig as a bodyguard and fixer for labor union bigwig Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran is played by Robert De Niro, Hoffa by Al Pacino, and The Irishman‘s three and a half hour running time gives two of our finest acting heavyweights plenty of time on screen together (unlike The Godfather Part II or Heat, which were also very long but found little or no time for De Niro and Pacino to share the screen). In this and virtually every other way, The Irishman delivers exactly what a Martin Scorsese crime saga promises — slick cinematography, tough guy banter, plentiful dark comedy, an ironic use of period pop music, bursts of bloodshed, and a heaping helping of regret.
But this time around, it’s the regret that lingers with us more than anything else.
The Irishman is as specific to a life of crime as a movie could possibly be. For most of us moviegoers, this is a fantasy world that just barely resembles our own. It has its own rules, its own language, a distinct set of players we only recognize from movies and TV shows and the news — it’s not something we’re likely to have any real connection to. And yet The Irishman is also a strangely universal story about getting old, which we all do, with the disturbing insinuation that whether we spend our lives killing people or not, it’s all downhill in the end.Granted, this is a particular story about a particular man making particular choices about how to earn a living — maybe Scorsese isn’t trying to put us all in Frank Sheeran’s shoes. But maybe he is. The Irishman is thoroughly entertaining in exactly the same way GoodFellas is, but it leaves a surprisingly bitter aftertaste. It’s a juicy crime saga with the glee snuffed out of it. The fun is gone, and so is the fleeting appeal of being a gangster by proxy for a few hours. As Scorsese introduces us to real-life mob figures throughout the film, chyrons often pop up telling us the date and gruesome details of their deaths. Few are natural. Scorsese still seduces us with the power and supposed code of honor in this underworld, just as he always has, but he never lets us forget for long that this story is nearly always punctuated with a gunshot in the end. Sheeran’s daughter Peggy is also on hand to provide judgment through the eyes of an innocent. She offers a silent critique of Frank’s violent ways at key points throughout the film. (Anna Paquin plays Peggy as an adult; I believe she may only say one word in the film, but it’s a hell of a word.)
It’s hard not to examine The Irishman on a meta level, coming from an industry that is doing a lot of reckoning with misdeeds by men lately. Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street was misread by some as a celebration of boorish behavior, but it would be hard to mistake The Irishman as an advocate for mob recruitment. The moral lesson is clear. The actions have consequences. Old Frank Sheeran is alive and well in a nursing home, narrating The Irishman to us directly — we know he doesn’t meet a violent end, but being the sole survivor of this particular boys’ club isn’t much better.And yet, you don’t have to live a life of crime to end up sick and scared and alone, alienated from your family, your old friends dead and buried. That’s what gives The Irishman its sour punch, distinct from the rest of Scorsese’s filmography (even when so much of the rest of this is so familiar). We all meet our maker. Sometimes it’s suddenly, at the hands of someone who wishes us ill. Sometimes it’s long and drawn out. It’s never pleasant. The Irishman could only be made by a man in his twilight years, as a somber reflection on his own former vitality. Taxi Driver was a whippersnapper. GoodFellas exuded a middle-aged confidence. The Irishman seems to shrivel up and hunch over before our eyes, and not just because of the de-aging technology that allows De Niro to convincingly play Sheeran at thirtysomething. It’s because O.G. mobsters are dead and dying… the way of life that was so permissive to white men doing whatever they want is dying… and movies like The Irishman are dying, too. Sooner or later, our Scorseses and Spielbergs will be gone, and there’s no guarantee that cinema will survive long after.
Netflix is credited with destroying the theatrical experience, and in the long run, that may wind up being true. But at the moment, it’s one of few Hollywood players willing to give us a movie like The Irishman. The film cost a lot of money; it looks and feels that way. It is sprawling — not a single moment feels truncated, or in deference to a studio note. There is no concession to our supposedly dwindling attention spans, or how it might play on our phones. This probably doesn’t make much financial sense — Netflix is playing the long game, willing to take a loss to nab some Oscars and the ensuing prestige. I don’t have a lot of faith that Netflix will continue to make great auteur-driven films once it gets what it wants out of talents like Scorsese and Alfonso Cuaron and Noah Baumbach. You could see The Irishman as a poke in the eye to studios who won’t take the risk of making movies for grown-ups anymore (unless there’s a Bruce Wayne cameo shoehorned in). But for now, in 2019, Netflix is offering us one last bright beacon of hope that they can still make ’em like they used to.
The Irishman is a good time at the movies, breezing by despite its gargantuan running time. Perhaps only a three-plus-hour film could feel so lived in. We get used to it, ensuring that we’ll miss it when it’s gone. It reminds of old movies, great movies, but also makes us question our enjoyment of those films, and how we delighted in the bloodshed and banter and bad boys being boys. The Irishman is like the man who made it, and the art form he mastered — still here, but perhaps not for long. We want to believe movies like this will last forever, that future generations will carry on the tradition we so loved. We want to believe that the next Scorsese will find his way toward making the next Taxi Driver, then GoodFellas, then The Wolf Of Wall Street, and everything in between. We hope that the movies aren’t like people — that they don’t have an expiration date.
But we don’t know, do we?
The Irishman has somehow captured that uncertainty. For all its finality in depicting death after death after death, its last moments leave the door open for… what? Redemption? A happy ending? As unlikely as that is. Sheeran ends the film in denial of his impending demise, even while shopping for his own casket. He can’t really allow himself to believe that what’s done is done, that “it is what it is.” (But it is.) The Irishman similarly leaves the door open for the survival of cinema, as unlikely as that is.The Irishman is an aging auteur reckoning with his legacy, a genre reckoning with itself, and cinema (as we know it)’s last gasp before home viewing swallows the theatrical experience whole (maybe). It’s a film that demands to be seen in a theater brought to us by a company that would prefer us to all stay and watch it at home. It is seasoned and wise and ruminative and certain… but it would rather be young.