“The Irishman” Review: Scorsese meditates on morality, aging and consequences

I sometimes describe myself as a Nihilist. Not the “burn-the-world-down” anarchy-crossover kind, but the “uggggg, what’s the point?” kind. I have boxes of old family photos and — beyond my own parents and grandparents — I can’t identify any of the people. My kids would be hard-pressed to even point out my grandparents, much-less the other relatives or long-dead friends. 

Now, to contradict my nihilism, I think I’m a pretty-good person. Others may not share my  opinion of myself, but I have learned some bit of self-awareness, and continue to work on improving my own self-honesty. I’ve worked hard to raise my children, and worked hard to make a difference in the world. I do this to preserve and maybe even improve the relationships in my life. It also helps me choose the relationships I do not want to have, and let go of toxic people. Maybe my dead ancestors have contributed to my attempts at making something good out of a world that seems not to notice or remember them all that much.

But back to “what’s the point?” As I age, I increasingly wonder how much of it matters. All-too-soon my likeness will be relegated to a box in the attic. Few of us are Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates or Louis Pasteur. Even once-famous people quickly fall from the public consciousness. Anyone remember Joel McCrea, Eddy Bracken, Gene Tierney or Maureen O’Sullivan? Even Nikola Tesla had been pretty much forgotten, and by a bit of good fortune resurrected as the name of an electric car. It is Tesla we should be thanking for our household electricity, but instead Edison gets the credit. 

I’m afraid that the cold hard truth is most of us don’t matter very much. Our legacy will likely be short, and sadly the Pixar film Coco may have it right … when the last of the people on Earth who knew us forgets we ever existed, then we will be forever gone, even from the afterlife. So if the future doesn’t matter, if the future doesn’t have any meaning, then do I succumb to the existential angst and misery of a life without purpose? Or do I just adopt the selfish pursuit of money and power? 

I suspect Martin Scorsese is asking many of the same questions as me. From Taxi Driver to King of Comedy and down the line of his gangster films, culminating with The Irishman: Does my behavior make a difference? What happens if I pursue selfishness through amoral or immoral means? Does how I get from here to there matter? 

Scorsese’s longtime collaborator Robert DeNiro plays Frank Sheeran, the titular Irishman. We meet Frank as a young man on a chance encounter with mob boss Russell Buffalino played by Joe Pesci in a career-topping and masterfully understated performance. Frank lives to serve … he’s not angling to be the boss, and he doesn’t need to be top dog. But he wants things in his life, and he wants comfort and respect. He easily and without thought trades his conscience and love for steady work and a comfortable life. And he does this over and over again. 

The Irishman isn’t about plot, or what happens. The film tempts us to investigate the truth of what is happening before us. Lot’s of real-life people show up, but put your phone away and ignore this … it’s not about literal real world truth. It doesn’t matter who dies or when they die. And the real-life nature of Jimmy Hoffa’s demise certainly matters not even a little bit. If there is a downside to this being a Netflix Original, it is that sitting at home distractions abound. Resist and take it all in. 

Literal real-world truth is not the point, but getting to the truth of life most certainly is. Over the next three and a half hours we see a lot happen … Frank gets married, he gets married again, he makes his first kill, he beats up the local grocer, he becomes friends with people, he kills those people when they no longer serve his bosses. He ignores his children while going on “business trip” after “business trip” at all hours or the day and night. We witness the splintering family, and his fraying humanity. A life of murder and crime has consequences after all. Loyalty to work seems to have the same consequences for all workaholics, regardless of field. 

Anna Paquin  — as Frank’s eldest daughter — hauntingly conveys awareness of her father’s true nature, while speaking hardly a full sentence in the story. Frank is a sociopath, but a pretty gentle sociopath when not killing.  It is mesmerizing, and we watch Frank grow old before our eyes, and while he thinks he is winning (he is still alive, a true feat in the mob) but we see what he does not: life passing him by, age taking over, and a man alone. Frank is a pretty bad dude, and it never occurs to him that even if his choices in life don’t bring him a violent end, they may still bring consequences he might not like.

Death sits with Frank as he narrates from his nursing home wheelchair. He sits with a lifetime of loss, completely alone, but still unable to understand consequence. Periodically the film puts text up on screen to tell us how some mob character died … shot in the head, thrown in the river, of a heart attack in prison, of cancer out in the real world. Most seem to die young and violently. But some make it past the time when anyone is left to care about killing them. These chumps are the saddest of all. They think they have won, and it seems a surprise that death will get us all. No escape.

This picture is about no one I know, and yet everyone I know. It forces me to engage my own mortality, and to decide what I want for my legacy, brief as it may turn out to be. Perhaps most strikingly, it asks me to decide what I want for my old age. When day is done, who will be left to sit with me, to hold my hand, to spend the last of my birthdays and the final holidays at my side. Will anyone come visit me as I fade from the planet??

I walked into the theater unaware of the running time, and also unaware of any thematic elements. I walked out wondering about meaning in the world. Perhaps there is some meaning, but maybe it is not what I have been taught. Maybe morality does something more than prepare us to meet out maker while avoiding the burning torture of hell. Maybe consequences are not just the world out to get us, or accidents of fate. Maybe our actions bring about the consequences of our life, good or bad. Maybe the recovering alcoholics have it right … let go, help others, live in the moment, one day at a time. No guarantees, but certainly this seems like it will give us a better shot at having someone with us at the end when we can’t bear to be alone.

I give The Irishman 9.25 out of 10. Points off for mushy de-aging special effects.

 

Other thoughts:

– Much has been made of the de-aging tech used to make DeNiro, Pesci and Pacino look like much younger versions of themselves. I suppose the advantage appears obvious … the same actors play their characters through the span of their lives. The disadvantage is it looks bad. The faces are mushy and not convincingly young, and the bodies look old. Arms are skinny, girths are spreading, necks are sloping. It’s not just wrinkles that make us look old. The effect may be most convincing on Pesci, who seems to have slimmed down and straightened up in his old age. And of course, we haven’t seen Pesci on screen in twenty years, so we haven’t watched him age like the other two actors. 

I remember hearing Scorsese say in an interview that the post production of the movie struggled while he worked to hold onto the nuance of performance through the digital effects. We’ve been watching this technology for a while. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Ant Man and the Wasp, and others have all used versions of digital character aging or de-aging. We are not there yet, but it seems we are close. 

– Ray Romano is pretty great playing mostly against type as Russell’s cousin, mob attorney Bill Buffalino.

 

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