The climactic scene of The Irishman takes place with a good quarter of an hour of the runtime still remaining. Or perhaps in attributing a finality to that scene we fall into the conventional method we have of looking at every crime film’s apogee. The question that this significant amount of time between the plot’s most crucial segment and the actual end brings is maybe the clearest clue that Scorsese presents in terms of how we should view The Irishman.
Every Scorsese film about a ‘high-rolling dream turned paranoid nightmare’ is an epic in a literary sense. They are episodic and have a plethora of characters who are all important to some degree. To call The Irishman an epic is in essence a mistake because it is the first Scorsese crime film that actually looks at a single individual and his own point of view of things. You cannot say that about Goodfellas or Casino or even something as far back as Mean Streets. There is no plot about rise and eventual decline. Instead, the focus is on age and what the gains of a lifetime of deviance mean in the face of death, through the eyes of Frank Sheeran, who is the eponymous ‘Irishman’.
Nor is it about showing a glamorous life only to pull the plug and reveal the sheer emptiness of it. At no point do we see Frank buying a mansion in California or holidaying with everyone except his family on some tropical island. Whatever Frank does has a perfunctory nature to it, with no bother about what the outcome might lead to. Just like Nicky says of Ace’s betting proficiency in Casino, they do not enjoy doing it but see it as a way of life that they have chosen and to which mid-century masculine instinct dictates unflinching obedience.
That is what Scorsese’s concern here is. It isn’t a ‘crime’ film because it is about criminals; heck, it is far more concerned with the mob’s ties with American politics than shootouts. He uses the smokescreen of a ‘crime’ film – because it is the genre in which he excels – to explore what growing old is like, even for those who are seemingly invincible, like wise guys. In the beginning, we see Frank asking German soldiers to dig their own grave. By the end, he is seen bargaining for a coffin for himself. There’s a great little subplot with Frank’s daughter Peggy, who is shy by nature, becomes detached from her father when he beats a grocer for pushing her aside as a child and completely disowns him after she realises the extent of her father’s criminality. This nifty little aside is an excellent insight into what life for family members of such individuals might look like.
In fact, these people are not shown to be invincible sybarites who have no qualms. None of the old fellows have prison cell-like hotel rooms, including Russell and Tony with their lifelong association with criminality. The perils of this life are magnified more than its glitz. Conversations between Frank and Jimmy Hoffa are given more time than actual criminal activities. The former is saved twice by Russell, showing how important loyalty and friendship is in that world, possibly the only quality that has carried itself forward from Scorsese’s previous crime films.
The form itself comes into play to serve this purpose. When we see Frank’s early days, the style of introduction to characters, like, for example, Razor, is very similar to his earlier films, with the swift dolly-in and quick cuts. As time passes, the cameras slow down. They linger instead of flying and are often static. The aforementioned ‘crucial moment’ literally goes around in circles before arriving at its conclusion. There is no scene with ‘Gimme Shelter’ playing or even a single Rolling Stones song. The soundtrack instead relies on jazz and country music, which is rarely heard prominently. The opening Steadicam shot through the elderly home’s hallway is a comfortably familiar way in which Scorsese draws us into this world, only to never return to such familiar habits of his again. The world has changed, criminals need not be admired anymore, even for a brief period of time, so why should the stylised form that has always been used to depict them be adhered to?
There’s a great deal of self-awareness and an elegy for the kind of cinema that it belongs to as the film draws to a close. Frank asks FBI agents who killed his attorney only to realise he died of cancer and given their age, it was justified for him to not be informed as it was only a natural incident. Jimmy Hoffa, who sent tidal waves across the American political spectrum for nearly two decades with his fight for the working class, is not even recognised by a young nurse in a photograph during Frank’s final days. Scorsese has talked at length about the accretive death of original cinema. It isn’t far-fetched to see the parallels here. And who better than him, who after nearly six decades as a professional filmmaker has continued to reinvent himself and remain relevant to draw this comparison.
Frank Sheeran died on the 14th of December. When De Niro as Frank is informed about Christmas being around the corner, we get a hint at the fact his time has arrived. But there’s a solace to it. The final segment of the film’s rumination on growing old is mentally exhausting. He is emotionally sterile, as seen when he is asked if he really feels anything about his actions; he is too old to even think of what feeling about it might actually mean. Like caring for a suffering loved one on their deathbed, the final shot of Frank through a door left ajar, perhaps minutes away from dying, is a sigh of relief. We have seen gangsters shot, butchered, run over, overdosing; yet it is only through Scorsese’s empathetic approach that we see one dying no differently from every other old man, abandoned and forgotten.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.