Steve Zaillian’s remarkably expansive screenplay for “The Irishman” covers a dizzying amount of territory, providing a wealth of context while never once feeling expository. The information stacks quickly, and continues to mount until we’ve forgotten where we started or how we got here or ultimately why any of it matters. In fact, “The Irishman,” which serves primarily as a confessional (or an anti-confessional), seems strikingly in denial — an insidious, casual, deep-seated denial, at once tragic and utterly banal. It also feels like the final, defeated word on so many of [Martin] Scorsese’s enduring themes and obsessions. If Judas is the figure that seems to have haunted the director more than any other over the course of his unrivaled career, then this feels like something of an exhausted afterword after the triumph of “Silence” (whose Kichijiro is perhaps the director’s fullest articulation of the anguished and endlessly contradictory nature of the Judas figure). But it’s that same defeated quality that makes “The Irishman” so strange and so disorientating and, finally, so profound. The film is obsessively attuned to the bruised egos, masculine posturing, inconsequential (yet extremely consequential) faux pas, and petty resentments of its fatally flawed characters, becoming a dense archive of fascinating human detail. This, like so many of Scorsese’s films (especially in the gangster genre, which he has all but defined and now, in his way, abandoned), is ultimately the story of an unexamined life. [Main protagonist Frank] Sheeran’s testimony is mined extensively for any human significance, and we are left grasping air. Gone is the thrill of the gangster lifestyle, which was so exuberantly depicted in “GoodFellas”; nowhere to be seen is the ostentation and glorious excess of “Casino”; not even the doomed but authentic brotherly bond at the heart of “Mean Streets” can be truly found here, despite the empty tokens and gestures of brotherhood that pervade “The Irishman.” If the earlier films were operas, then so is “The Irishman,” but it is also distinctly an elegy, and a radically pitiful one, bold in its barrenness. It’s what Marty’s been saying all along, but this time he’s removed the frills. And it’s wonderful.
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Ari Aster is the writer and director of “Hereditary” and “Midsommar.”