I will never quite make my peace with things like the Academy Awards. Awards ceremonies of such a caliber invite us to imagine a world where there is aesthetic justice — where the “right” (in this case) film can win, and be recognized somehow definitively as “the best.” But they hardly ever pick the right one. When I was a kid, this really bothered me. Now that I’m an adult, I’m a lot more comfortable with it: part of the fun becomes the very way in which these ceremonies stand in contravention of what ought to be the norms of aesthetic justice, of making perversely terrible decisions just as stupid and arbitrary as everything that happens in the actual, non-aesthetic world (e.g. Green Book). And then every now and again they’ll do something like award Best Picture to an explicitly anti-capitalist movie from South Korea directed by a guy who very transparently doesn’t care about being recognized by the Oscars, and your faith in aesthetic justice can be restored.
But aesthetic justice (or its opposite) ought not only to be something we discuss in relation to the winners. This year, The Irishman was nominated in ten categories — more than any other film except Joker — and it didn’t win any. This makes it, in short, the biggest loser of this year’s Oscar night. And in terms of the justice of this decision, well, it’s an interesting case. Because The Irishman is one of those rare aesthetic works that is extremely and indeed brilliantly good, while also being very obviously bad. And not in a crude, “so-bad-it’s-good” sort of a way, where incompetence gives way to hilarity gives way to enjoyment. The Irishman is good precisely in its badness: there is no dialectic here from awfulness to brilliance, it is simply good for the exact same reasons it is bad.
The Irishman, for one thing, is far too long. Three and a half hours is a runtime few films are able to justify — and while The Irishman might be in the same “epic crime drama” genre as Once Upon a Time in America (four hours long and completely entitled to be so), it is infinitely less poignant and evocative. The storytelling — related by the elderly Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in flashback — feels repetitious, and takes ages to get going. The chronology often feels strange and warped, as if the film itself has forgotten where it is supposed to be going, and is bogged down by largely pointless tangents. At times the storytelling seems more to resemble that of prestige TV, where things are allowed to spin off to make some limited allegorical or character-development point, more than it does cinema — although of course you might just say that this makes Netflix seem like a pretty appropriate venue for its release.
But by the far the most obviously wrong thing about The Irishman is the way that its lead actors have been “de-aged.” In the run-up to the film's release, much of the anticipation surrounded its use of CGI de-ageing technology to allow lead actors De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci, all in their 70s, to play men who are (mostly) much younger than that: a process which added tens of millions of dollars to the film's budget.
The Irishman de-aging VFX before and after pic.twitter.com/SN6tZiAHwL— Samuel J. May (@sjmay92) January 11, 2020
And the effect, let’s face it, looks like absolute shit. When the technology is first seriously employed, De Niro is meant to be playing a man who as far as I can tell (from the plot) is supposed to be in his late 20s or early 30s, who is referred to by other characters as “kid” — but he looks, and moves, like a man in his late 50s with dyed black hair. It honestly took me a good twenty minutes to work out exactly how old the film wanted us to think the character was. As the film progresses, things don't get much better: Frank Sheeran stumbles through his whole life with the same hunched shoulders and stiff legs; the best you can say about him is that sometimes he has fewer wrinkles than you'd expect. The effect is less egregiously terrible when employed on Pesci and Pacino, but they're playing men who are already supposed to be middle-aged. The badness of the effect is distracting just in-itself, but even more so in scenes when the de-aged three are interacting with characters playing by actors who are roughly the right age: at times, The Irishman feels like one of those films where cartoon characters intermingle with characters played by real people, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Space Jam.
But in fact, it's a good thing that the de-ageing effect looks like shit. Because if the de-ageing effect had worked, then The Irishman would simply be a pretty plodding, overlong film about the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa and the complicity of organized labor with organized crime. But because the de-ageing effect looks like shit, The Irishman becomes a masterful meditation on memory and fate.
Here is a simple point about the de-aging technology, which struck me when I was watching the film and which I have also seen expressed elsewhere: The film is told in flashback. But when we remember something, we do not remember it as we lived it while it happened. What The Irishman understands is that when we remember something, we do this as we are now — which of course means our memories are subject to a distortion. De Niro’s Frank is an old man throughout, because that is who he is when he is telling the story. This also helps make sense of the film's narrative flaws: the rambling, Grampa Simpsonesque quality of its structure works well when we consider that it is happening almost entirely inside an old man's head.
Frank was always already the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa, even across the decades when Frank and Jimmy Hoffa were friends, he could have done no other.
And this also helps contribute to the profound fatalism that almost everything in The Irishman is suffused with. De-aging aside, one of the film's most prominent devices is its habit of flashing up details of the character's deaths, years from whenever the action is supposedly taking place. The message is clear: just as Sheeran, as a young man, always was the old man he is telling the story as, these other characters always were people who got shot in the early 1980s, or who died old and happy and surrounded by loved ones in the early 00s. Everything is pre-ordained: the film even shows Frank shooting Hoffa — in many ways its central event — in practically its first scene, although the audience is left in at least some doubt as to what exactly this scene showed until much closer to the end. In another early scene, as Frank and mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) head off on the road trip they are taking as (it transpires) they prepare to whack Hoffa, they pass the gas station where, decades earlier, the two first met — kickstarting Frank's life of crime. Frank was always already the man who killed Jimmy Hoffa, even across the decades when Frank and Jimmy Hoffa were friends, he could have done no other.
Russell, indeed, is in a way just fate personified: the ultimate authority of what everyone else ought, inescapably, to do. This much is established fairly early on in the film in a scene where Frank relates Russell's role in the Philadelphia mob: “Everybody listened to Russ. You wanted to bribe a judge, you asked Russell. You didn't know how much to bribe him, Russell was gonna tell you. You wanted to promote one of your guys, Russell would tell you if you could, or could not. You wanted to make someone disappear, you gotta get Russell's permission.” And yet, Russell also stands apart from any of the things his guys actually do. “And when you did something for Russ, you'd take care of it yourself” — Russell does not want any responsibility for anything to be laid on him. Later, when Russ tells Frank that his friend Hoffa has to go (whether as president of the Teamsters, or from this mortal coil), he simply says that Frank needs to tell him: “It's what it is.” Hoffa has no choice, the “higher ups” have decreed that Hoffa must go (never mind those higher-ups do in fact include Russell himself).
When you hear “fate” mentioned in an aesthetic context, of course, one's mind immediately goes to: “Greek tragedy.” If The Irishman is in any way a tragedy, then the great man at its centre is Hoffa, whose hubris in questioning Russell and the mob, and insisting on remaining head of the Teamsters, leads to his death and disappearance. As with most gangster movies, in The Irishman there is almost no crime — so long as one understands “crime” to mean something that violates the decrees of legal authority. The Irishman depicts the mafia as fully complicit in state authority, almost an arm of the state — just as the unions are. The mob's interests drive state policy, for instance the Bay of Pigs. Hoffa insisting on remaining head of the Teamsters, or Bobby Kennedy trying to prosecute the mob after his brother relies on them to rig the vote in Illinois, are both in a way far more “criminal” than any of the film's various murderers. Frank, meanwhile, simply goes along with how things are: he has faith in Russell, does what he is told, and is rewarded.
But this also means that Frank is unable to experience guilt for any of the horrible, violent things he has done, because like any dutiful concentration camp guard, he followed the law exactly. In one of the film's final scenes, a priest tries to get Frank, sitting in his room in a care home, to feel remorse for all the people he has murdered, but he can't. “We can be sorry, even when we don't feel sorry,” the priest tells him, and then advises him to publicly ask for God's forgiveness, as if the empty action might substitute for the feeling. But Frank doesn't. In another late scene, when he is talking to one of his daughters about the life he's led and how it's estranged most of his family from him, all Frank can do is babble about how there are “bad people” he needed to protect his daughters from — without at any point stopping to think that maybe he is one of those bad people too.
The religious themes the film presents towards its end raise inevitable parallels with Scorsese's last film, the similarly flawed and bloated and brilliant-in-its-badness Silence, about Portuguese missionaries in 17th-century Japan, at a time when Christianity had briefly flourished before being banned and harshly persecuted, forcing the so-called “hidden Christians” underground. In Silence, religious faith often means simply going along with what one is told to — for instance, publicly apostatizing from Christianity in order to save one's own life and that of one's fellow Christians — while holding in one's heart the opposite conviction. Ultimately, for Silence's protagonist Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), Christian faith means remaining in Japan, taking a Japanese wife and a Japanese name, and at death being burned in accordance with Buddhist rites. Like Rodrigues, Frank Sheeran chooses to acquiesce in the bad order of things. But the difference, of course, is that Frank is essentially a man without qualities: he has, seemingly, nothing inside him, which might persist in tension with his lack of resistance.
Perhaps we ought to think of this similarity as evidence of a sort of mystery that Scorsese, in his late work, is obsessing over. It is a question, I think, that we are ourselves exposed to all the time: nowadays, as the effects of climate change become ever more apparent, almost everything we do must be seen as in some way toxic, one small step closer to the complete destruction of all things. But of course we cannot just do nothing (for instance: we still need food and shelter to survive, even if getting them will lock us in the death-spiral). We must stand, then, somehow, in the bad, feeding off whatever nutrients the bad affords us, and act from there — on the basis of the bad, and thus to some extent according to the terms of the bad. We must then, like The Irishman itself (though not like its protagonist), find a way to be good in our badness. Only then can we hope to survive for long enough to change anything.
But when can this be justified — and when is our acquiescence in the bad simply a matter of destructive, short-sighted, resigned self-interest? Is the moral martyrdom of Rodrigues, living as a Buddhist scholar in Japan, really distinguishable from the stupid, selfish conformity of Frank Sheeran? I don't know what the answer is — and I'm not sure that Scorsese really knows either. But The Irishman's needlessly excessive run-time, and bad use of CGI de-aging effects, allows it to present this aporia. It is perhaps only unfortunate for The Irishman that this time, the world of the Oscars turned out to be more just than it usually is.