The Irishman

My first reaction after watching The Irishman, the new film from Martin Scorsese, was that it felt a little too comfortable, a sedate version of a story Scorsese has told before with more flash. But I've found myself thinking about it a lot over the last couple of days and I've come to appreciate it more as I have.
Contrary to complaints that Scorsese is simply repeating himself--which seem to have a lot more to do with hurt feelings over his criticisms of Marvel movies than any familiarity with his broad and varied filmography--The Irishman isn't just another antihero story, or another movie where Scorsese valiantly tries to demystify and deglamorize the Mafia (which is apparently a project that will always need doing). It starts out that way, but it develops into a story about old age and regret, anchored by a stellar performance from Joe Pesci that would justify the movie on its own. And it's a chance to watch a crew of old friends get together and make another movie together for the first time in decades and possibly the last time ever; the ruminations on age and mortality are inescapably part of the fabric of the film, a perfect expression of the people who made it. Nothing will ever top Goodfellas, but Scorsese couldn't have made a movie like The Irishman in 1990. There are passages where it feints at becoming other movies, most of which would have been worse. When we hit the Bay of Pigs material I was worried that it was going to turn into another Boomer nostalgia movie along the lines of JFK, but happily things didn't stay there for long. (Though I have to wonder if Scorsese got a certain charge from having Pesci drop that reference to David Ferrie, the character he played in JFK.) Better a movie that avoids politics entirely than get lost in that forest of conspiracy theories, or in meaningless jokey cameos a la Forrest Gump, which is where the E. Howard Hunt stuff threatens to go. That's not to say that politics are entirely absent. The portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa nods towards the dangers of populism, with Hoffa using his popular support among the teamsters to put himself in a position where he can bleed them dry. The connections to our current moment are fairly obvious, though at the same time the obviousness of the connection means that Scorsese never has to do more than note the resemblance, so there's a limit on how far it goes. He gets more mileage out of the passive amorality that leads someone like protagonist Frank Sheeran to drift from delivering meat to stealing meat to killing people as if they were all the same thing. Maybe there's a political comment in there too, but if so it's deeply buried.
The Irishman is a deceptively calm movie, made by people who have perhaps lost a little energy but none of their interest or passion. While Scorsese mostly avoids the stylistic bombast of his earlier work, he's still looking for new ways to tell a story on film. (I watched The Irishman on Netflix in the comfort of my own home, but I kind of wish I'd seen it on the big screen.) A wedding late in the film plays out as one of the most sinister scenes Scorsese has ever done, the slightness of the motion somehow more horrible than a still photograph. Characters swim through the frame like fish trapped in a poorly lit aquarium, or maybe bugs caught in amber--which is basically what they are, held up for our examination. The Irishman may be sedate compared to its predecessors, but the story it tells is anything but comfortable.

Marc Singer teaches English at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies and Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. This post expands on comments written for Abigail Nussbaum's review at Lawyers, Guns & Money.
The Irishman The Irishman Reviewed by Marc Singer on Monday, December 02, 2019 Rating: 5
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