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Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Irishman’ is a haunting, late-career masterpiece

“The Irishman” is the movie Martin Scorsese has been building to his entire career.

From his breakout film “Mean Streets” in 1973 to “Goodfellas” in 1991 and all the way to “The Wolf of Wall Street” in 2013, Scorsese has been chronicling the various ways a person’s soul can be worn down by the sheer violence and paranoia inherent in a crime-ridden life.

You don’t have to look any further than the scene in the first act of “Mean Streets” when the lead character Charlie (Harvey Keitel) puts his finger over a candle’s flame once his prayer is finished. Charlie clearly knows he’s going to hell for the sins he’s committed as a low-level gangster. So why doesn’t he leave the mob underworld and repent if he’s so afraid of his judgment?

Scorsese has tried to answer that question in dozens of different ways over the last 50 years of his career, and he takes a surprising approach here: he slows down.

“The Irishman” is a film about elderly men, and with its three and a half hour runtime, it moves at the pace of an elderly man.

The plot is pretty simple on the surface. We follow Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a World War II veteran who gets involved with the mafia when he befriends one of the higher-ups, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and becomes the private bodyguard for famed union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Then Frank quietly passes through the decades as a hitman without ever questioning the moral repercussions of what he’s doing.

All of the nuance and heft in the film isn’t found so much in what happens but in how it happens. This is a character piece through and through, so a simple scene that shows Russell and Frank having a conversation at dinner can have a tremendous effect on the plot due to the way the conversation chips away at Frank’s soul.

For example, when speaking about a murder Frank is going to have to commit soon, Russell just tells Frank, “It’s what it is.” He never has to say the words “hit” or “murder” to convey the gravity of the situation and how much the killing is going to change Frank’s life and steer the movie’s plot in a new direction. Likewise, De Niro shows us Frank’s tremendous inner turmoil with nothing more than a sullen stare and reminds us that he’s still one of the greatest screen actors in the history of the medium.

What surprised me most about “The Irishman” is that it has more in common with Scorsese’s previous movie, 2016’s highly under-discussed “Silence,” than it does with his other Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci led crime films “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

“Silence” follows a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) who travels to Japan in order to convert the souls of the people living there. As the film progresses, he ends up facing tremendous suffering all in the name of his God.

This idea of a character being on a mission from God is not new territory for Scorsese. What’s new is a lead character in a Scorsese movie who is on a mission that leads to nothing.

“The Irishman” is the ultimate condemnation of the organized crime lifestyle. Whereas a character like Rodrigues serves with the deeply held conviction that his pain is all in the service of helping others find redemption and grace, Sheeran ends up old and completely alone with a wasted life behind him. He started with nothing and somehow ended up with less.

The filmmaking reflects this tone of somberly wasting away. There’s nothing flashy or sensational here. When the violence that’s always lurking beneath the surface of these types of films inevitably bubbles up, it’s just a matter of fact. Frank is told to kill someone. He does. He gets rid of the gun. He moves on. He never makes a single decision for himself. He exists solely to serve the whims of men who don’t care about him.

The characters have several discussions about Frank’s time as a soldier in World War II throughout the movie, and what’s interesting is Scorsese’s choice to only show a single scene from that era.

We see Frank standing over two enemy soldiers who are digging their own graves. In voiceover, Frank asks Russell why they do it. He wonders if it’s because they believe they’ll be spared if they dig the hole well enough.

And with one short scene in a movie that runs over twice the length of an average feature film, Scorsese tells us all we need to know about Frank and what makes him the man he is.

The tragedy that informs every frame of “The Irishman” is Frank’s inability to see that he’s a man trying to dig his own grave well enough to show his executioners that they don’t need to kill him when the reality of the situation is that none of it matters.

Old age is going to kill him without remorse the same way he did so many of his victims.

“It’s what it is.”

Last Minute Thoughts: The only real complaint I have about “The Irishman” is that the de-aging CGI wasn’t entirely convincing, but the actor’s performances are so good, I was willing to overlook it. Some day, effects artists will be able to perfectly replicate a human face. We just aren’t quite there yet.

I’m so happy that Pesci didn’t try to repeat his unhinged performances in prior Scorsese movies and instead played a character that exudes menace with a calm, cool demeanor.

Between “The Irishman” this year and “Roma” last year, I’m excited to see what intense, thoughtful drama made by an all-time great director Netflix releases next year.

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