Film & TV

The Irishman’s Déjà Vu Gangsterism

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in The Irishman (Netflix)
Scorsese’s latest turns American sin into Hollywood kabuki.

Acclaim for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman has been so wild that something more than the movie itself is revealed. Yet another of Scorsese’s Faustian gangster epics, it dramatizes unproven claims by union official and late sociopathic gadabout Frank Sheeran (played by Robert DeNiro) that he killed International Brotherhood of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) in a hit for the Bufalino crime family. (It’s based on I Heard You Paint Houses, a braggadocious memoir by former prosecutor Charles Brandt, but The Irishman could be called GoodFellas VI anyway.)

Scorsese’s focus on the internecine criminality of Italians, Irish, Poles, and America’s other working castes reveals his love of violence and criminals — plus Hollywood’s and our own complicity in that shame. By going over well-trod territory — ethnic machismo, Catholic guilt, social treachery — The Irishman shares ignominy with Bong Joon-Ho’s Cancel Culture comedy Parasite, in which killing is seen as a sardonic method of class advancement.

Scorsese’s smooth-running, three-hour-plus film clears a very low bar to reveal “Where we are today” — the maxim that Sixties reviewers used for socially conscious generation-gap movies, now brought back to praise millennial nihilism.

Scorsese’s paean to treachery appears at a bizarre moment in American history when disingenuousness and blatant dishonesty have become accepted political tactics. Even the film’s ethnic emphasis dovetails with fashionable identity politics: Irishman Sheeran’s involvement with Italian gangsters is shown here as just part of the all-American corruption we are meant to enjoy. If Scorsese does anything profound, it is recognizing the deep-down ethnic antagonism in the way Sheeran cozies up to the Italians and copies their ruthlessness — he follows the American way of getting ahead through theft, coercion, and murder.

Screenwriter Steven Zaillian uses two unreliable narrators: Sheeran looking back in senility, incapacitated and wheelchair-bound in an old folks’ home, and Scorsese, whose mid-century pop favorites (“Sally Go Round the Roses,” “In the Still of the Nite,” etc.) ought to express feelings of lost innocence, not just nostalgia. Secular guilt crowds the Catholic remorse and quasi repentance that Scorsese always, predictably indulges.

But now Scorsese’s reveling in American corruption has a degraded Netflix audience ready to eat it up. He builds Hoffa’s killing into a foundational myth, normalizing spiritual decadence. The cast of evil characters reunites familiar goons: DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, and Joe Pesci appear as stuffed effigies of corrupt old men. The doddering DeNiro staggers about like Frankenstein’s monster. His Sheeran’s a lethal stooge, morally dumb with dead blue eyes and willing to perform any act of loyalty or betrayal. The film’s popularly hyped “de-aging” F/X make everyone look waxen, soulless, mummified, Mephistophelian. “I got away with some things I never should have,” Sheeran confesses. But it’s generic stuff in the context of Scorsese’s gangster filmography.

Only Pacino seems fresh in this fetid cosmos, yet he’s all wrong for his part. His contemplative profile harkens back to Michael Corleone — the single greatest male character in American movies — but he’s been miscast as a Slav with a desperate work ethic and kingly ambitions. Scorsese’s Godfather resonance is unearned; he misses the ethnic distinction of Jack Nicholson’s magnificently lived-in Hoffa in the 1992 biopic. (“If I have to tell you what do, there’s no point in me telling you what to do.”)

The dynamics of ethnic groups scrambling for power are part of Scorsese’s story — laboriously played out in scenes of macho one-upmanship — but they’re never convincing. Pacino’s juicy, lively Hoffa comes off as an actorly turn rather than a culturally different way of life. Scorsese gets the summit-meeting eminence that Michael Mann was too hip to achieve in Heat; still, it’s merely a DeNiro–Pacino sparing match. One man trusts, the other’s deceitful; both seem superficial. Pacino, walking out of a red Ford Mercury like a man of business, but on the way to his death, provides the film’s single moment of credible characterization.

The Irishman demonstrates a failure of nerve. Scorsese has failed to recapture the moral crisis of his best film, Mean Streets, where fraternal struggle convincingly tested spiritual belief. In 1973, that film’s honest moral quandary felt powerfully new to the movies. By now, Scorsese has repeated it so often, each time less persuasively, that his personal expression has been reduced to commercial formula, replaced by smart-ass cynicism: Every man has the same old hardened-bitch wife as in Casino and the same ruthless greed as in GoodFellas; tosses the same ethnic insults as in Raging Bull; flaunts the same ethnic rivalry as in Gangs of New York and The Departed; and indulges the same blatant chicanery as in The Wolf of Wall Street.

In place of authenticity, the film’s déjà vu gangsterism amounts to a crime nerd’s fantasy — minus the horror that DePalma brought to the Hoffa legend in Snake Eyes, which reflected contemporary political skulduggery. Scorsese blasts America’s historical legacy through many digressions: about the mob’s involvement in both JFK’s election and his assassination (“If they can whack a president, they can whack a union leader” Hoffa is told and he shouts back “They wouldn’t dare!!”); about Attorney General Bobby Kennedy’s perceived ethnic-based vendetta against the Mafia; about Watergate; about the WWII killing of Nazis that forms Sheeran’s life-long pathology. Finally, Scorsese references an old, depraved Italian immigrant family, the Scriandras (a.k.a. the Sopranos).

When Sheeran’s estranged daughter (Anna Paquin) stares blankly, she first appears autistic, but it soon becomes clear that this sentimental idea shows Zaillian stealing from himself: She’s meant to be our appalled moral witness, like the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List, which Zaillian also penned. This childlike absolution helps Netflix fans celebrate The Irishman as if it were a Pixar film for adults — a national pastime beyond criticism.

By the time Fox News prelate Father Jonathan Morris appears, offering forgiveness to the decrepit Sheeran (and implicitly blessing Scorsese’s perpetual, backsliding glamorization of crime), the overwrought Irishman resembles an American kabuki play about sin that also relishes sin. It epitomizes the degradation of “where we are today.”

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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