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With Netflix’s ‘The Irishman,’ Martin Scorsese is still cinema’s greatest risk taker

Martin Scorsese
Filmmaker Martin Scorsese is a scholar, critic, advocate and conscience for his medium.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

In a recent New York Times editorial that he surely wishes he hadn’t had to write (though I’m deeply grateful that he did), Martin Scorsese put his finger on what he considers Hollywood’s most dispiriting change over the last 20 years: “the gradual but steady elimination of risk.”

Not even Scorsese’s toughest critics — and they have been particularly vocal of late, for reasons we’ll get to shortly — would deny that he knows of what he speaks. However you define risk in contemporary Hollywood moviemaking — moral ambiguity, unsympathetic characters, a story not adapted from material with a built-in fan base — his work positively teems with it and always has. Like many filmmakers who flourished in the ’70s, often hailed as American cinema’s nerviest decade, Scorsese, in movies like “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver,” seemed intent on pushing a commercial medium to ever darker, edgier extremes.

Scorsese has evolved in the years since, but he hasn’t mellowed. His staggeringly rich output from this decade alone is predicated on a bold mix of conceptual daring and visual extravagance. There are many ways to characterize a body of work that includes an elaborate 3-D children’s fantasy about the importance of film preservation (“Hugo”), an old-dark-house thriller set in the labyrinth of the subconscious (“Shutter Island”) and a nearly three-hour boardroom bacchanal (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), but “safe” and “unimaginative” are not among them.

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For Scorsese, a filmmaker with nothing left to prove, the risk has become its own reward. In an industry that seeks out sure bets and safe material, he continues to swing for the proverbial fences, as if he knew that he couldn’t achieve greatness without entertaining the possibility of failure. A Scorsese picture can risk your impatience, discomfort and anger, but also your exhilaration and awe. In the end his risks feel like a deep expression of faith, namely his faith in the medium and the audience.

Which brings us naturally to “Silence,” his haunting 2016 drama about a Jesuit missionary adrift in 17th century Japan, which is all about the risks that faith can demand if not always reward. The movie, which grossed less than $10 million in the U.S., was a flop by any commercial standard. It also strikes me as a career-crowning triumph: the culmination of a decades-long effort to wrest Shusaku Endo’s great novel to the screen and the fullest, most anguished expression of the spiritual doubts and convictions that have long animated Scorsese’s life and his art.

And “Silence” somehow seems even richer when considered alongside the superb new gangster drama “The Irishman,” which is now streaming on Netflix concurrent with a limited theatrical run. Together these twin masterworks represent a culmination of nearly everything Scorsese has been doing for the past 50 years, even if the visual and thematic echoes that unite them are not fully apparent until their final moments.

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Robert De Niro in the current Martin Scorsese movie “The Irishman.”
(Netflix)

At the end of “Silence,” the Portuguese priest Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) has renounced his faith, fearing it would sow only great suffering and persecution among his Japanese converts. At the end of “The Irishman,” we are alone with the Teamsters official and professional hit man Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), forgotten and abandoned after a life squandered in service of the Mafia. Both men seem defeated and bereft, and we are effectively accompanying them through their last rites; a reckoning of sorts is clearly at hand.

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Each man once belonged to a professional order, a calling with strict rituals, honor codes and impossible demands. And each man ultimately faced a grave moral test, a crisis of conscience that led him to commit a soul-crushing betrayal. Rodrigues has given up Christ, his lord and savior; Sheeran has betrayed Jimmy Hoffa, his colleague and friend (at least in this movie’s imagined version of events). We see Rodrigues cremated in a casket, still clutching a tiny crucifix, an emblem of the Catholicism he outwardly abandoned. We leave Sheeran languishing in a Philadelphia retirement home, fondling a gold ring — a shiny, useless token of his life of crime.

More than a few of Scorsese’s films have concluded this way, with an image of a man — once ambitious and vain, now troubled and thwarted — staring his destiny in the face and seeing something altogether different from what he had once envisioned. Think of Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” reeling from a criminal career that has come to a dizzying end, or Sam Rothstein in “Casino,” ending up right back where he started (“and that’s that”). Or Jake LaMotta with his boxing days behind him in “Raging Bull,” peering into a mirror that reflects a stranger back at him.

The fact that De Niro played two of those men, and many more besides, makes the coda of “The Irishman” even more piercing in its futility. This is a movie whose ferocious wit and boisterous energy are slowly but surely subsumed by loss, tragedy and horror; if it does not quite rebuke the vicious exuberance of Scorsese’s earlier crime classics, it at least recasts them in a chilling new light. The shadows gathering outside Sheeran’s doorway will soon swallow him up, plunging the screen into a darkness that is synonymous with death.

Death is hardly a new subject for Scorsese, who is still most associated with (and often wrongly reduced to) his great, genre-defining gangster pictures. But his fascination with death both complements and sometimes obscures his larger fascination with life. How do we live? What do we do with the scant time we are given? These questions haunt more than few of his characters, including Ellen Burstyn’s widowed singer in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” anxiously pursuing a second chance at life with her son. And the doomed lovers in “The Age of Innocence,” silently contemplating what it would mean to break the rules that govern their strict social order.

To watch any of these pictures is to be astonished anew by the depth and reach of Scorsese’s obsessions, his passionate engagement with saints and crooks, God and money, duty and desire, good and evil. There are not too many living filmmakers who could explore the inner lives of a devout priest and a dutiful killer, and root them in the same powerfully coherent moral vision. With the passage of time, that vision has only come into clearer focus. Scorsese’s camera, which he once flung about with bad-boy bravado, now floats with an almost otherworldly calm. He confers the same attention, a kind of benedictory grace, on the lost and the found alike.

Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson in “Silence.”
Andrew Garfield, left, as a priest weighing the cost of his faith in the Scorsese movie “Silence,” opposite Liam Neeson.
(Kerry Brown / Paramount Pictures )

Scorsese, who turned 77 this month, casts as long a shadow this year as he ever has. “The Irishman” is his second Netflix title of 2019, after his dazzling concert documentary “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.” But his reach extends well beyond his own work as a director. Always a generous supporter of other filmmakers’ work, he has lent his name as an executive producer to several outstanding independent dramas this year, including Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” Kent Jones’ “Diane” and Josh and Benny Safdie’s great rush of a crime thriller, “Uncut Gems,” an upcoming release that feels narratively and stylistically indebted to Scorsese’s New York.

His aesthetic influence is even more palpable in Todd Phillips’ dark and divisive “Joker,” which an uncredited Scorsese was involved with in its early stages. There is no small irony in the fact that, in reverse-engineering a tortured origin story for a classic comic-book villain, this movie explicitly references and even mimics “The King of Comedy” and “Taxi Driver,” in part by featuring De Niro in a key role. Even the intense (and mercifully unfounded) speculation over whether “Joker” might trigger real-world copycat crimes seemed to echo the outcry that greeted “Taxi Driver” following its alleged role in one man’s psychotic violence.

The more vocal detractors of Phillips’ movie have denounced it as a pale Scorsese imitation. (There are certainly worse things a movie could be.) But whatever you think of “Joker” — even if, like me, you consider it unexpectedly trenchant, thought-provoking cinema — it is dispiriting to think that a major studio these days would never have greenlit such a dark and nihilistic ’70s-style character study if it weren’t tethered to a recognizable comic-book property.

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A movie that tips its hat to the cultural significance of Scorsese’s work even as it exemplifies the franchise-minded tendencies of the system that he has decried of late (a “Joker” sequel is reportedly in the works) is the kind of contradiction worthy of the director himself. And it cuts to the heart of a global industry-wide debate over art and commerce, cinema and technology, that Scorsese has become deeply embroiled in, in ways that only someone who cares profoundly about the medium’s future could.

The feather ruffler

There is something both extraordinary and strangely reassuring about the fact that, five decades into a career that has earned him countless accolades and a permanent place in the auteur pantheon, Scorsese still has a talent for making people angry. This hardly counts as an original insight. More than a few people observed as much upon the 2013 release of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” his incorrigible Rorschach blot of a movie about the white-collar crimes of Jordan Belfort and other titans of coke-snorting capitalist excess.

Was it a cautionary indictment of one-percenter decadence or a bloated celebration of it? For that matter, was “The Last Temptation of Christ” a profound assertion of Jesus’ humanity or a desecration of his divinity? Did “Taxi Driver” denounce sociopathic male bloodlust or inflame it (or both)? Is Scorsese a critic or a purveyor of violence? A denouncer of toxic masculinity or a run-of-the-mill misogynist? How could “Rolling Thunder Revue” be a documentary when it’s a pack of lies? And while we’re at it, where do you stand on the rat in the final shot of “The Departed”?

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Robert De Niro, from left, Al Pacino and Ray Romano in “The Irishman.”
(Netflix)

To this pileup of questions we can now, of course, add the most headache-inducing one of all: Is Scorsese right or wrong about Marvel movies? That was the issue that launched a thousand Film Twitter arguments after the director, in an interview with Empire, answered a question about Marvel’s phenomenally successful line of comic-book adaptations. He responded that he did not consider these movies to be cinema: “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks.”

Scorsese was neither the first nor the harshest member of the filmmaking community to offer an unflattering assessment of the Marvel enterprise. In that subsequent New York Times editorial, which he wrote to explain and elaborate on his position, he took care to praise the “considerable talent and artistry” evident in much franchise filmmaking, even if the films themselves weren’t to his personal liking. But I think there’s a reason why his temperate, well-reasoned remarks enraged so many who read them, even as they struck some of us as nothing short of superheroic. And it has everything to do with the figure of Scorsese himself and the ambivalence of an industry that has never known whether to embrace or reject him.

Scorsese’s career contains sweeping multitudes and endless contradictions. He has long been one of America’s most revered directors but also, for much of his career, a perceived Hollywood outsider. He is a household name and a mainstream favorite, but also an implicit rebel within the system; he’s made several popular hits but never a sequel, let alone a franchise. He is world cinema’s most dogged advocate (and founder of the invaluable World Cinema Project, which has brought new exposure to the work of great auteurs like Edward Yang and Ousmane Sembène) and film preservation’s greatest poster boy.

He is, in short, an individual whose good opinion matters a great deal to members of the industry, though if denied that good opinion, they will not hesitate to make their displeasure known.

Something about that last sentence seems oddly familiar. Let me put it more bluntly: Although he is not a professional reviewer — and has had his own work raved about and panned numerous times by professional reviewers — Scorsese is also, in every sense that matters, a critic. He is an enthusiast, to be sure, but his sensibility is analytical, connoisseurial, encyclopedic. And whether or not you agree with his classification of Marvel movies as something other than cinema (and I think there’s room for argument), it represents the fulfillment of one of the critic’s more nuanced responsibilities: not issuing a condemnation so much as drawing a distinction.

Certainly there is nothing that he has said about Marvel movies that critics — including those of us who, unlike Scorsese, have enjoyed our fair share of Marvel movies — have not already been saying for years. But where the industry likes to feign indifference to the opinions of critics, it clearly can’t do the same with Scorsese. He has a much louder and more authoritative megaphone.

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Robert De Niro, left, appears opposite Joaquin Phoenix’s title character in “Joker.” Uncredited, Martin Scorsese was involved early on.
(Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros. Pictures)
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There is, of course, a reason he spoke up in the first place — not to air a petulant grievance, but to point out that the dominance of franchise moviemaking poses a real existential threat to Hollywood cinema. And there may be no better demonstration of this danger at the moment than the fate that ultimately befell “The Irishman.” The movie was by all accounts deemed a major risk, which might have once seemed an odd thing to say about a Martin Scorsese mob drama starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino.

Even with such an enviable pedigree, the picture’s production budget ultimately exceeded what any major studio was willing to spend on an adult-skewing non-franchise entertainment. That’s a testament to the astonishing dramatic scope of the story, which compacts decades of American postwar history into 3½ hours, necessitating the use of expensive digital technology to make the principal actors look younger in different time frames.

These are, admittedly, not insignificant considerations; only a filmmaker of Scorsese’s clout would have dared even demand them. But to look hard at those considerations, and compare them with what goes into CG-heavy blockbusters every day, is to see the cravenness of the industry’s double standards at work. Long, epic-canvas storytelling is perceived as a drain on the audience’s patience — at least, when the characters involved are wearing neckties and fedoras, rather than cloaks and metal suits. Appearance-altering visual effects too are a needless extravagance — but only when they are placed in service of dramatic realism, rather than science fiction, action or fantasy.

Weigh these arguments long enough and Scorsese’s irritation with the all-too-timid mind-set of modern Hollywood becomes clear. Risk is defined in conveniently blockbuster-flattering terms, and technological innovation — the very progress of the medium — is seen as beyond the purview of complex, character-driven movies for grown-ups. All this accounts in large part for why “The Irishman” ultimately wound up at Netflix, the only outfit that would give Scorsese the creative and financial freedom he needed.

There’s a deep irony, of course, in Scorsese working with the streaming giant that has been charged with hastening the death of the theatrical moviegoing experience. You could call it hypocrisy, or chalk it up to another of his many contradictions (to say nothing of Netflix’s). Scorsese may wear many hats — the critic, the scholar, the advocate, the conscience of the medium — but it is the filmmaker in him who will ultimately assert his will the strongest and who will do whatever it takes to breathe new work into existence.

As the already endlessly protracted Marvel Cinematic or Non-Cinematic Universe debate continues to ebb and flow, Scorsese has already tirelessly moved on to his next project. Based on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” David Grann’s true-crime book about a series of murders in 1920s Osage County, Okla., the film will find him back at a traditional studio, Paramount. It’s likely to stir up fresh excitement, as well as fresh opportunities for argument and anger. The hard work of sorting out this director’s brilliant, complicated legacy remains unfinished. The filmmaking — and the risk taking — continue.


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