Aside from his independent films in the 70s and 80s, Martin Scorsese has become a celebrated director for his reinvention of the gangster picture; turning them from smoky backroom family dramas to seedy, fast-moving and ultra-violent thrill rides. The Irishman is a return to mob movies for Scorsese and is a sobering rumination of the genre, as opposed to an electrifying rebirth.
Taking place over the course of fifty years and initially told within the span of a long car journey: The Irishman is about a second world war veteran, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Initially, starting out as a delivery man for steaks, Sheeran finds himself involved with the Bufalino crime family, run by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and powerful union leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).
In the context of Scorsese’s other genre work, The Irishman is a staggering departure. Aesthetically, Scorsese employs the usual long travelling shots and zippy musically driven montages, but their use is interesting. The opening long shot (set to the doo-op song- “In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins) travels the full length of an upmarket retirement home before revealing an aged Sheeran. It feels like a lavish and haunting riff of the famous Steadicam shot in Goodfellas; emphasising the empty long term effects of the gangster’s life, as opposed to its hypnotic and immediate short-term social benefits.
It’s also fun to see Scorsese’s usual acting collaborators dressed in different clothing. In Goodfellas and Casino, Pesci’s characters were foul-mouthed chihuahuas whose quick temper and fiery penchant for violence was terrifying. As Bufalino, Pesci is a warm and paternal figure, whose gracious gestures and warm smiles make him an unassuming crime family boss. Likewise, it’s great to see Harvey Keitel in a hilarious cameo that pokes at his tough-talking screen persona. Pacino takes the spotlight in a big, brash barnstorming performance. He walks a fine line between being a charismatic leader and fiery meta commentator who occasionally dissects the conventions of the genre (particularly one frequent gag that mocks how every tough guy is called Tony).
But De Niro casts the biggest impression with a subdued, quiet and mostly internal central performance. Sheeran is a character who finds verbal communication difficult. So, in moments when he’s emotional, De Niro impresses with his facial expressions that are like a pendulum swing between caution and genuine emotion trying to seep out.
This conflict of expression in De Niro’s character encapsulates what The Irishman is about. It depicts a man who becomes a gangster, floats through American history and at the end of it all, does not have much to say for himself. In contrast to Casino and especially Goodfellas, Sheeran’s reasons for the lifestyle feel hollow and delusional in his justification of protecting his family.
These moments provide the film and Scorsese’s final bow to the genre with a tragic tinge. Despite it’s juggling of different eras, extensive and convincing visual effects for De Niro, Pacino and Pesci ageing: The Irishman defines itself in the small moments where Sheeran loses the grasp of those he holds dear and the casual dismissal of the moral nature of his day job (particularly one montage where he talks about every gangster throwing all their guns in the same river).
The final scene shows us a medium shot that is a distant glimpse of a vulnerable Sheeran through the prism of a slightly ajar door. In spirit, it evokes the last shot of John Ford’s The Searchers, where Ethan Edwards stood on the threshold of his family home. Similarly to Edwards, Sheeran now stands as the last man of his kind, waiting for the door to close on his life, akin to Scorsese himself closing the book on the entire genre.