The Irishman ★★★★

A film almost entirely communicated in euphemism. Even the front title (borrowed from the novel), I Heard You Paint Houses, refuses to reveal its true meaning at first glance. Frank himself assumed it was a literalism when he first heard it. It wasn’t. The obvious reason for this alt-lingo is practical: bugging and surveillance are constant threats to men of this line (even I’m doing it), and the less they say ‘kill’ and ‘murder’ the less likely they’ll be done for facilitating or committing such deeds. But there’s more to it. As in Scorsese’s earlier gangster flicks – but most of all here – the world of Frank Sheeran represents not an opposite to the civilized hierarchies of civil society, but an adjacent. More chaotic on the face, perhaps, but founded on the same fundamental basis. The underworld, much like the overworld, is based on the premise of some kind of justice; a justice that does not then permit the constant contradiction of language. These are civilized men, and civilized men do not speak like warlords letting blood, but rather men among friends. Violent enforcement is the exception, not the rule: police brutality, military intervention, government agency suppression. These things are not represented as the markers of civility, but its (almost lamentable) defenders. The Ministry of War became the Ministry of Defence – a euphemism just as absurd as referring to murder as simply ‘that’. Scorsese’s film (almost custom-made for the tag ‘elegiac’) serves as a kind of deconstruction of this alternate society, one that reveals the violence and the betrayal, the contradiction that rests at its heart. The Irishman is not free of the romance that is implicit in Scorsese’s earlier treatments, but rather feeds that romance through a kind of self-perpetuating mythos. Scorsese speaks through the mouths of these men, not their opponents: this is what they believe about themselves. But their deeds and their words (however obfuscated those words might be) seem to phase from one another constantly. Frank (whose portrayal is still ludicrously sympathetic for a war criminal, murderer, and (worst of all, dramatically) a traitor) is not just the flashpoint around which the film unfolds, but a representation of hollowness. No matter how they say it, it’s all just talk.

P.S. The youngface digital effect, while very discomfiting in its initial appearance, is basically fine. Unfortunately it seems to work least effectively on De Niro (and very well on Pacino, perhaps owing to never seeing him undigitized), but much like the make-up Scorsese often compares the effect to, it eventually fades out of mind. One thing that such digital trickery cannot solve, however, is movement. The Irishman is luckily not an action film, but those few moments in which De Niro is required to get physical (such as his assault on the purveyor of a local corner shop) reveal an age contrary to his young appearance. We are perhaps used to old men moving young in cinema, but for old to play so much younger, that is untrod territory til now.