No Country for Old Men

Scorsese looks back in sadness with crime epic The Irishman

It seems, of late, that a new species of mournfulness has crept into our best art.

From the final albums by recently deceased songwriters Leonard Cohen and David Bowie to David Milch’s Deadwood movie and David Simon’s HBO series The Deuce, a wearied sense of loss and finality tints the proceedings — aging, death, cultural decline, a remorseful glance backward to what is being lost. 

Who knows? Maybe The Wild Bunch and Taxi Driver carried this same feeling of decline and finality for an earlier generation, and I suspect they did. And yet there’s a bittersweet taste of exhaustion to these current works that seem different and distinctly of these times. It’s got something apocalyptic about it, strummed in a minor key of grief and limping wounded toward mortal acceptance.

Go listen to Cohen’s “You Want It Darker,” and you’ll see what I mean.

No film of recent memory captures this elegiac quality quite so distinctly and with such burnished brilliance as Martin Scorsese’s latest, The Irishman. It’s a crime epic based on the real-life story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a trucker turned hit man for mobster Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and right-hand man to legendary Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

For my generation, as well as the generations immediately before, Scorsese was and is the bomb: If not the greatest director of his time, his name is well up there on the Olympian heights among legends like Polanski, Altman, Peckinpah and Kubrick. A good part of that greatness, if not its most elemental component, is his feeling for tragedy, American style.

From Mean Streets and Raging Bull to Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese has always been obsessed with the social and spiritual symptoms of our recklessness and hubris. He brings the sensibility of an Italian Catholic street tough to his bemused vision of what is most driven, and most cursed, in our national character. He is at once seduced and alarmed by the violence inherent in the alienated human soul longing for redemption, and his bemused expression of that brutality has made him the foremost poet of American crime and punishment. He is our Dostoyevsky.

In The Irishman, that brutality is so habitual and expected, so rote, that it becomes tired, a fait accompli that accomplishes nothing. The erratic, frenetic threat of violence that drove earlier Scorsese movies — always riddled with disgust, but also containing a kind of comic glee — has here gathered its full pointlessness. As in Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven, the means of violence indicate a poverty of spirit, an eruption of impotence in the face of fate, of history, of insoluble human tangles.

The violence, however, is not what drives this narrative; rather, it’s what happens between the whacks that make The Irishman so strangely compelling. Despite its historical sweep — which traces the rise of Sheeran from a mildly corrupt delivery driver to a gangster who played an integral though hidden role in the course of 20th-century politics — this film is a chamber piece for De Niro, Pesci and Pacino, a trio of bent and aged cinematic titans who lumber across the screen like twilit idols.

They lumber and bicker and bond in the most primitive and tragicomic terms. I dare you to find a moment of true profundity in the dialogue, which most of the time sounds like the chirping of adolescents or the gossip of a knitting circle. The juxtaposition between the hilariously banal banter and the monstrous acts of world-changing aggression is the film’s true strength.

The Irishman is an epic poem about damnation, and whether that damnation is captured in a doorway glimpse of De Niro’s old-man eyes as he reckons with his past, or the greater loss of an American innocence that was compromised from the get-go, it all lands with a gut-punch of cosmic sadness. Scorsese, now 77, injects this film with the vitality and verdict of his grief.

Like Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history,” Scorsese’s face is turned toward the past, where “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet… the storm is what we call progress.”

No, this is no country for old men, nor for anyone. But, for all its tragedy, the story of The Irishman is told with love — a grudging but expansive love, one that neither condemns nor praises but rather looks deep inside each character to find a strangled humanity. Scorsese has always revealed a strangled religious sense of slouching toward salvation, but here his narrative is downright ecclesiastical. All is vanity, and God brings the same rain down on the evil and the righteous alike. Nihilism is always peeking around the corner. So it goes.

So much talk of men, but I would be remiss not to note the always superb work of Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s lifelong editor and a huge, if generally unacknowledged, reason for his success as a filmmaker. The Irishman clocks in at three and a half hours, but thanks in part to Schoonmaker’s talent, it moves with economy and a deceptive sense of momentum. The film itself, like some gorgeous panoptic of decay, peopled by living ghosts, continues to haunt me long after the final frame. (Bijou Art Cinemas through Dec. 5; also available on Netflix)