‘The Irishman’ says good night to the bad guys

Still from "The Irishman" with Joe Pesci (Russell Bufalino), and Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran). Photo courtesy of Netflix.

By Alex MacDougall
BU News Service

Martin Scorsese, in the weeks leading up to the release of his latest film “The Irishman,” has drawn attention to himself (perhaps intentionally) for his statements regarding the modern state of cinema. Particularly, his discussion of franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, calling their movies unoriginal, lacking in risk and quite frankly not even cinema. 

Certainly, “The Irishman,” which was distributed by Netflix, is not a Marvel movie. There are no heroics, no fast-paced action sequences or exotic locales, no beautiful young actors and actresses, no appeal to fandom for quick rushes of elation.

Even fans of Scorsese’s past work, for their depiction of violent crimes and macho attitudes, may even be slightly turned off by the film’s comparably slower pace and dialogue. It isn’t nearly as violent as many of his other films, though to be sure, violent actions abound in the more than three-hour run time. Scorsese, in this case, is not just seeking to tell the story of the American gangster, but also bidding him a solemn goodbye. 

“The Irishman” stars longtime Scorsese collaborator Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran, the eponymous Irish-American working-class man who rises from a meat delivery driver to one of the top hitmen for both the Italian mob, under the tutelage of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and for the mob-connected head of the Teamsters labor union, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, in his first Scorsese film).

Sheeran begins to form close friendships with both men at the same time, but as relations deteriorate between the mob and Hoffa, Sheeran finds himself caught in the middle of their violent dispute, and ultimately must choose which side he is on. 

It’s a familiar story arc for a Scorsese movie. The exciting rise of a career ne’er-do-well, tensions arising from cultural and familial expectations, concluding with their inevitable downfall. Except unlike Scorsese’s past anti-heroes, such as Jordan Belfort in “Wolf of Wall Street” and Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” Sheeran’s fall is not as rapid and glorious as his rise, but comes slowly and painfully.

Instead of eventually being claimed by justice or retribution, what brings him down is an even higher power, time. His partners in crime all are either killed or pass away, and his family, especially his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) cuts him out of their lives. 

The film brings attention to the fact that young people these days might not even know who Hoffa was, even though he was one of the most powerful men in America during his heyday. Hell, most younger people might be baffled by the idea of any union leader having the kind of influence Hoffa had. With the fading from the public memory of the days of gangsters and wise guys, Sheeran, shown at the beginning of the film in old age, has to seemingly then reckon with the question, “just what was it all for?”

Ultimately, this story also serves as Scorsese’s elegy to a genre, or perhaps a mode of cinema itself, with the director as an auteur who reflects deep personal themes within it, that is disappearing.

Though the franchise films released today can still be morally ambiguous and make us think (see “Joker,” which draws from Scorsese and also features De Niro), they do not draw from reality as source material for fiction, but draw from fiction to try to reflect reality. In mourning the loss of a certain way of life, “The Irishman” asks us to make sure we do not forget the lessons it has to teach us, whether it be the dark side to the American Dream or the aesthetic experience that cinema can be.

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