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Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is about bringing the curtain down—in cinematic and other senses—on the mythology of glamor and violence, fear and fascination, dehumanization and allure, that has characterized gangster movies for the past half-century. It’s a full point on the sentence that Scorsese started in 1973 with Mean Streets.

I mean “mythology” in the Greek sense—the Joseph Campbell sense—of public dreams and stories truer than history, larger than facts, and more real than what’s on the news. Mythology, as Campbell insisted, is not merely for children or scholars. It is a matter of the utmost importance to all of human society: “For its symbols (whether in the tangible form of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations.”

Mobs moving mobs. Earlier movies in the mobster genre, by Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone, and Scorsese, have been central motifs of Western culture for the last fifty years. Don Vito Corleone remains, in the cultural imagination of the West, beyond good and evil. It was a measure of how secure the culture felt when these movies were released that these stories could be told without significant concern for how they might damage the “fabric” of society. You did not have the sense, watching a gangster movie, that what was being depicted was pure evil. A few funny sequences rescued even the most brutal characters. Even when dead, they lived on as legends.

Mobsterism was always, at least in the minds of the participants, a close relation of war: It operated by a code different from that used to police the streets. The movies, while not shying away from the brutal truth, still elided much of the moral meaning of these realities. They offered a quality of evasion. Even when the antiheroes came to bad ends, their offings were somehow steeped in sexiness.

The themes touched on moral decay, exposing the dark underbelly of American gangsterism, politics, society, mean streets. But in deconstructing that which they exposed, these men also glorified it anew. We emerged from the cinema not necessarily wishing we could whack our enemies, but strangely identifying with these incorrigible psychopaths with charmed lives and plausible charm—for, as Campbell put it, “not authority but aspiration is the motivator, builder, and transformer of civilization.” Like it or not, mobsterism, as The Irishman hints, played a central part in the evolution of recent American history.

The names Scorsese, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino will forever be identified with the genre. All five of these legends bring their genius to The Irishman. The Irishman in question is Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a mobster hitman and trade union official who infamously claimed to have had a role in the disappearance of mob-controlled Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975. In 2004, Charles Brandt published a biography of the real-life Sheeran, I Heard You Paint Houses, in which the “Irishman” confessed to killing Hoffa, to whom he was bodyguard and close friend. The book title is derived from a mobster euphemism for blowing people’s brains all over interior walls.

The Irishman was financed by Netflix (where the movie will stream starting November 27, following a short box office run). It is a magnificent achievement. The Irishman is about guilt without remorse, violence as a kind of language, friendship as a limited contract, and death as something that exists beyond human contemplation until it looms right up ahead. But above all the movie is a meditation on the notion of culpability carried without the possibility of absolution.

The movie opens with a typical Scorsese long and winding pan—this one of a nursing home interior. Nearing the end of his days, Frank Sheeran, abandoned by his family, sits in the ward telling his life story to someone who might be counsellor or confessor. He flashes back to the 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, touching on the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of JFK, the Nixon years, then further back to his time as a soldier in World War II, when he served with allied forces in Italy—where he learned how to kill without compunction or guilt. It is a matter, he says, of doing what you’re told, of “doing the right thing” and “getting rewarded.” He ends up as general factotum to mobster Russel Bufalino (Pesci) and, by dint of that connection, bodyguard to Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).

Once again, Scorsese shows violent, premature death occur due to the workings of greed, obedience, and fear. His characters have few of the trappings of rich men. They do what they do for the reasons other men paint houses for real: to feed their families and keep their wives in the style to which they have become accustomed. But money is not their primary object. What might that be? Status? Deterrence? Respect? Perhaps all of the above.

The actions and activities of these men amount to evil. God is a distant myth; their own children cower in fear of their fathers, and in shame concerning what they know of their activities. They are godless men, arrogating to themselves a godliness that can end only one way. Like Sheeran, they are merely following orders. As De Niro described it in one TV interview: “He was a good soldier, but he just had to do what he had to do.” In the film, time is spliced back and forth and the actors all play themselves over the full run, requiring digital de-aging. De Niro exhibits again why he is listed among the great artists of our time. He plays Frank as though behind a veil, opaquely; a man who, though not lost, has never quite found himself. He is sociable and kind, with a certain personal tenderness. Somehow we feel there is no conflict between these qualities and his capacity for clinical execution. We do not empathize or identify with him, and yet do not dislike him. We ought to be horrified, but are merely curious. Whereas Pacino plays up and out, De Niro plays down and inward, making every wrinkle and flicker counteract the effects of Frank’s invented joviality.

The digital “youthification” means that, for much of the movie, the characters have the bodies of oldsters and the faces of men in their prime. According to Scorsese, they had a “posture man” directing the actors on set all the time, but he seems to have got his sums wrong, since the characters end up looking like they have young heads on old shoulders.

At first this seemed to me like corner-cutting—like maybe someone thought a blind man on a galloping horse wouldn’t notice a thing. But what at first sight seems a slipshod incoherence becomes a salutary metaphor. It accidentally conveys a sense of the characters’ destination, a feeling that they are weighed down by the unacknowledged consequences of their lives of evildoing. What starts out seeming like a trick to cheat time becomes a device to convey its true nature: life moving discernibly toward death.

De Niro plays Sheeran knowing that the face he bears is not his own. It is as though he is playing a character through all the moments of his life, but remotely—deeply inside but detached. Sheeran is a man for whom violence is an occasional but vital reflex but who up close can be warm and tender and almost normal. The characters tumble through a world from which certain values have been extracted, though not all. These men love one another, up to a point, and care about one another’s families. But other priorities intrude.

Frank’s daughter Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina and as an adult by Anna Paquin) is, through much of what unfolds, the moral magistrate of the movie. She has about a half-dozen short lines, but her accusing gaze is the sole scope of goodness her father encounters as a challenge to his matter-of-fact mayhem-making.

In a sense the problem with men like Sheeran is that they cannot rationally confront the idea that they might need forgiveness. They have no idea why they did what they did. “It is what it is,” as the catchphrase the movie will probably bequeath the world has it. “What it is?”

The Irishman brings these seemingly immortal figures face to face with the facts of death. Such a radical misunderstanding of reality could end in no other way. But this is a first-time cinematic journey, into uncharted terrain.

Perhaps it reflects a new phase in Scorsese’s own life: Scorsese, De Niro, and the others from the post-sixties pop culture generation have arrived in sight of the spectre known as Death. Most of them are now in their late 70s. In general—Bob Dylan excepted, more or less—these pop culture icons have not been good at engaging with the reality of death.

Perhaps it is Scorsese’s Catholicism that enables him to venture where others shy away. It’s been remarked that The Irishman is a “very Catholic movie.” This is because, in the journalistic catechism of cliché, the words “Catholic” and “guilt” go together in the manner of “toxic” and “masculinity.” But the Catholicism goes deeper still.

In Scorsese’s 2016 Silence, based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, the Portuguese Jesuit Fr. Rodrigues grapples with a question that God never gives him an answer to: Would Jesus demand that a Christian decline to denounce him when a refusal would result in the suffering of innocent parties? Scorsese confronted Jesus with a similar dilemma in the 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ. I believe Scorsese stands in a long line of Christian artists. It is what places him above and beyond the superciliousness of workaday pop culture. His longer lens allows him to go higher—and lower. In The Irishman it leads him to ask, as he has Sheeran ask: Where did I think I was going?

We who have been with the Scorsese gang since the beginning are accustomed to going away with a mixture of excitement and schadenfreude. But this time we leave the cinema in a very different mood, our sense of mythology rattled.

“First he went to church,” intones the aged Sheeran, observing the final trajectory of a friend in the manner of a man who knows hopelessness when he sees it. “Then he went to the hospital; then he went to the graveyard.”

They are the walking damned, these mobsters, having outlived their wives and the love of their own children. As the horizons close in on him, Frank too tries to “find religion,” but he cannot locate a functional vein for that purpose. He is a man who, having served all his life, has arrived at a point where the lack of meaning infecting his whole life becomes palpable. It is what it is, but somehow, in Scorsese’s telling, the mythology and glamor drain away, leaving us watching the endgame of a man for whom we feel no empathy except the knowledge that he shares the journey we’re all on. 

Now the final curtain is already blocking his view of the gods, Sheeran feels pain rooted not in shame or guilt or even meaninglessness, but in a kind of surprise that the destination he intuited for his life did not exist and all the doors of heaven and earth are closing in his face. Like Fr. Rodrigues, he gets no answer to his calling out to God, on whose existence his bet is at most evens.

The nurses who care for Sheeran respond perfunctorily to his attempts at conversation, making polite rejoinders to his gambits about the past. “You don’t know how fast time goes by ’til you get there,” he says to his nurse. She smiles and walks jauntily away without a word.

Before the credits roll, Sheeran asks the visiting chaplain to leave the door slightly ajar when he departs. Like a child again, he fears the spirits of the night, into which he will soon go tumbling. We withdraw from him without emotion—at least, none for him.

John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.

Photo by Josh Jensen via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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