- Film & TV
- 22 Nov 19
Scorsese delivers masterful exploration of American masculinity
There’s a fine line between thematic consistency and redundant repetition, and Martin Scorsese is one of the few filmmakers who has continued to explore familiar terrain whilst offering fresh insights.
While Scorsese’s new film The Irishman, adapted from Frank Sheeran’s much-questioned memoir, tackles many of his beloved themes like power, corruption, loyalty, and guilt, the movie is propelled by an awareness of time, mortality and growth. As the elderly Sheeran (Robert De Niro) recounts his decades-long relationship with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), Frank’s ruminations feel like the preoccupations of a man Scorsese’s age.
But the director has also embraced growth and modern developments, both through his collaboration with Netflix, and his use of new digital de-ageing technology so that his story can span decades. Though initially distracting, the technology allows Scorsese to reckon with the questions that emerge from a lifetime in America: seeing World War II; the assassination of presidents; and a country built on violence and corruption.
It also examines an idea of masculinity that emerged from military life: be taciturn, be loyal, kill your enemies, never express feelings about it. Is it any wonder, Scorsese asks in this suitably icy film, that these men returned from war to lives filled with efficient violence, disposable relationships, and self-serving quests for money and power?
The three leads put in superb performances. Pesci brings a surprising paternal gentleness to Bufalino, perhaps a luxury of the violence he oversees but doesn’t personally inflict. In contrast, Pacino lets his loud, bombastic tendencies run wild to great effect as Hoffa, capturing the young gangster’s charismatic ego, followed by delusional desperation as he loses control of his union. Caught between these two powerhouses’ loyalties and agendas, De Niro has rarely been better. He brings a quiet stoicism to Frank, coldly trying to do what he was told made a man.
Undoubtedly, the run-time is indulgent. And diversions about countless mob members leave less space for a quietly devastating subplot about Frank’s damaged relationship with daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin).
Still, the film is beautifully edited, moving from a violent portrait of tough men into a character study of loneliness and old age – but never quite remorse. Sheeran’s blood runs too cold for that. But Scorsese’s passion, skill and desire to push himself still burn bright.