End of the Party: Scorsese’s meditative, moral Irishman is his ‘Godfather: Part II’

End of the Party: Scorsese’s meditative, moral Irishman is his ‘Godfather: Part II’

The Godfather: Part II, released two years after Francis Ford Coppola’s groundbreaking, blockbusting cinematic classic The Godfather, is arguably the greatest movie sequel of all time. It grounds the mythos of The Godfather by portraying its real-world consequences; it’s the harsh vibe-check to the first film’s darkly lustrous rendering of an American Dream. While The Godfather I mostly obscures the everyday violence employed by the head of a crime family, The Godfather II emphasizes the cruelty in the role and reveals the impact that violence has on others.

A few years later, Martin Scorsese hit his stride as a director tackling those same themes. In 1990, he had a Godfather-level critical and commercial hit with Goodfellas. And though there is no Goodfellas: Part II, Scorsese just released a (spiritual) sequel to that film, one that explores the same themes with maturity and subtlety. The Irishman is long. It’s “slow” (for a mob movie). And it’s very, very prestigious. 

Surface-level similarities abound between Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 sequel to his own work. They feature many of the same actors (including Robert De Niro in a starring role), tell epic stories of Italian-American organized crime and weave their narratives across multiple timelines. But the connections between the two films runs deeper.

The subtextual parallels between these two films ensure that The Irishman will come to be viewed as a timeless classic — especially when analyzed in conjunction with Goodfellas, to which it is a spiritual, if not literal, sequel film. But if The Godfather, Part II is the well-choreographed and inexorable dismantlement of the Mafia values shown in Part I, The Irishman is more like a crashing halt to Goodfellas‘ thrill ride, a searing rebuke to both the moral universe of the film and some of the more common critiques of its tone and content.

Deeper and bleaker: The Godfather, Part II

The Godfather: Part II both intensifies and inverts the events of Part I. In The Godfather, Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone has a studio executive’s racehorse murdered and its severed head tucked into the man’s bedsheets. In Part II, Vito’s son goes further: To blackmail a Nevada senator, Michael plants a dead, bloodied prostitute next to him at a whorehouse operated by a member of the Corleone network. This escalation — from the murder of a horse to the murder of an uninvolved human being — solely for the purpose of consolidating power, embodies the higher-stakes/lower-morals trajectory of the film.

Under Michael’s leadership, the family became more successfully entrenched in American power structures but lost their connection to the community of origin depicted in Part II’s flashbacks. Young Vito led a moral crusade in his poor, immigrant community, and the juxtaposition of his warm-toned fable with his son’s brutal and venal present-day dealings is powerful. Ultimately, Michael ends up alone: his parents are dead, his brothers are dead, his wife leaves him, and his sister is a shell of her former self. His uncompromising approach to the family business leaves him without a family — something that is driven home even further by the final flashback scene, where the Corleone family gathers for a birthday party.

Inside out: The Irishman vs. Goodfellas

Goodfellas celebrates Henry Hill’s ascent (or descent) to the criminal life of a mafioso before, during, and after his time with the mob. A well-known scene from Goodfellas physically choreographs this sentiment. In one unbroken take, the camera follows Henry from outside the club, skipping the line and walking inside, then downstairs and through the kitchen, and finally to a newly set table in the center of the club. On his descent into the club, people greet Henry warmly, paying their respect to a newly minted captain.

The first shot of The Irishman is a tongue-in-cheek reference to that iconic shot. Opening on the interior of a nursing home as a typically Scorsese doo-wop soundtrack plays, the camera makes its way down a corridor full of nurses and walkers and chess boards before finally settling on Frank Sheeran’s ring, which denotes his status as The Irishman’s equivalent of Goodfellas’s “made man.” Then it shows us Frank’s sad, lonely, wrinkled visage. This inversion of the Goodfellas shot serves as a visual counterpoint for the astute viewer as well as a caution, signaling that instead of gifting the audience the rush of the climb, the movie will focus on the descent into spiritual emptiness that comes from a life of crime. 

In the same scene, after the camera settles on Frank’s face, we hear Frank in voiceover: “When I was younger, I thought house painters painted houses.”  He continues, “One of a thousand working stiffs, until I wasn’t no more. And then, I started painting houses…myself.” Here we can see that Frank is ambivalent about his past, proud of his life’s work but also haunted by it. In the language of The Irishman, “painting houses” is code for carrying out hits — “painting” walls with the blood of his victims.

Now, contrast that world-weary opening monologue with Henry Hill’s chipper opening line in Goodfellas: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Unlike Frank Sheeran, Henry Hill claims to have known all along what mob life entails. Unlike Frank Sheeran, he looked forward to it, even relished it. By the end of the film, he’s been caught by the law, but has he really learned anything? Perhaps not. Frank Sheeran, on the other hand, never goes to jail but suffers spiritual punishment in spades. By the end of The Irishman, Frank’s soul seems to weigh more than any earthly chain.

Paying the price: violence and distance in The Irishman

Goodfellas opened to positive reviews, but many contemporary critics and viewers were discomfited, to varying degrees, by its abrupt, amoral resolution. In its (rave) review, the New York Times still called the film “evilly entertaining” but noted that it “looks at the mob without making any apparent comment of its own”—not true, but a common sentiment. The Hollywood Reporter, in another rave, foresaw an uneasy public reaction: “How current audiences will react to a film where violence isn’t cartoonish and its characters all lack sympathy is a tough call. One easy prediction, though: This intense, fast-paced, often funny film will be talked about and argued over for years to come.” (Correct.)

Pauline Kael, never afraid to be a lone voice of critical dissent, delivered a largely negative appraisal of Scorsese’s work in The New Yorker, opining that “it has no arc, and doesn’t climax; it just comes to a stop. Conceivably the abruptness could work, but I don’t think it does. […] watching the movie is like getting strung out on pure sensation.”

Why was the ending of Goodfellas so divisive? Henry loses most of the material gains he makes in his crime spree but ends up safely in protective custody for ratting out his cohort. And he has very little remorse. At the end of Goodfellas, Henry narrates, “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” It seems as though Henry’s greatest personal loss is his inability to continue being a bad guy. American society never gives Henry his just desserts. Some view this as an indictment of the moral character of the film. When considered alongside Scorsese’s other work, however, the film reveals itself to be an indictment of American culture, not a celebration of criminal life. This indictment rings more strongly throughout The Irishman, which almost painstakingly de-glamorizes organized crime.

Goodfellas was dinged by critics (even those who loved the film) for its gleeful depiction of mobster machismo, over-the-top violence and general lack of restraint. The Irishman is the opposite: Scorsese employs a master’s restraint in his careful depiction of Frank’s acts of violence, distancing the audience from Frank as Frank distances himself from his crimes. For example, he visually ignores the murderous act itself by positioning the camera to catch the blood spatter from a gunshot wound while leaving the act itself out of frame. This careful focus on the mechanisms of murder, rather than dramatizing the death, obscures the traumatic fallout of the event, much like Frank does.

This distance from the consequences of his labor enables Frank to hold onto the pride he feels for his advancement in criminal society. But he, too, is paying a price, and the movie’s late reveal that Frank’s narrations are actually an end-of-life confession underscore what that price has been: true loneliness. His friends are dead — his best friend merely another house painted — and his daughter won’t talk to him.

The spirit and the flesh: Scorsese’s favorite themes

In a post-Godfather world, every mob movie, by Scorsese or not, is necessarily in conversation on some level with the two genre-defining classics. Arguably, Part II established the success story in reverse as the signature trope of the genre, at least in the modern era. Scorsese is able to work around that story while spending more time on the central theme of the majority of his films the conflict within man between the spirit and the flesh.

Though The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence are the Scorsese movies that explore this idea most explicitly, the auteur sneaks this thesis into his mob movies as well. The slow, meditative pace of The Irishman lends it philosophical heft, allowing the director to tease out a central conflict that resolves spiritually inside one man, not physically in a car chase or a hail of bullets. Like Michael Corleone, Frank Sheeran may have earned himself a seat at The Family’s table, but he’s done so at the expense of his own family. It’s a clear message, deftly communicated by the film’s last half-hour. 

That bleak ending is the key to the whole movie, cementing it as a spiritual sequel to Goodfellas that performs the same corrective function to the earlier film as The Godfather: Part II does for Part I. Scorsese has made many movies about the mob, but Goodfellas and The Irishman are a pair apart, functioning as moral mirror images and elevating The Irishman as a truly great follow-up film on the level of Coppola’s saga. The Irishman makes explicit what Goodfellas only implies; a life of crime might get you money, power, and (fleeting) respect, but it leaves you devoid of happiness and far from grace.

Pauline Kael wrote that Goodfellas, with its splashy style, star-packed cast and staccato violence, had “scope rather than depth.” Reasonable people can disagree, but The Irishman seems calculated to produce the opposite assessment: by the end of the film, the jumbled characters and events in Frank Sheeran’s life have been cleared away, and all that’s left to do is venture deep into the psyche of a lonely sinner. The scope collapses; the depth yawns.  

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