The Irishman: The Death of the Gangster Movie

James Vizza

Martin Scorsese has been in the headlines in a different way than he’d prefer recently. Besides the release of what many had hoped to be his magnum opus, The Irishman, the legendary director has been in hot water over comments about the state of modern movies and the box office domination of the superhero genre. Specifically, the multi-Academy-Award creator of Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Casino, Shutter Island and the rest of a filmographic list that’s probably earned more trophies and awards than Villanova basketball, doesn’t believe superhero movies are serious cinema. The Scorsese-Marvel feud, in my opinion, is mostly driven by the myopia of slavish fans who subsidize most every outing of the same studios pumping out capes and lasers, lashing out at what they perceive as a problematic ‘old guard’ of the movie business; the ultimate misguided “OK, Boomer” of the film world. It might prove Scorsese’s point entirely to note that Joker, a film directly inspired by his own The King of Comedy and starring the same Robert De Niro, grossed over a billion dollars after getting rid of the capes and CGI, and embracing psychological thrill and brilliant acting, the stuff real cinema is made of.

If you can set the popcorn down for a second and maybe put the Iron Man poster back on the shelf, turn on Netflix. Scorsese released his three-and-a-half-hour behemoth of a movie. Your author watched its 209 minutes over two viewings, making the convenience of watching it on a Netflix screen at home all the more useful. The movie’s prodigious length doesn’t mean it’s overwrought or unwatchable. On the contrary, Scorsese’s deep sense of place, period, time and humanity make every minute tense, soulful, disturbing, or captivating often all at the same time. This is not a rolling, swaggering movie like Goodfellas, though at early times it recaptures that movie’s mobster machismo. Instead, it’s a somber, long reflection on the evil a man creates when he values loyalty over truth, good or family.

That loyalty is Frank Sheeran’s, the titular Irish-American gangster played by an unfading Robert De Niro and aided by CGI that de-ages him, and then re-ages him, over the course of a movie that spans from the mid-1950’s all the way through Sheeran’s death in 2003. De Niro is total Oscar bait in this movie, a stone cold killer who lies to himself and his family, loyal only to the Italian mafia who enables him. The face of that mob is Joe Pesci as Pennsylvania kingpin Russell Buffalino, who may be the most imposing role of Pesci’s long career and one well worth his brief exit from retirement. Pesci’s character is deeply terrifying in the movie not because he slings cursewords and bullets, but deals in subtle threats, quiet warnings and the lies that gangsters tell themselves when killing in cold blood. Do I amuse you? Funny how? This is definitely not.

Speaking of quotes, The Irishman is not going to be quoted in bars and dinner tables like the immigrant humor of Goodfellas. This movie will be known for Buffalino’s threat against union leader Jimmy Hoffa: “It is what it is.” Those five simple words will haunt the viewer to the end of the film, knowing that these mobsters lock themselves into violence not because the world forces them to, but because they cannot see any other way: it is what it is.

Hoffa is played by Al Pacino, rounding out this movie’s impeccable star power with De Niro, Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano and more. Pacino is perhaps the weak link in the acting. Loud, cantankerous, and totally singleminded, his Hoffa is convincing but a caricature, an entertaining beast who perhaps goes a few decibels louder than is really needed. The film makes up for this with sound and its absence. Sheeran’s early gangster years are soundtracked by 50’s and 60’s rock n’ roll, with the glamour and violence usually seen in Scorsese’s outings. By the late 1970’s however, the music… stops. Frank, and the viewer, are left with long stretches of soul tearing silence, cut between dialogue. Mobsters get old, go to jail, even go to retirement homes. The silence never forgives.

And that’s exactly the end of the film that Scorsese plans. The usual gangster movie, the early struggles, the heights of criminal success, the violence, the unceremonious downfall, are all here, but the downfall finally hits home. Sheeran doesn’t just go home and shrug. His body fails him, his family refuses to speak with him and even a priest cannot help him when he truly does not feel sorry for his crimes. The Irishman dies alone, sinful, unforgiven and so too with him goes a genre. The Catholic immigrant experience of the turn of the 20th century fades ever faster from our memory, the mafia families once glorified are rightfully vilified, hunted down and mostly gone away. With The Irishman, a long and sorrowful masterpiece, Scorsese finally lands the last nail in the coffin. A progressive PC Hollywood culture, for better and worse, will be off to make very different crime dramas in the future starring a very different slice of our American faces. As long as they don’t have capes.