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

Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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 3D 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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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