In the beginning was the parody. My parents refused to let me watch violent movies when I was a kid, but they had no problem with me soaking up endless Simpsons episodes. And so I was introduced to The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, Scarface, the whole bloody pack, by watching their best moments bloodlessly spoofed by yellow-skinned, four-fingered humanoids.
Even when I didn’t know what was being parodied, it was easy enough to recognize the signs of a parody: rich orchestral music, unfamiliar characters beamed in from nowhere, the basic irrelevance of the set piece to the episode’s plot. One of my favorite Simpsons bits finds Mr. Burns trying to strong-arm the Springfield University admissions board by beating one of the officers with a baseball bat, à la Robert De Niro in the most famous moment from Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, itself a variation on the most famous moment from Nicholas Ray’s 1958 noir The Party Girl. Later, when I got into De Palma and Ray, I had all the pleasure of enjoying their films, plus the little eureka of finding out what had been buried in “Homer Goes to College” all along.
Discovering the allusiveness of pop culture is a rite of passage—not just for myself—that leads from The Simpsons to The Godfather, from “Through the Wire” to “Through the Fire,” from a face-value appreciation of the work to a cannier awareness of its place in the family tree of homages, send-ups and samples. When this happens, the work becomes less surprising in certain ways; in others it grows sturdier.
For some reason—perhaps because they’re often explicitly about families, The Family or both—gangster films seem uniquely enriched by our awareness of their lineage, an awareness that has a funny way of melding with the characters’. Watching the gangster epics Warner Bros. put out in the Thirties doesn’t merely decode The Godfather; our understanding of Sonny Corleone deepens, his outbursts start to seem like conscious or unconscious performances (surely he was a James Cagney fan) and we wonder if the mob was at least as influenced by Hollywood as Hollywood was influenced by the mob. David Chase kept this in mind when he was fine-tuning his script for The Sopranos in 1999. In the pilot, Father Phil asks Carmela what Tony thinks of Goodfellas. Christopher misquotes The Godfather and gets immediately, furiously corrected, as if he’s taken the Lord’s name in vain. Silvio is constantly trotting out his impression of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III: “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”
The Sopranos and Goodfellas, Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, The Godfather and Mean Streets, Scarface and The Untouchables: in the 21st century, every new organized-crime saga arrives late to the party, fully aware of the genre’s tropes and themes and clichés. The question is how to acknowledge that lateness, or whether it is wiser not to acknowledge it at all. The challenge facing the contemporary American gangster movie resembles nothing so much as the challenge that has always faced the American movie gangster: balancing old with new, accepting The Family’s traditions without becoming too burdened by them, adapting a tattered code to new technologies and mores.
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman acknowledges its own lateness in every scene. Its performers—De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel—headlined some of the most famous gangster films of the last two generations, and the sight of them in the same frame inevitably brings to mind their gory, hammy body of work. No less than The Sopranos or The Godfather Part II, their new effort is haunted by its predecessors. The long tracking shot at the film’s start floats through the halls of the nursing home where Frank Sheeran, played by De Niro, spends his last days, and the effect is like that of the “Copa shot” from Goodfellas with all of the neon glamor siphoned out, leaving behind only the dizzying lurches.
The Irishman has barely enough of a plot to fill its 209-minute run-time—this run-time being one of the two things you’ve heard about the film, if you’ve heard nothing else about it. In one sense, it tells the story of the Philadelphia hitman Frank Sheeran, who rose through the ranks to become personal bodyguard to Jimmy Hoffa in the twilight of his tenure as leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But plot does not quite propel the film forward, as it does in Scorsese’s other epics, Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. There’s little of the earlier works’ momentum, little of the thrill of learning how big, complicated scores work, little of the satisfaction that comes from seeing bad guys get their comeuppance. The Wolf of Wall Street is a three-hour movie that feels half that length; The Irishman’s three and a half hours feel, and are meant to feel, even longer than they are. That we have learned, by the end of the film, a huge amount about how corrupt unions function, and about exactly what happens to each of the main characters (including Hoffa, played by Al Pacino) does not change this. Plot is draped loosely over this film, betraying dark shadows and patches of startling, naked vulnerability.
Darkness and vulnerability find their ideal canvas in the septuagenarian face of Robert De Niro. Which brings us to the second thing you’ve probably heard about The Irishman: huge quantities of money and brainpower were spent on the technology that would allow De Niro (and Pesci, Pacino and Keitel) to look forty years younger. If certain critics are to be believed, Netflix should have spent much more. “The actors’ eyes look real, but their skin is just a tad rubbery and flat,” noted Stephanie Zacharek in Time. “Now and then I had to stave off a PTSD flashback to Robert Zemeckis’ Polar Express.” Fifteen years after Zemeckis’s animated folly traumatized America with its almost-human CGI characters, The Irishman seems to have thrust many viewers back into the uncanny valley.1
This could be taken as proof that the de-aging has failed—that “it’s not quite there yet,” as Matt Zoller Seitz wrote. It is difficult, on the other hand, to imagine this technology suggesting anything but the uncanny: you know you’re looking at a 75-year-old De Niro in a thirty-year-old body, whether or not the effects are “there.” How odd, then, that so many moviegoers—even after months of PR puff touting The Irishman’s digital trickery—seemed faintly disappointed that the special effects failed to fool them into believing they were watching a young De Niro.
Hung up on the uncanniness of The Irishman’s de-aged faces, critics have ended up ignoring the deeper uncanniness of The Irishman itself. The film evokes the usual tropes and plot points and yes, the faces of classic mobster movies, only to twist them into Cronenbergian shapes. Climaxes are delayed or dispensed with altogether, jokes are sledgehammered into the ground, tensions build so gradually you forget what got them started—in short, all the pieces of a mobster movie are here, but they’re distorted to the point where the results are recognizable and strange at the same time.
What goes for the film’s de-aging technology, then, goes for The Irishman in general: its not-quite-thereness is ultimately what makes it effective. The same was true of the final shot of Scorsese’s last narrative film, Silence, a sudden CGI-plunge through the priest-protagonist’s burial casket. It was absurd, but in a way that matched the film’s subject, the existential absurdity of faith. “Cheesy,” “unconvincing,” “tacky”—you might as well complain that the robin at the end of Blue Velvet isn’t a real bird.
In The Irishman, Scorsese eases us into this unfamiliar territory like a divemaster sinking deeper, letting our bodies adjust to the pressure. The first time we see De Niro, he is feeble, decrepit, remembering his life because he has nothing better to do. We jump back twenty years, to 1975, and De Niro’s face is flusher, tighter, but subtly so. Another ten minutes of screen time go by, we jump back another twenty years, and this time the digital polish is unmistakable: the face we see is snare-drum smooth, drenched in an airbrushed orange glow.
This slow transformation is crucial to one of The Irishman’s greatest pleasures: the sense it conveys of Scorsese competing with himself, straining to find something new in a performer he’s directed on and off for nearly fifty years. The first time he has Robert De Niro make the De Niro Face (you know the one), we’re some thirty minutes into the film. His character, Frank Sheeran, has found mobster mentors in Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), but now, a rival, played by Paul Herman, is trying to lure him away. They sit in a diner, Herman babbling away about his plans, what De Niro will have to do, how much of a cut he’ll receive this time around. And De Niro, young and green for the last time in the film, does nothing at all. The tips of his mouth tighten, the chin juts aggressively (or is it defensively?) forward, the right eyelid narrows a tad more than the left—nothing about his face is neutral, every muscle is coiled or puckered.
It’s the De Niro Face, and it isn’t. The whole is unmistakably digital, but all the parts are there, just as they’ve been since the early Seventies. To the best of my knowledge, the De Niro Face was first captured on celluloid some 67 minutes into Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom! (1970), during the famous “Be Black, Baby” sequence. De Niro’s character, a pervy milquetoast, Travis Bickle if he’d never gone to Vietnam, has been cast as a cop in an experimental film. Once the camera’s rolling he becomes, ex nihilo, a tyrant, his shyness electrified into lean, vulpine intelligence. In 1970, the transformation must have come as a surprise; seen today, we watch the sequence and think, “Ah, there’s De Niro.” A decade later, after The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull, the De Niro Face had become modern American shorthand for impending violence.
Such is the power of that shorthand that even in 2019, even after Little Fockers, Grudge Match, Dirty Grandpa and the Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin, it can still strike fear into filmgoers’ hearts. When I watched the diner scene in The Irishman, I tensed reflexively—whenever I’d seen that expression on De Niro’s face, something terrible had happened soon after. Here, something terrible does happen, but De Niro doesn’t exactly orchestrate it, even if he pulls the trigger. He’s rendered passive, killing whomever he’s ordered to kill. Scorsese holds the camera on De Niro a few seconds too long for comfort, long enough for us to take note of his incongruous blue eyes and fleshy cheeks, no trace of the young Vito Corleone’s jawline. The De Niro Face keeps its menace at the expense of its depth; it’s the mask this character dons when he’s unsure what else to do, a sign of desperation more than danger.
As the film rolls on, we’re given more iterations of the Face, each a little more desperate than the last. We see Hoffa offer Sheeran the presidency of a local union chapter. It’s obvious Sheeran wants nothing to do with the job—he knows he’s better out of the spotlight. But Hoffa is king, bigger than the mob, bigger even than the Beatles (bigger, transitively, than Jesus). How can he say no? And so, he says he’s not sure what to say, and makes the Face, which Hoffa takes as evidence that he can be persuaded. “I thought you would’ve said no. I’m glad you said yes,” he says, with what sounds like a sigh of genuine relief, and confusion flickers through De Niro’s eyes—he was allowed to refuse all along?
De Niro’s famous glower appears in The Irishman for the last time some 150 minutes in, with more than hour left to go. Sheeran has long since accepted the union presidency. Now he’s celebrating his retirement with a lavish banquet featuring his old friend Jimmy Hoffa as the star speaker. Not long into the festivities, Frank realizes his friend is going to be killed. “If They can whack a President, They can whack a president of a union,” Russell Bufalino tells him—and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop Them.
Square inch for square inch, De Niro’s expression is nearly the same in this scene as it was two hours ago, two decades ago, when Paul Herman approached him at the diner. But it seems different: almost all the menace and dreadful competence have evaporated, replaced with—what? Compassion? Pity? Fear? Nothing at all?
The final act of The Irishman is the one many gangster films imply but few see fit to show, something like the purgatorial last shots of Casino or The Godfather Part II, if they were plotless half-hour documentaries. Like Henry Hill, Michael Corleone and Ace Rothstein before him, Frank Sheeran escapes violent punishment for his sins, only to suffer the incalculably worse fate of dying slowly, humiliatingly, alone. Shunned by his family, he’s left to break bread with mobsters too decrepit to bite it and, after they croak, haggle over his own casket.2 The film’s last shot, of Frank marooned in the nursing home where someday a nurse will stumble over his lifeless body, lasts half a minute or so but seems ten times longer. After three and a half hours Frank is still a stranger to us, as he is to himself. That iconic, ubiquitous Robert De Niro, of all people, should embody such a character successfully feels something like a miracle, though there’s a kind of rough justice involved. What, for moviegoers raised on Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, could be uncannier than De Niro’s real, naked, 76-year-old face?
In its final half hour, The Irishman offers a painful imitation of life, but also something more metafictional and, at least for me, more personal. “Judging from much of the existing writing about Scorsese,” the critic Nick Pinkerton wrote in 2014:
you might get the impression that references to other movies exist in his films solely to create a version of the scavenger-hunt games on the backs of cereal boxes. Scorsese isn’t just overlaying his memory of film history onto stories of American life, however, but … showing the manner in which American public life is cinematic spectacle, a megaproduction in which we all imagine ourselves playing parts.
As Scorsese and De Niro have accumulated credits and awards, their work has become part of the American megaproduction. My father could quote every movie Scorsese ever made and did a mean De Niro Face to boot. Once he decided I was old enough for R-rated movies, a sizeable chunk of our relationship consisted of reciting bits from Goodfellas and Casino, repeating the lines until they felt safe, cheery, context-free. I wonder what he would have thought of The Irishman, where the repetitions and references serve to destabilize, leaving an unexpectedly bitter aftertaste.
I’ll never know, but to me, Scorsese’s newest film seems to reveal the quiet desperation that was always lurking beneath the American gangster movie, and beneath all the hardened antihero epics I gulped down in the tenth grade. If 21st-century pop culture at times feels like an edgeless, soulless map of references that points everywhere and leads nowhere, Scorsese in The Irishman tries to find the soul in that soullessness. We’re never asked to pity Frank Sheeran—we may if we choose, but it won’t do him much good. When we see De Niro for the last time, he looks like one of Francis Bacon’s paintings of the pope, petrified in his chair, incapable of understanding himself and, therefore, incapable of saving himself. His suffering feels as inevitable as an execution, as if it was always waiting here in this room for him to show up. Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Pacino and Keitel have created enough characters with this fate to populate a small town. Only fair that they should come together one more time to show us what was going on all along beneath their proud, quivering mugs.