Readers Write In #122: The Irishman – Scorsese returns to familiar territory and expands it in a startling fashion

Posted on December 19, 2019


(by N Madhusudhan)

(Spoilers ahead)

It’s fascinating to witness the gradual mellow down that the genre and the men who defined the genre go through. A film geek’s theoretical exercise would be to look at the film as a reflection of the painful final years of the characters from Goodfellas and Casino (which I certainly did).

The first 90 minutes of The Irishman aren’t groundbreakingly unfamiliar.These are the relentlessly narrated portions involving gangsters, hitmen, politicians, families of these people and stylized violence that Scorsese is rightfully celebrated for. It’s still interesting how the violence is staged here. This isn’t a film that shows eyes popping out of a head stuck in a vice or baseball bats breaking skulls or a man being repeatedly stabbed with a kitchen knife in a car trunk. Juxtaposition of energetic music with visuals of these scenes from the director’s previous films paves way for uncomfortable silence in The Irishman.When Frank (De Niro) steps on the hand of the storekeeper who pushed his daughter, we look at it from a fair distance, as does his daughter. The story may be told from Frank’s POV. But the film is clear in what it wants us to see and feel.

The film tightens its grip once Hoffa (Pacino) enters. Hoffa is the more animated of the film’s central characters and Pacino plays him with a raging majesty. The scene involving Frank’s appreciation meet is a knockout.The film’s central conflict grows bigger and there are more things at stake now. Thus, begins the extension of the Scorsese’s gangster universe into unchartered territories.

The film’s biggest surprise is undoubtedly Pesci. He plays Russel, the boss of an Italian crime family with a quiet assurance. It’s not hard to see why Pesci chose this film to come out of retirement. It’s a team he’s honed his skills with and a kind of character he doesn’t immediately get recognized with. He makes it his own as he did with Tommy DeVito and Nicky Santoro.

The transformation of these men in the film’s final stretch is as drastic and compelling as Michael Corleone’s from The Godfather. It’s not one demanded by urgency to protect a family. This is what time has done to them. Frank and Russel become so gentle that it’s hard to believe that these men did what they did when they were young. Consequences of past actions and ways of life ,followed for want of money and power, come back to haunt them in ways they don’t expect.They may have been the toughest of wiseguys – surviving gang wars, betrayals and navigate through the dirty waters of politics but they’ve lost in a battle against time.The profound pointlessness of Frank’s violent ways is quietly established when a cop tells him that all the people he’s trying to protect are already dead. The only people left in Frank’s life are his daughters who have abandoned him. He didn’t attend to them when he should have.

Scorsese had once said, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more of a tendency to look for people who live by kindness, tolerance, compassion, a gentler way of looking at things.” This film is Scorsese communicating his emotional and psychological experiences to us, precisely what he feels is lacking in the Marvel films (It’s hard to disagree with him).

The film places its moral compass on Frank’s eldest daughter Peggy (Paquin), whose silent stares of bewilderment communicate more than pages of dialogue that the flagbearers of female representation in cinema seem to want for her. She sees right through him and instantly recognizes when he’s killed the only man she ever considered closer to a father figure. A gargantuan betrayal that haunts Frank forever.

De Niro plays Frank with a cunning certainty in the early portions. But watch him in the scene where he’s made to realize that he finally has to do what he’s been fearing the most. His face reveals a dam about to burst. He sucks it up and executes the job. A helpless phone call he makes later breaks your heart for this man. When was the last time the emotional content in a Scorsese was so straightforward?

It makes me wonder how a person unfamiliar with Scorsese’s work would react to this film. A part of the fun is recollection of past experience of watching his earlier films, familiarity with that universe and then absorbing what The Irishman is offering. Would that person have as much fun as we do?Or would he be one of those Twitter dudes who thinks this film in boring?

So much has been said and written about the moral ambiguity of Scorsese’s previous films. The Wolf of Wall Street, which was also at the receiving end of this criticism, isn’t thematically very far from Goodfellas or Casino. There were accusations that these characters were being glorified and their actions celebrated. To be honest, I didn’t want to know what the director actually intended with those films. As an audience, we have the freedom to take away what we want to and leave the rest. It’s not a filmmaker’s job to shove politically correct opinions or progressive thoughts down our throats. With The Irishman, Scorsese finally seems to want to end this ambiguity. He couldn’t have found a better film to do that with.