If you know anything about Martin Scorsese, you know that guilty Catholicism and anxious conversations with God are always embedded somewhere in the fabric of his films, going all the way back to Mean Streets and up through Silence and The Irishman. You also know that The Irishman is basically a 209-minute church service in a cavernous cathedral, and that it’s basically about Marty considering the mortal coil and looking to come to terms with who he is and where he came from, and particularly his decades of immersion in the gangster realm.
For The Irishman is the great, grand finale in the serial Scorsese crime saga that began 47 or 48 years ago — Mean Streets (young Little Italy hustlers), Goodfellas (Queens mob guys in their 30s and 40s), Casino (middle-aged Vegas guys funded by Kansas City mob), The Departed (Boston bad guys) and The Wolf of Wall Street (flamboyant white-collar sharks).** And now the last testament.
The Irishman is about karma and regret and dubiously going through life with your head down and not letting any airy-fairy or side-door considerations get in the way. It’s also about “the hour is nigh” as well as “good God, what have I done?” Who out there (and I’m talking to you, Academy members) hasn’t considered that question while lying in bed at 3:30 am and staring at the ceiling?
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Can we just blurt it out? The Irishman is Marty’s acknowledgment-of-death film. An acceptance of the inevitable mixed with currents of regret and trepidation. The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane said it several weeks ago — it’s “Wild Strawberries with handguns.”
Which is why some Millennials and GenZ types don’t feel as reverential toward The Irishman as 40-and-up viewers. Because many of them have this notion that the cloaked visitor is so far away that they might as well be immortal. Why not, right? I remember that attitude.
Scorsese is surely our greatest and most nominated director, yet he’s only won a single Oscar and ironically for a film he made with dexterity and efficiency but which he regarded at the time as a generic exercise — The Departed. The Irishman, by contrast, is Marty through and through…DNA, fingerprints, history, obsessions, personality.
Plus The Irishman contains 11 or 12 master-class performances. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Stephen Graham, Marin Ireland and the nearly wordless Anna Paquin are the stuff of instant relish and extra-level pulverizing. Not to mention Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale, Kathrine Narducci, Domenick Lombardozzi as “Fat Tony” Salerno, Sebastian Maniscalco as “Crazy Joe” Gallo, etc. Everyone in this film is perfect. The awareness that you’re watching actors giving performances goes right out the window almost immediately. You’re just there and so are they. And then it’s all one thing.
Movie Godz to Academy members: We understand that no one is perfect and that you all have a lot on your minds, and that many of you observe the age-old habit of raising your damp finger to the wind before voting for Best Picture. You’d like to vote for what you sincerely regard as 2019’s Best Film, but at the same time you don’t want to stand alone. We get it. We’ve been there.
But of course, you won’t be standing alone if you vote for The Irishman. You’ll be with us, the fathers of the realm. Along with the ghost of Howard Hawks, who knew a thing or two about what made good mustard and what didn’t.
When he was mortal Hawks famously said that a good movie always has “three great scenes and no bad ones.” He still feels this way, and during a recent Movie Godz cocktail party Hawks stated in that deep voice of his that Scorsese’s meditative gangster classic has at least 10 great scenes, and that he has no patience with guys like Bill Maher making jokes about it, “the little runt.”
Hawks explained that the last 30 to 40 minutes of The Irishman (suspenseful build-up to Hoffa shooting, Hoffa shooting, getting older, “Peggy hates me”, white hair, assisted living, buying the coffin, “leave the door open a bit”) amount to one of the most shattering finales in American cinema.
With The Irishman, in short, it’s not a matter of choosing great scenes, but asking “which scenes aren’t great or good?” Plus: “It’s summer.”
All great or extra-impact films say something that audiences recognize as truthful — things they’ve learned and accepted through their own travails. The Irishman says a lot of things, but the most profound takeaway is that old age, walking canes, Depends and death are just around the corner. Nobody gets out of life alive. As Jack Nicholson said in The Departed, “Act accordingly.”
** I don’t personally regard Gangs of New York (19th Century butchers and rabbits) as one of Marty’s classic crime films, although it obviously is. It doesn’t feel like family.