The Irishman considers a man facing the final curtain
Martin Scorsese’s late-period masterpiece The Irishman kicks off on a note as darkly funny and devastating as much of the rest of the movie: a lengthy tracking shot through the halls of a Philadelphia nursing home, stopping on the gray, barely breathing husk of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Forget the famous, triumphant Copacabana tracking shot in Scorsese’s GoodFellas — this is the cold, bleak truth of a cold, bleak life. Frank, a truck driver turned button man for the Philly mob, swam in the same deep waters as crime-family head Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and embattled Teamsters king Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Before he died in 2003, Frank claimed he whacked Hoffa, a confession in much dispute. I don’t care if he really did it. The Irishman is not about the mystery of Jimmy Hoffa’s death; it’s about the mystery of Frank Sheeran’s life, and that of men like him, who gave up the long-term nourishment of family for short-term security.
At a party honoring Frank, there’s a bit where De Niro and Pesci sit and talk while Scorsese’s camera swings over for a glimpse of Pacino chatting with Harvey Keitel (as another big-time mobster). For those of a certain age who grew up watching these four men, this is like fan-service, or Christmas coming a month early. The Irishman often comes off as a farewell-tour concert, though I imagine all of them (except maybe Pesci) want to continue working — just maybe not all together, like this. The point is that the movie isn’t all desolation and loss; it has many pleasures, including watching younger turks like Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Bobby Cannivale, and Sebastian Maniscalco looking like kids on that same Christmas morning, in a daze of disbelief that they get to play with legends. Then you have the nearly silent Anna Paquin as Peggy, Frank’s daughter, who knows exactly what he is, and has since she was little. Peggy is what you look like when you’ve learned the harder, sharper bits of life long before you should. Paquin’s sorrow and anger haunt the film.
Aside from the much-discussed de-aging computer effects that allow De Niro and others to play men ranging from their twenties to their eighties, Scorsese doesn’t indulge much whiz-bang. His stamp is clear and bold, but shots are held longer than you expect, or old men in huge aviator glasses sit and talk, quietly or not, in hotel rooms. There’s no hint of the Rolling Stones or any other Boomer rock on the soundtrack. If Saving Private Ryan was Steven Spielberg’s salute to the Greatest Generation, The Irishman is Scorsese’s much more ambivalent view of them. The message seems to be, Our fathers may have done what they had to do, but that doesn’t make them heroes.
Or villains, either. Mostly, we see men hobbled by their own shortcomings. Pacino gives us a showboating Hoffa, afflicted with short-guy pugnacity and pride; he plays with Hoffa’s vowels like a cat with string, while De Niro nods and reacts or sometimes stammers. By and large, though, Pacino just simmers and seethes. Over-the-top bravura is left to the young men; the old masters at work here, including Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, seem to disregard anything noisy or inessential and get to the point without fuss. The Irishman is reserved, though not repressed. The old gangster violence pops out now and then, unemphatic and casual. A bullet comes for a man the way a stroke or cancer does. Nothing personal, fella, it is what it is.
Like Frank, Scorsese has all daughters. Is there a Peggy in Scorsese’s life, judging him quietly for being off on the set all the time? Even if there isn’t, Scorsese can imagine Frank’s particular purgatory. The women in these men’s lives have been trained, generationally and socially, to stand by the men and not make problems. It takes a Peggy, a woman of the next generation, to say, Hey, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. The Irishman is more about the conflict between Frank and Peggy, even when she’s nowhere near the screen, than it is about Frank’s tutelage under Bufalino or betrayal of Hoffa. The final shot invites debate and analysis. What does it express — hope, or acceptance of what’s coming? Scorsese was idiotically shamed for not giving Anna Paquin more scenes or dialogue, but she makes her presence felt, woundingly, throughout. She, too, is a master, though at 37 far from old. It’s enough that in that final shot, we know that Frank is waiting for one of two visitors. We know for sure only that one of them did come for him. And that’s that.