Crucial artistic choices made by Martin Scorsese in “The Irishman,” starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, invite and reward the intimacy and the repetition afforded by a home viewing.
Having seen it both ways, I can attest that “The Irishman,” which I first experienced on the big screen, at its New York Film Festival première, is even more satisfying, even more thrilling, when viewed at home on Netflix. The reasons for my preference have to do with the specifics of the artistry and the choices of the director, Martin Scorsese, and also with the emotions and ideas that home viewing left me with. “The Irishman” is three and a half hours long, and, watching it at home, I took breaks for reasons other than banal practicalities: I found myself overwhelmed by feelings and thoughts and sheer beauty, and I often stopped the movie to savor the moment, back up a bit, and watch a scene again. Viewed this way, the movie stretched out closer to five hours—a day very well spent.
One reason for the pausing and the savoring is the majestic intricacy of the tale’s construction. “The Irishman” is the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who was, around 1950, a Philadelphia-based driver of a refrigerated meat truck for a supermarket chain. While hanging around in a tough-guys’ bar, he got inspired to steal sides of beef in order to ingratiate himself with a local gangster (Bobby Cannavale), and was then recruited by a big-time Mob boss, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), to do strong-arm work. A series of steps and missteps lead Frank to become a hit man (or, in the code of the trade, a “house painter”—think blood on the walls), and then the bodyguard and right-hand man to the labor leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who disappeared in 1975 and hasn’t been seen since (and Frank has something to say about that). The story (from a script by Steven Zaillian) is told in three ingeniously intertwined movements: the elderly Frank’s reminiscences from a nursing home, which give rise to two layers of flashbacks, one centered on a 1975 road trip that he took with Russell, and the other going back to his first meeting with Russell and moving ahead until it catches up with and continues past the 1975 events.
“The Irishman,” rather self-evidently, is filled with the subtle and deadly half-tone negotiations and whispered hints on which the bloodily decisive realm of the Mob is formed. The real-life Hoffa (as the movie makes clear) was a major political and cultural figure of the time, the head of the Teamsters union and a crucial player in both gangland politics and the actual practical politics of the day, and the movie’s key through line is the inseparability of those two realms. “The Irishman” is a sociopolitical horror story that views much of modern American history as a continuous crime in motion, in which every level of society—from domestic life through local business through big business through national and international politics—is poisoned by graft and bribery, shady deals and dirty money, threats of violence and its gruesome enactment, and the hard-baked impunity that keeps the entire system running.
Yet on a second viewing—and a closeup one—the grim political implications of the story took a back seat to its near-metaphysical ones. Scorsese presents not merely one skein of interlocking scandals but an existential vision of society, the very immoral essence of humankind, looked in the face and wearing suits. “The Irishman” struck me, this time, as the most perversely secular of Scorsese’s religious films (or vice versa), as a mighty fresco of temptation and damnation—and, as such, a companion piece to the best of Scorsese’s later films, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” from 2013. That wild ride, about a financial fraudster’s rise, fall, and scaled-down return, ends with one of the most ingenious scenes in the modern cinema, one that turns the movie’s themes of greed and desire around to implicate the audience, the public at large, in its consuming frenzy. In “The Irishman,” Scorsese does something similar, and he does so by way of a set of gestures that play an exceptional and forcefully significant role in the drama and, above all, by way of a character who, in the sweep of the action, seems diminished by its emphases—yet who, in home viewing, with the power of the proximity to a smaller screen and the power to rewatch, comes devastatingly to the fore.
The gesture is silence—specifically, the silent gaze—and the character is Peggy, one of Frank’s four daughters with his first wife, Mary (Aleksa Palladino). Peggy is played as a child by Lucy Gallina and as a teen-ager and an adult by Anna Paquin. Much has been made of the fact that Peggy, who’s prominent throughout the film—and whose ultimate rejection of Frank is a wound that he never gets over—has very few lines of dialogue. That’s certainly true; the question of what purpose Peggy’s (relative) silence serves is something else altogether, and that purpose, that context, and the extraordinary role that Peggy plays in the movie’s thematic web struck me when I watched “The Irishman” at home. What’s more, the spotlighting of Peggy results from crucial artistic choices made by Scorsese that particularly invite and reward the intimacy and the repetition afforded by a home viewing.
Early in the film, sometime in the late nineteen-fifties, the young Peggy is at the center of a sequence that scars her for life. After she accidentally made a mess in a corner grocery story, the grocer shoved her. Learning of this, Frank takes Peggy by the hand, brings her to the store, and, so that she can see, pushes the grocer through his own glass door and kicks him in the head and repeatedly stomps on his hand, audibly breaking it—on the sidewalk, in front of Peggy and other passersby who look on in mute horror (and it’s quite certain that their horror will remain mute, because they know what they’d get for snitching).
Peggy’s own sense of horror is manifested, soon thereafter, in her aversion to the cagey and calculating Russell, who’s a frequent presence in the Sheeran family (and whose increasingly transparent efforts to ingratiate himself with her grow all the more hopeless). Her sense of principle is displayed in her affinity for Hoffa, who also spends time with the family, and whose public role as a labor leader whose celebrated achievements for Teamsters members (wage increases, pensions, medical benefits) endear him to her (as does his expansive personality). She doesn’t talk much—not in Frank’s presence, and it’s never clear what she has to say when she’s not around him. But it’s pretty clear what she thinks—and, above all, what she knows.
Peggy not only knows that her father and his associates are violent monsters; she is a sharp observer, who is present at key moments throughout the film and who detects and discerns—even more than do other gangsters, let alone union officials, politicians, and law-enforcement officers—what’s being planned behind the scenes and what will ultimately be done with deadly and devastating effect. She isn’t just sitting on the sidelines looking frontally but askance at the ruthless and violent people in her midst; she is one of them. No, she’s certainly not violent. But she has the same temperament—the same insight, the same steely clarity of observation, the same acumen—as they do. (There’s a crucial banquet scene that she dominates without saying a word—she solves it visually, as if it were an equation.)
Her powerfully penetrating gaze, however, isn’t alone; it’s not in dramatic isolation. Rather, Peggy’s silences are merely the counterpart of other silences. The crucial moments of understanding in “The Irishman,” the crucial bond of trust between the criminals at its center, are moments of silence—and Peggy’s silences are of exactly the same kind, exactly the same caliber, exactly the same level of insight as Frank’s and Russell’s silences, as well as those of other gangsters whose communications must take place in code and in silence for the purpose of legal deniability. (Even the euphemism of “house painting” suggests the deceptions at the story’s core.)
Peggy is aware; she is part of the same regime of power—the regime of silence—as Frank and Russell. Hoffa, by contrast is different—he is the opposite of silent—not only is he a literal speechmaker at the rostrum, he’s a running-off-at-the-mouth talker in private, in one-on-ones and “business” meetings. Peggy isn’t merely enticed by Hoffa’s political rhetoric; she has confidence in him precisely because he’s different—because he’s a talker. Though Frank tells, in a voluble voice-over and an on-camera narration, the story of his life and his, um, work, the crucial moments between Frank and Russell, the ones in which the hit man gets an assignment, are silences.
It’s worth watching “The Irishman” for these silences; seen at home, they resound mightily. One of the moments that forges the bond between Frank and Russell involves Frank’s telling of his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War, fighting in Italy; there, too, he explains, a code of silence prevails—and leads to bloody outcomes. The movie’s silent gazes—whether the fearful silence that protects criminals whose retaliation would be devastating, or the loyal silence of criminals protecting each other, or the symbolic silence of criminals communicating with each other—are sublime to observe, and they’re the mark of Cain.
Peggy’s silence, too, is a grim and tainted one, which she finally breaks—briefly, decisively, judgmentally, essentially, prosecutorially, and to devastating effect. Her ultimate rejection and repudiation of her father and his world is more than merely practical—it’s a sort of monastic renunciation. Endowed with the same talents, the same smarts, the same audacity as Frank, Peggy chooses the workaday life that he gave up for a life of crime. It’s depicted as a life behind glass, cut off from human contact. It’s as close to a repudiation of society at large as a functioning member of it can pull off. (For a further mark of the existential drama underlying the political, historical, and familial one of “The Irishman,” trace out the obsessive repetition of the line “It’s what it is.”)
Scorsese clearly knows the power of these silent gazes—and the essential silence of implacable power. He knows their historical role in the history of cinema, and he brings them to the fore, making sure that they register with the viewer. (The movie’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, has brilliantly honed these moments into razor-edged glints.) He does so, above all, in a scene (I won’t spoil the specifics) in which Russell orders Frank into a high-stakes and risky mission. The meeting takes place in a motel restaurant, in an early-morning quiet, and, at the decisive moment, Frank, who is staring intently at Russell, flicks his gaze straight into the camera; he does it again a few moments later. The gesture has the same cataclysmic power as the collective look into the camera of the striving and yearning crowd at the end of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” except that in “The Irishman” it’s not a look of desperate ignorance but of desperate knowledge—and of unfathomable solitude, the closest thing to a spiritual trial of which he’s capable.
The telling details that overrun the sweeping narrative of “The Irishman” are all the more conspicuous, all the more thunderous, when watching the movie at home. Scorsese—consciously or not, but nonetheless conspicuously—has composed the film to reward repeated viewings—and, for that matter, to reward the kind of closeup, hands-on intimacy that laptop-watching affords. The movie places enormous weight on visual asides, of a sort that haven’t dominated Scorsese’s previous work. “The Irishman” isn’t a work of television; it’s a feature film, but one that, having been made for a studio that’s mainly in the business of streaming, derives particular benefits from the streaming experience.
Only Netflix was willing to spend the money that it took to make “The Irishman” as it needed to be made—namely, with elaborate digital technology applied to De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino, so that they could play roles ranging over decades. (Scorsese is one of the great digital artists of the time; this film, no less than “The Wolf of Wall Street,” depends on digital technology and uses it more audaciously than anyone else does.) The decision does more than make sense; it’s definitive. The movie is populated by actors who, like the protagonists, are marked by the selfsame moments in history, the identical forces, the same tones and moods as the ones that it dramatizes; it turns the movie into a virtual documentary. “The Irishman” is a film of fear, of terror. It’s not merely a fear of the deadly threats of ruthless criminals but, rather, a fear that, by functioning and being shaped by a world dominated by such criminals, we are inescapably sharing in their sin. It’s a movie made by a filmmaker who fears not only for society, not only for humanity—but also for his soul.