Dead space, empty time, and the negation of storytelling in The Irishman


Maybe thirty seconds into this film De Niro’s quietly mumbling voiceover becomes a quietly mumbling soliloquy — he gets away with it because there’s no story to tell exactly, no way to form it, and no one listening. The director has used narration and direct address to the point that it’s something like a signature thing for him, but here the simultaneity of action and reflection works in constant negation of storytelling itself, presenting everything as just talking or silence, every event an echo of something that happened long ago. This is significant, an embedded narrative voice devoid of rhetoric. The resulting film operates in this unnaturally dark suspended space where everything’s already over and maybe it never was. Nothing ever rises to be used in the active voice; it remains instead in an icy clarity that no one can take responsibility for or say anything about. It’s an archive of pointless death that instead of being either exciting or clinical just aches on either side of violence’s eruption.

For all its efforts detailing the politics of its underworld and the way they tangle with world events, the body of the film maintains these borders for a peculiarly hushed kind of intimacy. The idea it has is once it’s over it’s over — these people were all ghosts before we ever heard their names, and now they’re the burden of a single dying keeper. Frank roams around the empty corridors of his head pretending if he could remember it all enough it could be present again, but can’t for the life of him figure out what the present would look like if that was made possible. As a narrator or custodian of the past he always feels himself drifting out of step, like an observer even when he’s at the centre, someone actively remembering their friends and family as though they’re already deceased from a hospital at the end of the world. The de-aging effects enforce the futility of the project, betrayed by the hobbling bodies they dress, and the colour grading has everything look like an animated postcard, a (Norman Fucking Rockwell) vibrant yet restrained palette, discoloured and retouched. It’s the past without the romance of nostalgia, an empty time bereft of meaning that as it closes cannot argue that it was ever for anything. Everybody’s dead we’re told but this is all he’s got, any connection to the real world is lost. It’s supposed to be Christmas outside but in The Irishman it can’t be — time here just doesn’t move like that.

For all that he drifts through dead time thinking he’s alone Frank’s project of remembering is interrupted by an observer: the only living member of the story. De Niro wears a pointlessly stoic expression but every closeup reveals his always weeping eyes, evidence of an ongoing exchange between him and the one who sees him but can’t bear it — Peggy. In the film’s best performance Paquin’s open face and burning eyes accompany every reflection without ever submitting to the aesthetics of his empty nostalgia: they ask this is what you remember, this is what you did, and this is how you’re telling it?. And Frank’s got nothing. He wants to talk, we know this, but talk about what? What could he say? The story’s over before it starts, it’s just violent echoes ricocheting through time until time’s over and it’s all gone. The overlays detailing how particular people died only lap at what their screen-representations already maintain which is that there is only death here. Discussing colour as a motif has always struck me as petty and self-evident but it’s worth it here for another form of cinematic undoing. Through its exceptional sets, costumes, and grading the film exists entirely in its images and its images are also the stage for its mortality: complimentary teals and maroons vibrate in the darkness but really it’s the way Frank picks his own coffin the colour of Peggy’s dress that does it, not because it rises to signify anything but because in The Irishman it can’t.

I’ve never cared for a Scorsese gangster picture but this one really fucked me up.

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