Directed by Martin Scorsese
Because of how contemplative The Irishman becomes towards the end I think it is best served by being so long (three and a half hours). Like with Boyhood (2014) it’s that time spent with these characters that helps deliver such a poignant final image, one that can’t be cheated or expedited. We must exist with them, particularly in moments that don’t exist solely to advance the plot, in order to feel the weight of the end.
And The Irishman is very, very concerned with how things end. It’s there in other gangster movies, when the fall is as anticipated as the rise, just as it’s there in other Scorsese films as a whole, where his characters feel driven by guilt and unease, always somewhat unsure of what awaits them down the line, like Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas waiting for someone, maybe Tommy’s ghost, to come deliver a bullet to the head.
And in The Irishman that rise to the top, experienced by protagonist Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is rather yada yada’d. Over the course of the film’s first hour he goes from a union truck driver to enforcer to something bigger and badder. All we need to know is that his violent impulses and loyalty were put to good use by the people in charge. And because we’ve seen many a gangster film, and Scorsese knows it, the film burns right through all this plot, the same part of the story that in Goodfellas was so (appropriately and enjoyably) indulgent. Here we hardly even see the romantic side, even when he meets his second wife (whom you quickly forget about because she receives such little attention). It exists as a sub-section in a person’s wikipedia entry.
It’s in that first hour that we meet the other important characters, including crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and eventually teamster and union president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Together they form the important trifecta of the film, a power dynamic that twists and turns and ropes into it the affections and weariness of Frank’s daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin). When Frank’s loyalties are compromised and tested, he makes decisions that effectively seal his fate without realizing it. Whether it’s in the eyes of God, his daughter or both, he is judged and sentenced. By the end he may still never fully realize it.
And that last thirty, forty or sixty minutes, whatever it comes out to, is devastating. It’s the slow crawl to the finish line, a man coming to terms (as much as he’s able to) with his life, his actions and the people in it, most reduced only to fading photographs.
For as much as this is a gangster movie, the other 2019 film with which it is most similar is Kent Jones’ Diane. Though the world and characters of that film are plenty different, both films are concerned with how things end, eventually and inevitably. In either case it doesn’t much matter what you do to fight it, because you can’t.
In The Irishman we meet a sh*t ton of gangsters, so many that it’s impossible to keep them all straight. Fortunately you don’t have to, and Scorsese gives you freeze frames with title cards that tell us who this particular mobster is, how he died and in what year. It’s at first a joke, and later it sets up one of the better laughs of the movie, but for the most part it creates a sense of unease, of impermanence.
These are kings of the kingdom, people with the best seat in the restaurant, who demand supreme loyalty. They look the part, all smooth and suave and all-knowing, and then the title card lets you know that within a decade or two they would be gone completely, their power undercut by our sudden omniscience of what awaits them.
It’s both amusing and unsettling, if only because you may start doing the math in your own head. They have two decades left, how much time is that? Is it a lot? Is it not a lot? Who knows, time is relative and all that.
But it calls direct attention to the things they don’t know or actively resist knowing. It’s the same as in every mob movie, where characters are on top one moment and blindsided the next, perhaps never as well-illustrated as in Tommy’s execution in Goodfellas. He walks right into a room thinking he is to be a made man, sees in the room signs that he has been duped and can’t even finish his next sentence before he is shot to hell.
So the power in The Irishman isn’t just that it depicts the end, for Frank a slow crawl past the bodies of his fallen friends and enemies, but that it spends so much time existing with it. It’s slow, steady and riveting if only because I can’t remember a recent movie that thought about this so much and made it feel so terrifyingly real.
When I left the theater after a packed house screening, moments after the somber resolution, I was surprised with how chatty so many other people were. They discussed Hoffa, Goodfellas and the louder, more entertaining moments of the film, in short all the stuff that is used to sell a movie like this. All I could think about was the last image, as if I had forgotten all the parts of the film that were indeed so damn entertaining. And then there near the back, still seated, was a woman crying.
I saw in her some kind of acceptance, reluctant as it may be, that what Scorsese’s getting at is frighteningly real and relatable, someday and somehow. It’s a sticky ending, one that’s hard to wash off for the best possible reasons. It’s a bell tolling long after the movie ends.
So The Irishman isn’t the feel good movie of the year, but it might be the best.