I miss classic gangster movies.
The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas and Casino, along with all the other odes to violent men and their adrenaline-fueled hedonism, first sparked my passion for cinema. Italian gangsters give off a peculiar warmth, or at least, they do on screen.
Sure, I’m saying this as another guy with a vague claim of Italian identity and a Goodfellas poster on the wall, but other ethnically defined criminal organizations are always depicted as colder, more intense, less lovable than the Italian mob; the sight of hardened criminals carefully preparing pasta in prison is ridiculously charming, their every action imbued with comedic exaggeration, whether they’re playfully slapping a friend on the cheek or kicking a victim into concussion.
On film, Italian gangsters are cool. The protagonists always slide into despair and isolation, eventually, but not before enjoying a wild, gloriously tacky life of debauchery and danger.
But great gangster stories are dead, and The Irishman officially draws the curtain. Here, Martin Scorsese completes his saga, getting the old gang back together for a poignant farewell to the dark, seductive fantasy of the criminal underworld.
It’s nothing short of a masterpiece, a reunion for the Holy Trinity of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, the three delivering powerful, nuanced performances, of men bound by their terrible choices, aging faster than they anticipated.
Pacino and De Niro have starred in a cluster of increasingly crappy movies over the last few years, while Pesci has been enjoying retirement, so it’s a treat not just to see the three reunited on screen, but to see them at the very top of their game, in a beautifully crafted, perfectly paced film.
Pesci’s subtle performance is particularly impressive, and in sharp contrast to his unhinged, wildly insecure characters that drenched Casino and Goodfellasin anxiety.
The world of organized crime has never felt less appealing, more hollow. Fulfilling the role of financial provider, offering violent solutions to minor problems, De Niro’s character assumes that he is taking good care of his family, unable to understand the value of emotional intelligence, that he’s separating himself from their love with every house he “paints.”He and his companions live under the shadow of death, the film constantly reminding us that the vast majority of these men will die violently, at the hands of their closest friends. The outrageous wealth, power and influence that they wield will fade fast, and they’ll succumb to the ravages of time just like everyone else; nobody wants to spend their twilight years behind bars.
I found the de-aging technology surprisingly convincing for the majority of the film, the slow, creaky movements of the actors being the main giveaway that they are no longer in their prime. But this is a story of squandered years, and it felt strangely appropriate that the three never emit youthful energy; they’ve grown old before their time. The final hour is incredibly compelling and emotionally intense, the poignant final shot dissolving any notion of gangster glamor; this is a sad, pathetic way to live, and none of the classic crime movies have ever managed to communicate that despair so effectively.
The golden age of gangster movies has been over for quite some time, and in the years that followed, there’s been a revaluation of the meaning of masculinity, of the values that society installs in their men. The flawed notion that a man’s role is to fiercely “protect” his family like a rabid dog, that feelings are flaws and that wealth is the mark of a successful man, is close to crumbling, and the waning relevance of the gangster seems to reflect that.
The Irishman feels like the culmination of years of reflection, a look back at a testosterone-fuelled time of twisted priorities, the last gasp of the gangster before he fades from the centre of the collective unconscious, and into the realm of nostalgia.