As the title suggests, The Irishman sets out to show a different perspective of the mafia holdouts that have popped up time and time again in Martin Scorsese’s work. True, Scorsese explored the Irish mafia in The Departed, his excellent remake of Infernal Affairs, but Scorsese plunges his central character into the middle of a world he has spent a decade building, only to tear it back frame by frame until what the viewer experiences is a nothingness at its most pointed and bittersweet.
Whereas Goodfellas and Casino showed Robert De Niro at his most terrifyingly muscular, The Irishman strips back the pretence to display the consequence of brawn through the watchful eyes of the supporting characters. Influenced by the narrative beats of his earlier work, Scorsese allows the film to cast an eye on some of the trappings of the mafia genre but subverts these tropes to showcase the pain that gradually seeps into the body, mind and soul.
The film jumps between time zones, as an octogenarian Frank Sheeran (De Niro) recalls the footsteps and emotional beats that led him to this place of weakness. In many ways, the film recalls the grandeur and ambition of The Godfather Part II, and Scorsese ties the two films together by bringing Al Pacino into the mix, making it one of a handful of features De Niro and Pacino have worked on together. Of the four films, the regrettable Righteous Kill is the only one that pairs the two up as equals. They shared no scenes together in The Godfather Part II and only two in Heat.
The Scorsese who directed Silence is at home with religious symbolism – this might prove a worthwhile follow up to the 2016 venture, that detailed the exhibitions of two priests on their journey to self-forgiveness and absolution. It’s definitely a smart move to portray the gangsters as a band of Catholics, purging their misgivings by praying to a God they hope will forgive them. Sheeran carries another identity, as a Pad in a sea of Sicilian gangsters. Besides Jimmy Hoffa (played with electric glee by Pacino), Sheeran has one other Irish person to look up to, the President the mafia purportedly had a hand in slaying.
Although the Italian diaspora craves recognition, they are as canny and as WASP like as the other factions of American society, building the country from the ground up. The shadings and movements lead Sheeran through many obstacles, before he awaits his death by a hospital bed, as a priest helps him to count down the days before his judgement comes.
“Because the point of this picture is the accumulation of detail,” Scorsese recalled “It’s an accumulated cumulative effect by the end of the movie – which means you get to see from beginning to end [in one sitting] if you’re so inclined. A series is great. It’s wonderful. You can develop character and plot lines and worlds are recreated, but this wasn’t right for that.”
The film is also notable for its use of de-ageing effects, transporting De Niro and Pacino back to their younger, more feverish, bodies, as the two recapture the silent smiles of their younger days in an effort to convey the changing perimeters of past endeavours and exercise. “For us to transfer those performances to the younger selves, we had to understand how Robert De Niro performs a concerned look or a happy expression or a guarded one,” Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman revealed. “There’s a certain thing that makes us who we are, that makes De Niro go from a smile to a frown in a specific way that will immediately trigger that thing in an audience where they go, ‘That’s Robert De Niro.’ We were trying to get the heart of that behavioural likeness.”
What we get is something deeply passionate, concentrating the energy of the central characters, who convey a certain level of determination and decisiveness, whether it’s by channelling the fire within their bellies, or celebrating the foundations of the country all believe is the greatest on the planet. In terms of gangster treatments, it’s no different from the epics spearheaded by Francis Ford Coppola or Brian De Palma, but this has more bite to it, largely because it knows that the character at the end isn’t the hero his legacy has allowed him to be, but an ageing father who has lost contact with the children he swore to protect.
Unlike Coppola, Scorsese doesn’t hold back on the guttural punches either, as the women in the film play an insightful role, exploring the areas their husbands and fathers could improve as people. Through their eyes, the audience gets to impart their truth on the world Scorsese has built, only to peel it away with the charge of a gangster looking to end the proceedings.