THE IRISHMAN starts with a very elderly Robert de Niro in a nursing home. It burrows away into all sorts of different timelines – scenes in the 1950s with a Kodachrome look, 60s with Ektachrome, 1970s with a silver layer, the 1980s and onward desaturated, the present-day scenes shot on film. And those scenes were on film because they didn’t require the extensive deaging computer effect technology used on the main characters throughout the film, in Scorsese’s most fascinating attempt to make a sweeping statement about time and aging.
The first nearly three hours of the film play out as a ‘typical’ Scorsese crime epic in the vein of GOODFELLAS or CASINO, apart from being periodically interrupted by de Niro narrating in the nursing home the film begins in. The nursing home framing device gives a real sense of unease and rudderlessness to the film that the heyday Scorsese crime epics lacked. What’s the point of everything, if the main character just ends up rotting away, all alone? That’s what the last half hour of the film focuses on, in a devastating rejection of the type of story Scorsese found so much success in telling. It’s not a reclamation of the crime epic genre, it’s a burial service for it. It all feels perverted…the extensive Steadicam shots Scorsese likes to use, like in the thrilling ‘taking his girlfriend to the club’ scene in Goodfellas, are here first used to winding through the nursing home.
The deaging technology looks good, but there’s still a sense of the uncanny to it, like the framing device is conferring a sense of unreality to the memories of de Niro’s character. It feels wrong, twisted, distorted. It’s perfectly executed; there are ‘typical’ crime epic scenes here that outdo Scorsese’s earlier films in terms of execution (it’s noticeable that the runtime doesn’t even exactly feel so much of a case of ‘meant to intentionally wear you down and make you dislike the debauchery’ like in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but in fact legitimately stays gripping all the way), but there’s always that sense of doom and lack of purpose to them. Where do they get the character? What matters in the end? In his old age, the main character is stunned that the legends of his life, the biggest events, the most important people, are all forgotten by the young. Everything he did was temporary, and in fact staved off the eternal (family, religion, principles).
People can say some of Scorsese’s earlier films, and adjacent sort of films (like Tarantino’s) condemn this or that, but there was always a sense of glorification by way of depiction. There’s nothing that can be confused in that way here, in the eulogy that is this film. Four and a half bits of bread, and some of the good grape juice.