The Age of Innocence: Savage Civility
A camera dollies down a hallway into the interior of a nursing home: the opening of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) prompts a foreboding that seeps into all that follows. The Five Satins’ 1956 doo-wop classic “In the Still of the Night,” which starts up on the soundtrack, can only be the distillation of someone’s by now long-lost youth (“I remember / That night in May”). But it has never sounded more dirgelike than when underscoring this irresistible forward glide, past walkers and wheelchairs and religious statuary, into the place where no one wants to go, the space where life narrows to its minimal elements.
This propulsive advance reprises, in ghostly fashion, a memorable earlier Scorsese sequence, the extended Copacabana shot in Goodfellas (1990), with Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco striding into the side entrance and through the back corridors and kitchen to emerge in the heart of the nightclub, shown to the choicest ringside table in the capital of glamour. That was a triumphant moment of total accession to power and pleasure, perfectly encapsulating the perverse exuberance that animates at least the earlier episodes of Scorsese’s most widely appreciated fresco of mob life. The Irishman plays back a skeletal form of it by way of final entry into the place where time stops and glamour evaporates.
The camera keeps going until it finds what it is looking for, the bulky figure it approaches from behind, taking close notice of the ostentatious gold ring and gold wristwatch on his left hand, as it circles around to settle on Robert De Niro’s aged face in close-up: the lips turned down as if settled into a permanent frown, the eyes likewise cast downward behind tinted lenses, an old man lost inside himself. When this wheelchair-bound Ancient Mariner starts to speak, it is in a voice unfazed by the violence of the tale he tells, having fully absorbed the lesson of 411 days of World War II combat: “Whatever happens, happens.” The story will unfold at the stolid, unemphatically relentless tempo of a semi carrying an exceptionally heavy load. Frank Sheeran, ex-infantryman, ex–truck driver, ex–Teamsters official, ex–hit man, ex-convict, delivers himself of what he needs to say in a tone beyond passion—perhaps there never was any—and even beyond resignation. He persists, unquietly.
He starts out as if intending to explain the history of the world to someone too young to understand anything about it, someone like he once was: “What did I know?” In its way the film does deliver a history lesson, weaving in the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943, the Bay of Pigs, Watergate, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999: public events seen here from peripheral angles implying hidden levels of corruption and influence. Along the way we are served up a primer on mob penetration of organized labor, with sidebars on ballot stuffing, pension-fund looting, jury tampering, the proper choice of firearm for an assassination.
“The core of The Irishman is a series of intimate exchanges, one-on-one encounters, small transactions, soundings out—a constant redefining and reassertion of permissions and limits.”
“Frank’s situation is that of a man who has been permitted to live a life exempt from moral decisions while enjoying the illusion of affectionate camaraderie and paternal love.”
The feeling of freedom in this swooningly beautiful blend of melodrama and romantic comedy speaks to director Frank Borzage’s belief in the invincibility of love.
By marrying the glamour of golden-age Hollywood to a quicksilver formal daring influenced by a wide range of artists, the Hong Kong auteur became one of the coolest and most beloved filmmakers in the world in the 1990s.
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