Sophia Zhao

One of the darkest bits in the canon of Martin Scorsese’s films is the “Pretty Face” sequence in “Raging Bull.” Jake LaMotta, the paranoid, abusive boxer, sits on the edge of his bed as Vicky, his wife, is half asleep. “Tell me, you think of anybody else when I’m making love to you?” he asks her. She reminds him she loves him and denies that she called Tony Janiro’s face “pretty.” “You’re not thinking of him right now?” Jake accuses through his question.

The scene cuts to Jake’s next boxing match versus Tony Janiro, whom he pummels to near death. As the blood spurts out of Tony’s swollen face, the camera cuts to a shot of Vicky, who watches her husband’s victory march with a rattled, stony gaze. We see Jake again. He stares right into the camera, straight into Vicky’s eyes — and our own. And between two pulsing, bloodied fists, he smiles.

“He ain’t pretty no more,” the announcer sighs.

Scenes like this are what make Scorsese’s films so electric. His characters, though deeply broken, have an intensity that makes you sick to your stomach. But that intensity also makes his characters some of the most compelling to ever cross the screen. In his latest film, “The Irishman,” Scorsese channels a different kind of energy than that of his earlier films. “The Irishman” is a character study of Frank Sheeran, Russell Buffalino and Jimmy Hoffa. Like many of the characters in Scorsese’s other epics, the three antiheroes swing between different extremes of deception, betrayal and intrigue. What sets “The Irishman” apart is that the audience plays a far more active role. Indeed, of all the roles in the film, ours as viewers is the most disturbing and distinguishable. It’s because of our role that “The Irishman” is Scorsese’s most mature film yet.

Frank Sheeran is an Irish-American ex-soldier who lives in Philadelphia. His fortes are truck driving and following orders — qualities that quickly endear him to the top brass of the Teamsters union. Frank isn’t a typical Scorsese hero. He communicates his feelings through unblinking glares and pursed lips. Both Russell and Jimmy are unredeemable characters who use Frank as a cog in their own well-oiled schemes to consolidate political clout and make money.

But there isn’t much complicated about Russell and Jimmy. They call the shots. And they do so in a restrained “soft power” kind of way. So, it falls on Frank to show us how the human psyche is affected by getting caught in this crossfire.

To that end, Frank fell short. He’s a reserved man who doesn’t wax poetic or emote. Perhaps the only area where we see a genuine character trait in Frank is in his love for his friends. When he receives his service award from Jimmy and melts into a crinkled smile, we feel like we have a sense of Frank’s humanity. But it’s worth noting that the friends to whom Frank has such allegiance are cold-blooded killers — they’re embezzlers, ring-runners, extortionists, racketeers and frauds who win Frank over with petty cash and saccharine smiles.

One of the most telling moments of the movie was when Russell gives Frank a family ring and congratulates him on the award he had just received, purring, “No one can fuck with you. No one.” All right before he gives Frank his ultimate task: to tell Jimmy that the Teamsters have turned against him.

Since friendship is Frank’s guiding moral principle, it’s fitting that his emotional climax is his call to Jimmy’s wife the day after he kills him. Frank is drunk and ashamed, lying through shallow breaths that Jimmy would probably turn up. He’s a pitiful man, but, then again, we aren’t exactly compelled to pity him after all … Frank doesn’t have the explosions or breakdowns that make Scorsese’s characters feel human to us. We know Frank is a flawed man because of his actions, but we don’t feel how those hellish decisions affect him internally until the very end of the film.

It was unclear to me whether Pesci, Pacino and DeNiro were making conscious efforts to minimize the rowdiness so characteristic of Goodfellas, or if they simply couldn’t muster that energy anymore. There is certainly no lack of star power in “The Irishman,” but there was a marked lack of testosterone.

In short, the actors showed their age, and that made channeling the boisterous energy that flowed through early Scorsese movies difficult. Emotional weakness is much more unsettling to viewers when it’s plopped in Robert DeNiro’s 35-year-old muscly body. But when characters’ emotional weaknesses are mirrored in their physical weaknesses, their crises seem more logical, and their predicaments more justifiable.

In the first few days after seeing “The Irishman,” I thought this lack of energy was one of the film’s weaknesses. Now, I think that reserve added to the film and forced us as viewers to take a more active role in judging its characters.

Critics of “The Irishman” have called the film a study in redemption. But for Frank, redemption never comes. At least not on screen. It’s Scorsese’s direction of “The Irishman” that gives Frank his only fair shot at any kind of redemption. “The Irishman” is told from the perspective of Frank in his old age. Wheelchair ridden, Frank greets us in the first scene of the movie and starts to confess. The bookend to the film is a sober shot back to Frank, alone in his hospital room on Christmas. His friends are dead, and his family has axed him. His priest is on the way out as Frank asks him to leave the door open: “I don’t like the door closed, Father.” The last shot of the film is from outside Frank’s room. On an otherwise black screen, we peer in on Frank at his bedside table through his door, ajar.

Down to the very last scene, the whole film invites the audience to cast judgement on Frank. Directors often leave their films open to interpretation or judgement from viewers. But this is not what Scorsese does with “The Irishman.” Frank literally confesses to us. Scorsese leaves the door ajar and dares us to either open it or to nudge it shut. The genius of “The Irishman” is that the actual resolution of the film depends on our judgement as viewers. Scorsese’s film is as in your face as “Raging Bull,” but “The Irishman” is subtler. And it isn’t until viewers realize that Frank’s lot is much more in their hands than it ever was in his own that the tragedy of Scorsese’s film fully sets in.

Sammy Landino | sammy.landino@yale.edu