While Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman may not mark the end of the director’s career, it is an eye-opening transformation. This is a Scorsese gangster movie to end them all and the film is precisely as exhilarating as that sounds.
The unchecked visceral rush of his previous mob films is tempered by a resolute moral conscience. While Scorsese has always excelled at both crime films and spiritual reveries, he has not yet brought them together so intrinsically, certainly not in one film. The Irishman is Scorsese’s grand tour de force, a masterful alchemy of the finest elements of his entire body of work and a refreshing renewal of his artistic vision.
Based on the 2004 non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the film is an epic account of a crime family and its control of post-World War II American politics. Our guide through this world is Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro), a top hitman with ties to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino in his first Scorsese film).
The cast is populated with several familiar faces – reuniting actors who have worked with the director for decades – and includes many icons of modern gangster cinema. This is a crucial component of the final vision: it’s the most logical reason for employing highly expensive anti-aging for some of these actors’ faces. If The Irishman is going to act as a retrospective film, they all need to be in attendance every step of the way.
In The Irishman, Scorsese serves up all of his favourite tropes and themes: crime, redemption, guilt and faith. The film’s brilliance lies in how the director condenses and extends them. Stylistically, and not surprisingly, Scorsese employs established signature elements like slow motion, freeze frame, and rapid-fire editing in this sprawling saga. The difference in The Irishman is how concisely Scorsese concentrates the information in each shot. It does more than just elaborate a scene: it can signify one.
Imagine a rapid-fire succession of such shots and you get an inkling of how breathtaking Scorsese’s style has become. An entire series of hits becomes one glorious explosive sequence that accentuates the violence.
The story of The Irishman is told from Frank’s point of view in voice over and in multiple flashbacks and time frames. Frank’s confession is frequently broken up by hilariously discussions between the men. The caustic wit of these scenes, especially the push-pull nature of the wordplay, is stunning. This gives Frank’s musings a comic twist as he continually gets distracted. In one case, his detailed run down of a hit he’s recalling goes beyond ridiculous when he starts rhyming off all the guns and attachments he didn’t want to use for that job and why.
Scorsese’s deeper focus on family and faith in The Irishman is most telling. Against the backdrop of several religious rites of passage, Frank is also shown interacting with his four daughters, taking them bowling and to the beach. One in particular, Peggy (Anna Paquin), is often seen watching Frank from the shadows. Not comfortable with any “uncle” from the crime family, she only responds to Hoffa whom she admires as someone striving to better the world. Her judgement permeates the film. When taken in the larger context of the ending, this point of view upends all categorizations around the gangster genre. A more spiritual statement could not resonate with such purity at the end of The Irishman.