The Irishman: That’ll do boomer, that’ll do
The fact that Martin Scorsese has been battling with the younger generation about cinema now makes complete sense, I’ve just seen the Irishman.
Scorsese is 77, he’s an old man, and this is an old man’s film; and it’s glorious.
While De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino all give very solid performances, the main star of this film is the second half of the 20th century, viewed through the world of mafia hitmen and union bosses. Our main characters interact with the time period almost as much as they do with each other. Whether it’s De Niro at the Bay of Pigs or Pacino watching the Kennedy election. The relationships between the characters was certainly solid, but nothing spectacular. The film works far better not as a character study, but as a generational study. The main character of an ageing mobster is a stand-in for anyone from the pre-war/boomer generation, watching their world slowly recede from reality. As Robert De Niro’s character says, nobody today remembers Jimmy Hoffa, but he was once a big deal. The entire film feels (by design) like you’re trapped at Christmas dinner with your grandfather, hearing another one of his stories.
The film has a muted quality to it, in contrast to the director’s earlier works. The killing here is quick, efficient and in service of the plot. More deaths are depicted as captions under lesser known mobsters of history than shown on screen. Which feels again like your grandfather talking about friends he once knew. There’s no comedic smash cut to a mailman getting his head thrown in the oven or a man being brutally buried alive. However, I don’t think that the lack of elongated death scenes puts to bed the argument around whether Scorsese’s films glorify violence (for the record I think they don’t). We’re talking about a man in his seventies who has been making films dealing with violence since his twenties, that argument is still open for debate, just not in this picture.
The direction of the film too, reflects the age of its artist. While Scorsese is known for his unique approach to filmmaking, that style has aged with the man himself over the years. When you watch Mean Streets, you get the sense of a man making a home movie, wanting to get his personal problems out onto the screen. Inspired by rebel director John Cassavetes, Mean Streets was all hand held shots and natural dialogue, emotion above all else. Fast forward to Goodfellas and you have a director at the apex of his career in complete control of the language of cinema. Everything about that film oozes confidence; the camera moves, the edits, the performances. It competes with Citizen Kane in terms of filmmaking conviction. In the Irishman however, the filmmaking takes on a lethargic, stunted quality. While there were the classic fast edits and whip pans we have come to associate with a Scorsese mob film, it’s more arthritic, it lacks the balls out confidence of the director’s younger years, like an ageing prize fighter stepping back into the ring one last time.
If movies like the 400 Blows can make you feel what it’s like to be a child, The Irishman gives you a sense of what it feels like to be old. Having now watched the film, I realise that the CGI isn’t just about pushing the technical envelope, it’s absolutely integral to the the movie. The story resides almost entirely in the memories of an old man, so the idea of having old actors play young men de-aged makes complete sense. When we think of ourselves ten years younger, we lack the brain power to accurately recall exactly how we looked, walked and talked, instead our minds conjure up a muddled mix of past and present. If Scorsese had cast younger actors, they would have brought an inappropriate energy to the characters.
Then you have the ending, where a violent old man attempts to give his life some closure before the end. This part gave me undeserved flashbacks to the Johnny Depp film Blow, where the whole movie is glorified violence until the end where it attempts a tragic turn in an effort to cheat the audience into believing the film has depth. The loneliness at the end of this film works because the whole film is about getting old and losing people. Having the elderly mobster played by De Niro adds even more weight to this. The actors filmography is almost as violent as that of his character. As an audience, we have loved, feared, and respected his portrayals in so many crime films over the past 50 years. And now, after all the blood, betrayal and needle drops, what we are left with an old man in a chair. The final shot of this film isn’t just the conclusion of this story, it’s the conclusion of a career.
The fact that Scorsese has chosen this film as perhaps his finale says a lot about who he is and why he makes movies. When you look back at his first big film; Mean Streets, it was a movie made by a young director about a young man; a man who was unsure about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Harvey Keitel’s character was a stand-in for Scorsese himself. Fast forward 50 years and we have The Irishman, a movie made by an old director about an old man who is reflecting on the life he has now lived. Again the parallels between artist and subject are clear. I think this movie is genuinely great on its own, though not the directors best work. But when it is considered as the final chapter in a filmmaking legacy, The Irishman is a perfect movie.