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‘The Irishman’ Turns the Gangster Film Inside Out

Once the man who portrayed the the mafia as exciting and  luxurious in ‘Goodfellas,’ Martin Scorsese uses his latest to showcase the brutal emptiness that truly defines the genre

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In the final scene of The Godfather, Kay Corleone asks her husband, Michael, whether it’s true that he’s had his brother-in-law Carlo murdered. He promises her it’s not, and they embrace. As she leaves Michael’s office, the camera lingers on the other side of the door to watch him receive his capos, one of whom bends to kiss his ring; “Don Corleone,” the man whispers, confirming Michael’s new status and Kay’s fears in just two words. The placement of the shot aligns us with Kay—a helpless observer, close enough to see what’s going on but unable to intervene. Then Francis Ford Coppola cuts to a reverse angle, showing us Kay’s sad, horrified eyes as the door shuts, blacking out the screen.

It’s a bleak, brilliant ending, suggesting at once the insularity of patriarchal power and the paralytic complicity of the women in its orbit: Just as Michael is following in his father’s footsteps, so, too, is Kay accepting the role of outsider in her own home. Because The Godfather is the most influential gangster movie ever made, Coppola’s anti-grace note has been copied and paid homage many times over, most memorably in the penultimate episode of The Sopranos, when Dr. Melfi ushers Tony out of her office for the last time, slamming the door in his face to emphasize the clean break she’s making with their treatment, and by extension her vicarious enabling of his crimes under the pretense of client-patient confidentiality. Like Kay, Melfi becomes an audience surrogate, stepping away from Tony on behalf of all the viewers who’d grown exhausted and alienated by the show’s relentlessly normalized amorality, though her decision reverses the gendered power dynamic at the end of The Godfather; here, the woman closes the door. But however powerful her gesture may be, it’s also futile. While Melfi’s choice to cash out makes sense—and maybe places her on a higher moral plane—it’s not like the rest of us didn’t watch the finale to see what would happen to Tony after all.

It’s probably too early to say whether Martin Scorsese’s new drama The Irishman—an adaptation of I Heard You Paint Houses, Charles Brandt’s nonfiction account of the life of Bufalino crime family hitman Frank Sheeran (played in the film by Robert De Niro)—belongs on the Mount Rushmore of contemporary American gangster epics alongside The Godfather and The Sopranos and, of course, Scorsese’s own Goodfellas. Time, as it always does, will tell. It is an excellent film, and interesting on multiple levels: as a picaresque true-crime tale with an unreliable narrator (Sheeran’s claims of involvement in the death of Jimmy Hoffa have never been corroborated); as a showcase for digital de-aging technology that allows a cast of septuagenarian stars to play characters 30 years younger, a technique that turns nearly every scene into a tour through the uncanny valley; as a primer on the history of organized labor in the shadow of a 21st-century gig economy; as a work of old-fashioned classicism underwritten by a digital streaming giant. But on first viewing, it’s the precise, devastating variations that Scorsese wrings out of Coppola’s classic that stand out most. It’s not just that The Irishman covers some of the same historical and thematic ground as The Godfather—the rise of American organized crime syndicates in the middle of the 20th century and their infiltration of various cultural, industrial, and political institutions; the tensions between the various ethnic immigrant groups grudgingly subdividing the profits of their underworld economy; the simultaneous strength and fragility of loyalty in a literally cutthroat business—or that it features Michael Corleone himself, Al Pacino, opposite De Niro, who won an Oscar for playing the young Vito in The Godfather: Part II. Scorsese’s allusions go deeper, slicing through the surface of genre to draw real blood and leave real scars.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the most wounding elements of The Irishman are the performances by Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin, who share the role of Frank’s daughter Peggy as she ages out of childhood—a crucial subplot in a movie that foregrounds the machinations of men. The entirely disingenuous controversy over Peggy’s almost complete lack of dialogue—Paquin speaks seven words in the entire film, all during one late exchange with her father—suggests that some viewers are either allergic or else oblivious to subtext; in truth, it’s not as if Scorsese is especially subtle about her purpose. Like Kay at the climax of The Godfather, Peggy has been designed by Scorsese and screenwriter Steven Zaillian as a kind of audience surrogate—an emphatically mute witness to her father’s crimes.

Early in the film, Frank’s first wife, Mary (Aleksa Palladino), informs him that Peggy was pushed by a local shopkeeper after she tried to shoplift something from his store. At this point in the story, we know that Frank, a World War II veteran with his share of confirmed kills, has a capacity for violence, and when he drags Peggy back to the store for an apology, it’s obvious what’s going to happen. But aside from the context clues, we know he’s going to kick the shit out of the shopkeeper because Scorsese is quoting himself. The scene is shot at the same cool remove as the bit in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill pistol-whips the tennis pro who’d sexually harassed his girlfriend Karen. There, Karen’s direct observation of Henry’s brutality comes as a shock but also a turn-on. “It excited me,” she says in voice-over. But when Peggy sees her father pummel the store owner in full view of the entire neighborhood, curb-stomping his hand and kicking in his teeth, there’s only terror and resignation—and a glimmer of guilt for being offered up as a rationale for this level of violence.

Throughout The Irishman, Frank proffers his obligation to provide for (and later, to protect) his family as an excuse for his slide from petty crimes into professional ones—a trajectory that moves him upward in the esteem of powerful mobsters like Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) as he plunges down the slippery slope of mercenary murder. It’s a myth that Scorsese has punctured before, whether through the obsessive overprotectiveness of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, who ends up battering his wife to escape his own jealousy, or Travis Bickle’s perverse surrogate-father act in Taxi Driver, “rescuing” teenage prostitute Iris from her pimp to sublimate his own lust. The idea that Frank’s loved ones don’t get a say in the way he goes about providing for them is thus expressed eloquently—in cinematic rather than verbal language—by the repeated insert shots of Peggy observing him as he sneaks in and out of the house in the dead of night. Because we know where he’s been and what he’s doing—“house painting,” as the lethal euphemism goes—there’s no need for a stagy confrontation between father and daughter; the little girl peeking down at Frank through the slats of a staircase is a manifestation of whatever conscience he has left.

Peggy’s position as The Irishman’s moral fulcrum extends to her interactions with its other two major characters, which are clearly weighted in support of Pacino’s gregarious, charming Jimmy Hoffa. It’s a testament to the complexity of Zaillian’s screenplay that Hoffa, who hires Frank to be his bodyguard after observing his work for Russell, is presented as neither a hero nor a phony: The film takes his charisma and ambition as a labor organizer—and, as Frank describes him at one point, Elvis Presley–level American celebrity—quite seriously without papering over the contradictions of his politics (he endorsed Nixon for president in 1960 and 1972 despite the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ staunchly Democratic endorsement record) or his hypocritical profiteering as a mafia associate. (The sequence in an ice cream parlor where Jimmy reacts to the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination by quietly slipping away to slurp his sundae hints at a sociopathic pettiness.) But he’s also a man of genuine ideals, which is why he’s able to win Peggy’s affection under her father’s nose, while she recoils at every turn from Russell’s avuncular hard sell. Her instincts about her father’s mentor and guardian angel of death, who recruited him from truck driving and honed him into a blunt, lethal instrument, are correct—and once again, the focus on her eyes by Scorsese’s masterful cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, shows us that she sees through the old mobster’s facade.

Beyond using Peggy as a (silent) Greek chorus, The Irishman privileges her wary, unimpressed perspective over the kind of high style associated with Scorsese’s other, more electrifying gangster movies—first and foremost Goodfellas. Because The Irishman is so long, 209 minutes, there’s plenty of time to contemplate its formal austerity—its patient, unhurried pacing and relative lack of ostentatious framing or muscular, attention-getting tracking shots. We know that Scorsese is not only a master filmmaker but also a versatile one, so it’s not exactly a surprise that he’s found a unique way to stage and tell this story, but it’s the specific fitting of form to content that’s remarkable. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill is a child sucked into the larger-than-life world of the wiseguys he spies through his bedroom window, and the film hooks into the giddy thrill of desire; the legendary Copacabana shot is all about the excitement of gaining access to a secret, luxurious world. Frank Sheeran, though, isn’t a kid—he’s a grown man with a family by the time he throws his lot in with Russell, and in turn, Scorsese refuses to play the fantasy card. There’s nothing enchanting here, no sense of magic or even much of the sheerly material come-ons of The Wolf of Wall Street, with its high rollers spending $26,000 on “sides.” Frank isn’t getting especially rich by selling his soul—more like comfortably numb.

The Irishman takes most of Sheeran’s claims in I Heard You Paint Houses at face value, including the book’s biggest selling point: the 2003 revelation, just a few months ahead of his death, that he killed Jimmy Hoffa at the behest of Russell Bufalino. Our foreknowledge of this event hangs over the long, slow build-up of the first two acts and thoroughly pressurizes the third, with Scorsese showing a control of suspense mechanics closer to somebody like Brian De Palma as Frank lures Jimmy, who considers him to be the only fully trustworthy person in his life, to an empty house on a residential street in Detroit. The deed is done quickly and unspectacularly, a nasty, brutish, and short exchange unworthy of the decades of obfuscation and speculation around it. What Scorsese is more interested in is the aftermath, with Frank returning home against the backdrop of round-the-clock media coverage of the union leader’s disappearance and being confronted once again by Peggy’s hard, accusatory gaze. The circumstances are different—he and his daughter are both older, and the victim of his handiwork is not a stranger but somebody they both loved—but the dynamics are the same: She sees him for what he is. When Frank admits that he hasn’t called Jimmy’s wife, Jo, to check in on her, Peggy looks directly at her father and, for the first and only time in the film, speaks: “Why?” she asks. “Why? Why haven’t you called Jo?” That he can’t answer her constitutes its own form of confession.

In Taxi Driver, Scorsese choreographed the scene of Travis Bickle apologizing on the pay phone to Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy so that the camera eventually left him behind; he said he couldn’t bear to see his antihero’s humiliation. Forty-three years later, he films Frank’s call to Jo head-on, adopting a static position to take in every single lie and evasion he feeds the desperate woman on the other end of the phone. It’s an amazing moment of acting by De Niro in a performance that’s otherwise defined by dead-eyed passivity, and even though the movie continues for another half-hour, it serves as the final word on both Frank’s humanity (such as it is) and the motif of women being deceived; he’s not as good a liar as Michael Corleone but he powers through anyway. Frank’s real talent is for self-delusion: In the nursing home, he tells Peggy’s sister Maryanne (Jennifer Mudge) that she and Peggy had lived a “sheltered” life. “There were a lot of bad people out there—what was I going to do?” he asks, oblivious to the fact that he’s the kind of monster he’s talking about. “We couldn’t come to you for protection because of the terrible things you would do,” says Maryanne, voicing exactly what Peggy had been too scared to say all those years ago during that fateful trip to the grocery store—the primal scene of two people’s long, agonizing, mutual emotional death.

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Death has always had dominion in the gangster film, as a lingering threat, an occupational hazard, and an inescapable reality; death scenes are the genre’s hallmark. The Godfather raised the bar both in terms of sudden violence and tragic lyricism; because The Irishman is averse to mythmaking—because it’s designed to destroy that grandiosity and return it to a human scale—it may not ultimately offer too much competition in that regard. Yet its very ending ranks among the most haunting, death-tinged moments I’ve ever seen, in a gangster movie or otherwise. And to understand where this sobering anti-grace note gets its power, you have to go back to the finale of The Godfather and its use of the door as a literal and metaphorical barrier. Coppola’s movie ends with the door fully shut, leaving us to wonder, like Kay, what’s going on behind it. In The Irishman, Scorsese keeps the door ajar at Frank’s request, leaving him exposed, one last time, to our gaze. What we see is as far away from power and honor as possible, a man sitting alone, old and unfulfilled.

It’s not just a great final shot. It’s the last word on a genre after all of its illusions have been systematically stripped away by one of the great magicians who conjured them up in the first place, leaving something starkly anti-escapist in their place. “Leave it open a little bit,” asks Frank, sitting alone in the still of the night, at once fully distant from us and far too close for comfort.