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‘The Irishman’: a down-to-earth flip of the gangster genre

Life is like a box of chocolates. Or, rather, life is like eating an entire box of chocolates in a single sitting; it’s all fun and games until you get to the end and suddenly regret every decision you’ve ever made.

That’s why movies like Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which is inspired by real events, exist — to remind us just how stupid, pathetic and unsexy we’re going to feel once this little life of ours is over or when we’re old and fat and sitting in a nursing home watching reruns of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” on a fuzzy 14-inch TV screen, so that just maybe we’ll be inspired to start living in a more purposeful way to avoid such a bleak end.

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The film is an honest, reflective and surprisingly profound swan song to the lineups of gangster films that have come to define Scorsese’s style and auteurial voice throughout his 50-year career — films that include 1973’s “Mean Streets,” 1990’s “Goodfellas” and 1995’s “Casino.”

Here, Scorsese’s usual posse of streetwise bad boys are back, albeit with whiter hair and achier bones, telling the story of Robert De Niro’s reserved “house-painting” hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran, as his relationship with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) leads him ever-deeper into the dark, seedy and inescapable black hole of the Philadelphia mafia. This eventually leads to the assassination and disposal of notorious union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). 

The bulk of the film doesn’t stray much from the tried-and-true formula that audiences have come to expect from a Scorsese picture. It’s a lot of blood and guts, Tommy guns and thugs in cars mumbling about nonsense while they prepare to carry out inhuman acts of violence on their fellow man — all strung together with jarringly sunny music and production design, as well as a million and a half allusions to very old, very avant-garde European movies that nobody except Scorsese himself could ever pick up on.

The performances given by De Niro, Pacino and Pesci are as fiery and intense as you would expect them to be given the actors’ track records. From a stylistic standpoint, everything in the film works beautifully, although it’s not anything unexpected or new.

The central storyline is a fun and entertaining synthesis of Scorsese’s previous three gangster movies. It’s the final, completed puzzle of which each earlier film was merely a piece. It’s a polished exposé of the gangster life — from the youthful exhilaration of the early “Mean Streets” years all the way through to the more cynical, fatalist reserve of “Casino,” when the romance of the organization has faded into nothing more than grim but inescapable reality.

It’s the film’s masterfully bleak final sequence, which sees the mobsters as crotchety old men confined to wheelchairs and walkers, reflecting on their lives, that makes ‘The Irishman’ such a unique and insightful addition to the gangster genre.”

However, this movie is not merely a formulaic recital of Scorsese’s previous work.

It’s the film’s masterfully bleak final sequence, which sees the mobsters as crotchety old men confined to wheelchairs and walkers reflecting on their lives, that makes “The Irishman” such a unique and insightful addition to the gangster genre.

All gangster movies are about death. And all gangster movies, to some extent or another, recognize the ultimate meaninglessness and futility of the kind of violence their characters carry out onscreen.

What Scorsese has done so brilliantly over the years has been to gradually expose how much clearer this meaninglessness makes itself known to the employees of this bloody business as time passes by.

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Each movie picks up where the previous one left off on its journey to the heart of the inherent, universal dilemma addressed by the gangster genre — why people continue to do wrong and act savagely when we know, inside and out, that what we are doing is wrong.

It’s this self reflection that sets Scorsese’s films apart. They aren’t just visually striking, anarchic pieces of cinematic brain candy that happen to fall into the crime genre, but meticulous dissections of themselves and the genre to which they belong.

Unlike their closest counterparts, the detective film and the Western, which gravitate toward the suggestion that law and order are the keys to our continued living, gangster films make the more radical suggestion that only preservation of one’s own survival, at any cost, can save us from this dog-eat-dog mortal coil.

They suggest that living is surviving, and surviving is living. It may not be pleasant, and it may not be pretty, but it’s all we can hope for.

The question that ‘The Irishman’ asks is: ‘What happens once you do survive?'”

Scorsese’s films have never accepted this conclusion, but have instead always sought to root out where their respective genres’ outlooks on life are flawed or more complex than their classic installments suggest.

Yet, despite his efforts, each of his films has ultimately ceded the same basic message — its characters have no choice but to stay in the mob because the mob is the only thing that guarantees their survival.

The question that “The Irishman” asks is: “What happens once you do survive?”

Whereas other mob movies end with their heroes still alive, still able to fight and still able to keep doing what they’re doing or else tragically cut down by the violent nature of their chosen career field, “The Irishman” sees its characters all the way through to their old age — all the way through to the goal they have been fighting, killing and cheating their way to accomplish: survival.

The film grants its characters their desire: the desire that has been the driving force behind celluloid-printed criminals since the days of James Cagney. It is the stark depiction of just how hollow and empty the goal of survival truly is that gives the film its power. 

Because what is survival, really, but simply death at the hands of nature rather than death at the hands of the mob, death at the hands of the law or death at the hands of any of the other number of things that these gangsters use as justification for their destructive behavior?

Thus, by seeing its characters through to their natural, inevitable end of life, “The Irishman” turns the whole gangster genre, and the attitude it proliferates, on its head. It reminds us that this need for survival, this desire to keep one’s self alive above all else, is ultimately meaningless if not achieved in a manner that is purposeful and that we can take pride in. In the end, we’re dead anyway, so devoting our lives to protecting our lives is a fruitless and futile effort.

While, from a stylistic standpoint, “The Irishman” is exquisitely executed but nonetheless standard Scorsese fare, the film’s brilliant subversion of its respective genre ensures it is a cinematic experience that will not soon be forgotten.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.

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