Updated: Dec 1, 2019
[The following review contains SPOILERS; you have been warned!]
If the poetry of violence is a language in and of itself, then Martin Scorsese is its most fluent speaker. From the very beginning of his career, gunshots and gore have been his bread and butter, and his latest effort, The Irishman—the director’s long-awaited reunion with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, as well as his first collaboration with Netflix—feels like the culmination of every blood-soaked verse he’s ever written.
The most surprising thing about the film’s brutality is how seldom it actually occurs onscreen; Scorsese instead emphasizes the “boring” bits in between the shootouts: the tedious commutes, the banal conversations, the meticulous preparation. When it finally does arrive, though, it is always realistically abrupt, matter-of-fact, and unwelcome—even the most significant (and likable) characters get whacked with relatively little buildup or fanfare (see also: The Departed). This unpredictability creates an oppressive atmosphere that is only exacerbated by the mafia’s chillingly cavalier attitude towards murder for hire (see also: Goodfellas); they employ the services of contract killer Frank Sheeran so frequently that it’s often easier for them to clarify when “Calm that hothead down before he embarrasses himself,” isn’t a euphemism for “Put a bullet in that bastard’s head before he rats us out to the feds.” And while our unscrupulous protagonist’s shady connections allow him to enjoy a degree of luxury and influence that he might otherwise have lacked, he is constantly haunted by the undeniable fact that he is utterly expendable: he never knows precisely when he’ll be sent off on an assignment, or which of his friends he’ll be forced to betray next (see also: Casino); all he truly knows is that refusing to obey a direct order would not only make him a target, but also jeopardize the safety of his wife and children.
Of course, Scorsese isn’t satisfied with simply regurgitating the same old cinematic techniques. On the contrary: he expands his arsenal of tricks, transforming The Irishman into a stylistic evolution, rather than a mere variation on familiar themes. Whenever a new wise guy is introduced, for example, he is accompanied by a subtitle that briefly summarizes how he will eventually meet his demise—a fourth-wall-shattering device that makes the specter of violence seem all the more omnipresent. The manner in which the filmmaker chooses to conclude the story is equally unorthodox. Like Henry Hill, Frank ends up trapped in an ironic Hell of his own design; unlike his spiritual predecessor, however, the aftermath of his downfall continues well into his twilight years. Following a short stint in prison, he ultimately lands in a modest retirement home—his physical and mental health rapidly deteriorating, his mob associates long since executed by rival factions, and his contributions to American history totally forgotten. Painfully aware that he’ll find no forgiveness for his innumerable sins amongst the living, he instead turns to God for solace—not because he genuinely regrets his actions, but because the promise/threat of an afterlife is literally his last remaining “comfort.”
Such a mournful, languidly-paced denouement (it’s certainly a far cry from the frenetic camerawork and breakneck editing found in Goodfellas and Casino, anyway) won’t appeal to every viewer’s tastes, but it conveys the movie’s intended message clearly enough: a criminal lifestyle leads to neither glamor nor glory, but to loneliness, emptiness, and despair. That borderline glacial patience definitely doesn’t make The Irishman Scorsese’s most exciting gangster picture… but it does make it his most mature, thematically insightful, and emotionally resonant.