Where to start with The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s latest — and with some further consideration, we may even rule it his greatest — mob epic? With the sheer scope of his hundred-million-dollar vision, spanning the better part of the twentieth century and just under three-and-a-half-hours? Or with the sense-defying partnership that made it possible, between patron saint of cinema Scorsese and the movie theaters’ Public Enemy No. 1 that is Netflix? Maybe with the Phoenician resurgence of Joe Pesci, still spitting vinegar and looking sharper than ever in a pair of shades? Or with the much murmured-about de-aging digitization processes courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic, which magicked Pesci and leading man Robert De Niro back to their young-buck days with only the faintest trace of video-game-eyes. And what about all the sweet, delicious, gloppy ice cream that a superlative Al Pacino shovels into his piehole as a cranked-up-to-twelve Jimmy Hoffa?
Pacino’s probably the best point of entry to this dense thicket of ideas and iconography, a culmination of over a half-century’s worth of Scorsese movies that interrogates the maestro’s greatest hits with more than a few broken kneecaps. His Hoffa, a short-fused teamster head honcho descending into paranoid madness like an aging Shakespearean king, doesn’t show up until about an hour into the picture. When he does, it’s on the phone, calling De Niro’s mob enforcer Frank Sheeran with an offer to be part of history. In the course of their law-flouting partnership, both men will be caught up in the tide of the years, ebbing and flowing through the parallel stories of the postwar U.S.A. and their own lives. Time corrodes the surrogate father-son pair until all that’s left is old men, decrepit and regretful and weak.
Shifting from the best-of-times Mafioso pop of Goodfellas to the hushed mortality contemplations of Silence, sampling the punctured masculinity of Raging Bull along with The Last Temptation of Christ’s yearning for absolution, Marty’s newest sometimes feels like he’s delivering last rites for the rest of his filmography. Even before the stilled, poignant final act sends a geriatric Frank to stare death in its gaunt face, he narrates the extensive flashbacks as a geezer in a nursing home. The film comes from a position of reflection, linking Frank’s look back on his choices with Scorsese’s in the premise that neither sinner has strayed past the point of redemption. If only they can accept it before it’s too late, that is.
The greying, retired Frank pops in to comment on the memory of a middle-aged Frank going on a road trip with his other father figure, Bufalino family boss Russell (Pesci) and their respective wives. Over the course of their odyssey from the Bufalino territory in Pennsylvania through the Rust Belt, long passages go back further to show Frank learning the business of being a wiseguy and rising through the ranks. These early scenes reproduce the same adrenaline-charged pleasures we’ve come to expect from Scorsese’s work, replete with perfectly curated golden oldies (“In the Still of the Night” by The Five Satins will forever belong to this movie, now owned to the same extent that Mean Streets owns “Be My Baby”) and meticulously choreographed dolly shots. You’ve got to hand it to Scorsese; at a time when directors keep making movies for the fans and not the critics, he does both by making critics his fans. At this late juncture of his career, being so good at the things he’s good at feels like pandering to the people who love him for being this good. He’s playing all the crowd-pleasers, if only to show us that he’s still got it at age seventy-six.
Scorsese’s ambitions stretch from the intimately personal to the national, as he and screenwriter Steve Zaillian posit Frank’s assorted crimes as part of a longstanding American tradition. Taking up The Godfather’s link between organized crime and the larger imperfect enterprise that is our country, this film looks past midcentury thriving to an underbelly of back-room handshake deals, bulky manila envelopes, and competing corruptions. The script pits the malfeasance of the gangsters against the malfeasance of Hoffa and his crew, sticking Frank in the middle and pulling him in either direction. They come to a consensus about how the spoils will be sliced up and distributed, and their illicit agreements set in motion what went on to fill social studies textbooks. Kept tastefully to the margins, events like the crisis in Cuba and the JFK assassination lend the film’s scale a sense of narrative grandeur absent from even the most expensive studio projects.
Though if we’re going to cycle through all the major Mafia reference points, it’s worth noting that Scorsese’s also continuing the deconstructions of The Sopranos, completing an ouroboros after seeding much of the show’s DNA with his films earlier in the ‘90s. Like Tony, Frank expends a lot of energy on coping with the collision of his goombah attitudes and the realities of growing old, whether that’s realizing his daughter (Anna Paquin, making a whole meal out of two lines and a lot of pointed glowering) detests him or accepting his own frailty as his body deteriorates. But where HBO’s era-definer burrowed deeper and deeper into psychological minutiae, Scorsese gives us a stencil of a man and lets the rest fill itself in, cutting elliptically from Frank hobbling to using a cane to double braces.
Time’s a goon, sneaking up and garroting your neck when you least expect it. When tertiary characters first appear onscreen, Zaillian’s script introduces them with a chyron including their name and their almost uniformly grisly causes of death. Though these got solid laughs at the New York Film Festival press screening, they make the morbid yet valid point that for those in the game, life will be nasty, brutish, and in all likelihood, short. The job compels men to be their worst selves despite their best efforts, leaving behind a heavy guilt.
The burning question of Scorsese’s filmography is whether that guilt will prove too much for God to forgive, and the final half-hour returns us to this line of spiritual inquiry. While Scorsese doesn’t let his protagonist off the hook — he never does —there’s a merciful air to the heartrending final shots. Frank wants to make good, so long as he’s still got the fortitude to do so. Though Scorsese leaves this film on a note of finality, Frank’s resolve resembles the director’s approach to filmmaking as neverending crusade for salvation. He’s already got his next project on the docket, and he’ll probably keep reaching for the divine until he keels over mid-take. There’s no conclusion to his filmography’s cycle of transgression and penance, because none of us can know the higher truth for which his films grasp. He leaves just enough doubt to require the next movie.