Robert De Niro in The Irishman (2019) (IMDB)

Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ and the Gangster’s Reimagined Soul

Scorsese's The Irishman is not a masculine power fantasy, nor could its heavy underlying sadness ever be mistaken for delight in violence or criminality.

The Irishman​
Martin Scorsese
24 November 2020

Age and time have irrevocably shaped Martin Scorsese‘s crime films. The veteran director has become synonymous with his trademark explosive, violent, high-energy gangster films like Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990). His latest, The Irishman (2019), though, is different; it’s a quiet, slow, and—at about three-and-a-half hours long—undoubtedly lengthy film, more contemplative than transgressive, less volatile than steadily roiling. For many, it’s too lethargically paced and thematically elusive, not quite like the artful pageant of street wisdom and thrilling spectacle of its predecessors.

Of all the things expected of a Scorsese mob movie re-team with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci—and introducing Al Pacino to the director’s legendary actors stable—only enough artifacts find their way in to feel familiar, but even they are presented within a new context and carrying fresh connotations. It’s a gangster film with a reimagined soul.

This is by design. Based on Charles Brandt’s memoir I Heard You Paint Houses about the life of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (played in the film by De Niro) — a union official with mafia ties who claimed in later years to have murdered Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) — The Irishman is laden with heavy themes of remorse, loneliness, and shattered families and friendships. These are the preoccupations of a man who trudged through a full life of violence and scandal only to find at the end he has nothing left.

Such a story necessitates a new stylistic vocabulary to capture something beyond the criminal experience’s visceral intensity, something to demonstrate the depths of desolation and regret that a criminal lifestyle can forge. The Irishman is not a masculine power fantasy, nor could its heavy underlying sadness ever be mistaken for delight in violence or criminality; it’s a film about and overwhelmed by loss above all.

This is a natural evolution of Scorsese’s vision. The film is a crime saga conceived and performed by artists three decades older than when they last collaborated, working off the back of a legacy of iconic films, the energy and technique of which in many ways cannot be replicated. But it broke into new territory out of choice as much as a necessity; in the press surrounding the movie’s release, the director and the actors revealed that they wouldn’t allow themselves to return to the genre just to tell the same kind of tale in the same kind of dialect. They wanted to transpose old histories through newly felt pressures of time, and it worked.

As such, The Irishman is not a real successor to Goodfellas or Casino (1995), nor is it a revival of the dying American gangster genre. It’s a poignant and reflective coda to Scorsese’s cinematic legacy that manages to synthesize his crime thrillers’ transgressive power with the profound sensitivity of his less-seen signature dramas.

Frank Sheeran’s career journey—from low-level hit guy to Hoffa’s bodyguard to respected authority within the crime family—may mirror the character arc of many infamous Scorsese protagonists (several also portrayed by De Niro). Still, the version in The Irishman is slanted toward a different, more intimate kind of doom. Sheeran doesn’t shoot toward moral extremes like so many subjects of Scorsese’s crime films; he’s not a psychologically-poisoned loner like Travis Bickle, an ambitious and enthusiastic upstart like Henry Hill, or a debauched paragon of capitalist excess like Jordan Belfort.

Among Scorsese’s protagonists, he may be closest to tortured undercover cop Billy Costigan of The Departed (2006), who sacrifices his sanity, security, and identity to catch a criminal kingpin at the center of a vast police investigation. But where Costigan is a reluctant and agonizing pawn of the police department’s conflicting needs and the organized crime ring he infiltrates, Sheeran is a willing and dutiful disciple of power wherever it’s found. He’s unquestioning in his duty as an outsider (an Irishman in an Italian crime family) and, ultimately, powerless against the forces above him. So, when he’s called on to assassinate Hoffa later in his life—a person in whom he believes, after years of service, with he’s found mutual respect and friendship that has otherwise eluded him his entire life—he follows the call. In a way, it’s only a job to him.

Especially in his early years, Sheeran is portrayed as the mob’s working class, the rugged hands that serve as the basis for its domination over local and federal politics and business. He starts as a union truck driver who gets roped into a mafia business during his deliveries, which escalates into a full-time position as a contract killer for Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and eventually a job as Hoffa’s bodyguard. His work as a low-level hit guy is even coded within the mob in the language of manual labor (“I heard you paint houses”—paint, in this case, being a euphemism for blood). It’s demanding, dangerous, and personally harmful work, but he does it because it’s what the hierarchy demands of him—and the pay is good. It’s in this capacity that, for decades, Sheeran devotes all his time and effort to the detriment of his life outside that world.

Where the meteoric rise through the mafia ranks is central to so many crime films, in The Irishman, Sheeran’s journey is contrasted sharply against a slowly deteriorating personal life. He faces divorce and becomes an absent father, haunted throughout the film by his daughter Peggy (played as an adult by Anna Paquin), whose distant relationship with him is dominated by fear, pain, and separation. Peggy’s periodic appearances throughout the film—and especially at the end, when an elderly Frank faces eternal solitude in a nursing home—serve as a cold reminder that Frank’s sins can never be forgiven or forgotten, and his legacy is nothing but anguish.

To get the older actors to portray their characters in their younger days, The Irishman utilized incredibly advanced computer-generated effects that had never been used at the same scale before. The film’s extensive de-aging effects—the subject of some controversy—are impressive but distracting, an indication of how advanced the technology is but also that it isn’t quite perfect.

Still, in this film, it works; behind the young Sheeran’s glassy blue eyes and under his unnatural velvety skin is an already old man, exhausted and worn, ragged with regret. Was Sheeran ever young, or did he invest every minute of his youth into being a workhorse for a machine prepared to run without him and get nothing in return? Sheeran’s digitally manufactured facade brings his uneasy quietness, his cold loyalty, and his eternal loneliness to the fore. His youth is shaped by his advanced age, rather than the other way around—literally so, in terms of generating a 35-year-old De Niro from the real man, 40 years older.

Plus, this story is an account of a youth narrated by an elderly Sheeran; it’s a memory, scarred by time. When he looks back on his younger self, he can’t help but feel himself as he is now, in there somewhere, wailing. In his memory, it’s only fresh features plastered over untold years of remorse—a ghost in uncanny skin.

If being forgotten is as good as dead, then Sheeran approaches it rapidly near the end of the movie. But he doesn’t entirely surrender to obscurity. He tells his story instead: Brandt interviewed the real-life Sheeran for the book, and De Niro’s Sheeran narrates his own memories in the film. It’s his acknowledgment of the pain, reaching out for a chance at healing. Scorsese understands what that kind of storytelling can mean, especially as his own career grows longer. Skilled as he is, he couldn’t have accessed the revelations of his The Irishman 30 years ago.

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The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of The Irishman is a two-disc special edition packed with as many special features as any contemporary release from the label typically earns. The film’s audio-video presentation is excellent and, considering the film is otherwise only available to stream on Netflix at this writing, no doubt the strongest you can find.

The featurettes include some programs produced and previously released by Netflix, and others arranged by Criterion specifically for this release. “Making The Irishman” is a standard behind-the-scenes documentary featuring interviews with cast and crew and plenty of up-close-and-personal production footage, a roundtable conversation between Scorsese, Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino produced by Netflix and edited down by Criterion. There’s a video essay from film critic Farran Smith Nehme called “Gangsters’ Requiem” about the way the movie’s aging gangster characters contrast against the youthful allure of most conventional mob films like Goodfellas.

Extras also include an episode of the “Anatomy of a Scene” video series from The New York Times featuring Scorsese discussing one of the film’s key scenes, a Netflix-produced program about the state-of-the-art de-aging technology utilized in the film’s production, and archival footage of the real Sheeran and Hoffa used as references in preparation for the production of the film. The booklet included in the special edition also features an essay from writer Geoffrey O’Brien.

Any fan of the film will want to own this comprehensive release, especially to finally have it on a home video format and impeccably presented at that.