Death and the Gangster: Scorsese's The Irishman (2019) - Second Sight

The gangster genre is a slumbering Promethean.  A tired part of cinema that has been endlessly exploited and reinvented over the last 50 years.  Atop the throne of would-be Tarantino's and art house supplicants sits Martin Scorsese.  Slayer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's endless theme parks, adversary of Disney's They Live subversion of global entertainment, and fervent champion of all things "cinema".  While these words were written in jest, the ramifications of his recent statements combined with the release of his latest film have not only further entrenched electronic tribalism, they have revealed that the battle for the soul of cinema is superfluous, as both spectacle and drama can in fact coexist on every screen.  

I Heard You Paint Houses (AKA The Irishman) is a crime epic that focuses on the life of a hitman for the Pennsylvania mafia.  While it chronicles his life of crime, more importantly it tells a story of death and betrayal in front of perhaps one of the most meta backdrops ever displayed.  Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel are five titans of the big screen, all of which are in their twilight years.  Every participant and viewer of this film has the understanding that these great talents will never work together again on the same project.   The unavoidable avatar of death hangs over both real and the imagined.  The irony of these masters of cinematic illusions choosing for their swan song to be not only in the genre that defined them, but also based on a fabricated memoir is both hilarious and heartwarming, despite the darkness that pervades every inch of the film.  

Three major influences come to mind throughout the film's three and half hour run time.  The languid, thoughtful pace immediately conjures memories of Bergman's Wild Strawberries, as its protagonist not only retells his life story, but simultaneously coexists in different timelines of his life.  However, where Bergman focuses on reflection and loss, Scorsese migrates towards something more sinister.  Jean Paul-Sartre's No Exit is perhaps a closer ancestor for this mammoth undertaking with Pesci, De Niro, and Pacino's characters hopelessly tied to one another throughout time.  If hell is other people, Pacino's legendary performance as ill-fated teamster Jimmy Hoffa is Lucifer himself.  His bravura masking self-doubt is one for the ages, shooting profanity laced quips in virtually every scene while also displaying an uncharacteristic amount of weakness.  It's a wonderful tragedy to behold.

The final influence could perhaps be Rivette's unsung French New Wave jewel, Paris Belongs to Us, with an inverted twist.  In both films, there is an unmistakable sense of wrongness that follows the characters.  In Paris, it is the uncertainty of adulthood and the endless grind of maturity that awaits its characters, unsure of their place in the world.  In The Irishman, it is the understanding that there is no hope and no one will get out alive.  Choices are a fundamental theme of the film.  De Niro chooses his life of illicit acts and as a result alienates his wife and daughters.  This is communicated through Anna Paquin's wordless condemnation of her father's actions; a symbol of the price De Niro's Sheeran will pay.  Pacino's Hoffa refusing to "play ball" with the demons who ultimately created him leads to his foretold downfall, while Buffalino's (Pesci) choices send him on a similar axis as Sheeran's, there is a sly, understated difference.  His understanding of his fate gives him a sense of trapped urgency mixed with surrender and this is made possible by Pesci's (hopefully) award winning performance.  This is juxtaposed with De Niro, whose conclusion is one of isolation and regret that is gained only in the final minutes before darkness.  Where Rivette was interested in the monsters of the mind with respect to youth and adulthood, Scorese upends the idea by presenting a narrated opera of betrayal, self-serving vice, and hollow loyalties, all the trappings of the adult world that one reflects upon before the end.  

Thelma Schoonmaker's patient editing is the perfect conspirator to Rodrigo Prieto's menacing cinematography.  Virtually every frame appears as reality from the mind’s eye, creating a logical, yet almost synthetic version of the past; a revelation that perfectly footnotes Scorsese’s intent.  Time is of import, and Prieto’s sharp eye is the clock, capturing precious moments as they slip away into the gerontological ether.  They are supported by Robbie Robertson's score and a wonderfully curated soundtrack of songs from the 50's.  The music is the final touch, nostalgic chart toppers from an era where America was figuring out who it was in a post WWII world and perhaps the story's lack of resolution is emblematic of the truth that America still has no idea who it is.  These auditory illusions serve as distractions from the inevitable end that awaits every character in this film and the realization of this, that the music in a film from a director whose most famous films were defined by music, is the ultimate confession.  

Taking Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino and comparing them to different stages of life is perhaps one of the most powerful parts of Scorsese's filmography, however, The Irishman blends all three of these concepts and uses them as paint for the mural of their creator's legacy.  Made possible in part by dynamic CGI deaging technology, this presents yet another dilemma within the framework.  It would have been easy to cast younger actors in the part, yet the decision was made to use the senior actors.  While this has been defended and decried on every corner of the internet, perhaps the reason is simpler and related to the meta aspect outlined above?  Perhaps the decision was a means to allow the film's principals a chance to relive their youths?  Perhaps it is a statement on the dangerous territory ahead for tentpole films and arthouse films or furthermore what if is a plea for both combatants to find celluloid (digital) harmony?    This is a Netflix film, emblematic of the change that is coming to cinemas in the near future, however, if anything, The Irishman shows that cinema can exist on the small screen as much as the big and is a powerful reminder that there is room for every kind of film, both at home and in theater.  

--Kyle Jonathan