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Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert Deniro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel
Duration: 3 hours, 29 minutes
Streaming on: Netflix

The Irishman, with a running time of more than three-and-a-half hours, runs the risk of being dull, self-absorbed and slow – until you remember who the director is. That’s not to say every movie made by a storied storyteller is automatically a good movie. But The Irishman might appear overwhelmingly ordinary to those not invested in the career of America’s greatest-living filmmaker. His name is necessary to understand why it is what it is. His legacy is an integral part of the tale he chooses to tell. There’s no other way to put it: The Irishman is a profoundly personal gangster movie. And Martin Scorsese is, in many ways, its central character. 

The film opens with an old man in a wheelchair at a retirement home. Our protagonist. The smug melancholy of “In the Still of the Night” wafts through the place. In one continuous take, the camera snakes through the corridor and lobby until it reaches this man in the lounge. We see his face. Except for his shades and an inconspicuous ring on his finger, he looks like everyone else there. His voiceover begins. So far, so cinematic. 

For years, we’ve seen the De Niros and Pacinos and Pescis and Keitels strut around, shoot, dominate and solidify the Scorsese universe of macho mobsters. Here, the flashbacks in fact play like a nostalgic highlight reel of those movies – episodically, coldly, comfortably

Then a strange thing happens. As if to puncture the cinema of the scene, as if to suggest that he has no patience for artful perspectives at this advanced age, the man interrupts his own voiceover. He decides to tell the camera – us, because perhaps that’s all he has left – about his life story himself. He has no other visitors. His name is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), and he was once a mafia hitman.

Frank was a man’s man, a World War 2 veteran who rose through the mob ranks of 1950s Philadelphia. All the men liked him. He raised their game. He was efficient and edgy and dangerous when he needed to be. He is soon torn between his mob mentor (Joe Pesci, as Russell Bufalino) and his union mentor (Al Pacino, as Jimmy Hoffa). 

Scorsese’s choice of narrative – which is infinitely humanized by long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing and Steven Zaillian’s screenplay – is very interesting here. Almost as if he were consciously trying to reflect his feelings, in retrospect, about his own filmography. The film accommodates a timeline within a timeline: Retirement-home Frank talks about old Frank and old Russ taking a road-trip to a wedding, who in turn reminisce about middle-aged Frank’s early days with Russ and the gang. The early days form a large chunk of the narrative, seamlessly (which can be disorienting) spanning across the two decades that culminate in the road-trip. 

Scorsese uses the same actors, his favourites, our favourites, across the ambitious length of the narrative – dubious de-ageing effects and all – to remind us that after all the noise dies down, the dusk is inescapable

But what’s notable is the systematic dimming of masculine aura across timelines. Frank has four daughters, a wife and an ex-wife, but his sincerity and working-class attitude are only amplified through his equation with his bosses and victims. One of his daughters senses his ‘job,’ resents Russell (the bad) but gets along with Jimmy (the good). In the road-trip portions, the two wives are limited to nagging cigarette breaks – constantly stalling the two-folded journey of the fading men. The women smoke, eat, barely speak from the backseat and frolic in pools and motel bars while the men – old and withering – spar silently in the language of egos and honour. There’s a tension between them, tinged not by regret but muted resentment: a complex emotion revealed (and cut) beautifully through a tribute dinner that stars every actor in the film plotting from different corners of a large hall.

Until finally, at the retirement home, it’s just Frank – modest, mumbling his tale to nobody in particular, perhaps pondering about the pointlessness of being proud and powerful and violent as the last man standing. What’s the point of making a career out of biting the bullet when you can’t survive the scars? What’s the point of being cinema’s most celebrated testosterone junkie when all that’s waiting is a funeral bereft of family, faith and friends?

If Silence was Scorsese’s belated ode to faith and religion, The Irishman exposes his naked and existential fear of mortality

The comparison might sound wonky, but The Irishman is essentially Martin Scorsese’s Before Midnight moment. For years, we’ve seen the De Niros and Pacinos and Pescis and Keitels strut around, shoot, dominate and solidify the Scorsese universe of macho mobsters. Here, the flashbacks in fact play like a nostalgic highlight reel of those movies – episodically, coldly, comfortably. That it’s an old, defeated man telling this story puts into perspective the purposeless journey of Frank and the rest. They fought, cussed and glorified murder and hits and money and blood (“I paint houses…”) and the entire lifestyle – all for what? After the headiness of the romance, after people who kill start to die themselves, then what? It’s ugly and it’s messy and it’s silent like any other life out there.

Scorsese uses the same actors, his favourites, our favourites, across the ambitious length of the narrative – dubious de-ageing effects and all – to remind us that after all the noise dies down, the dusk is inescapable. That even the mob is mortal. That De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Scorsese are closer to the end than the beginning. They’re old and frail and weak, and have earned the right to use art as their medium of introspection. Maybe it’s only appropriate that Pacino sparkles, De Niro simmers and Pesci slyly straddles the two – the three walk the thin line between performers who are acknowledging their passing and characters who are reluctant to do the same.

There’s no other way to put it: The Irishman is a profoundly personal gangster movie. And Martin Scorsese is, in many ways, its central character

The final 30 minutes of The Irishman pulls the Italian rug out from under our feet. It not only reveals what Scorsese was aching to convey all along, but also provides a new perception, a fresh meaning, to his previous work. The frightening aspect of this part is that De Niro doesn’t seem to be acting too much – he is just being. He chooses a coffin, chats up a nurse, sits in a quiet room. He still has that sordid scowl, which somewhat spotlights the dissonance between the tough survivor and his gentle environment. Suddenly, Scorsese’s obsession with the mafia and men and everything in between feels tragic and heroic and…vaguely irrelevant.

I deeply appreciate artists who show the courage to express their own truth. Later rather than sooner – accumulative rather than instantaneous. If Silence was Scorsese’s belated ode to faith and religion, The Irishman exposes his naked and existential fear of mortality. This time, he chooses the middle character, the one guy who observes and connects the other more dynamic men that Scorsese pictures usually trip on. The middle-man who thinks less than he does, until he has no option left. This time, the filmmaker lets us into his plain room, the door half open, hoping we might stay a little bit longer. Willing us to listen to his final few anecdotes. And praying that he never, ever has to hear us tell him: “It is what it is.” 

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