Today was just about the best day you can have for cinema back in 2019. It’s not often that two of the absolute best films of one year come out on the exact same day, but that’s exactly what happened on November 27th of 2019; Knives Out was dropped in cinemas, and The Irishman got a wide release on Netflix after a limited theatrical run.
Now, one year later, and both films continue to stand as towering achievements in their respective fields. Knives Out remains a consistent pleasure, especially in these pandemic times; a warm and comforting piece of cinema, one which manages that always tricky feat of being genuinely, authentically fun. The Irishman’s accomplishments are even more pertinent in the wake of Corona; with cinemas shut down, it’s been down to streaming services to provide us with our necessary film fixes. And there have been some gems here and there – System Crasher, the excellent German drama film, could be found on Netflix, and The Vast of Night, the impressive Twilight Zone-esque throwback, was an Amazon original – but nothing that can really compare to Martin Scorsese’s towering achievement.
On the surface, these two films couldn’t be further apart. The Irishman is a sprawling and somber gangster epic, a biopic of the man who reportedly killed Jimmy Hoffa. It’s a three-and-a-half hour film that both harkens back to, and pointedly examines the nature of, the iconography that its director, Martin Scorsese, built his career on. On the other hand, Knives Out almost overflows with bubbly positivity and sumptuous charm. It’s a movie where you can almost tangibly feel the joy with which Rian Johnson crafted the interlocking narrative.
And yet, I almost can’t help but take the two movies as a pair, and not just because of the shared release date, and the fact that they’re both fantastic movies. That’s a big part of it, to be sure, but what’s hitting me all this time later is how both movie’s strengths come from very similar places. They’re both films that play with expectations; this is most obvious with Knives Out (this is a Rian Johnson film, after all), which plays fast and loose with the established “rules” of whodunnit murder mysteries, especially when it comes to when it chooses to reveal key pieces of information. But The Irishman doesn’t go the usual route either, as evidenced by the audience members who seemed to come away disappointed; they’d gone in expecting a flashy and vibrant crime flick in the style of Goodfellas or Casino, and instead they’d gotten a reflective, downright low-key look at the long-term effects a life of crime can have on a person’s psyche.
I certainly went into The Irishman expecting something other than what I got. Which is to say, I went into The Irishman somewhat nervous. The marketing hadn’t been particularly impressive, with a vague, kind of lackluster trailer having dropped sometime in September, which did nothing to allay my fears about a) the record-setting use of de-aging technology, or b) the fact that this was a Netflix Original.
In retrospect, I needn’t have worried, at least as far as the digital de-aging technology was concerned. At this point, Scorsese has made something of a career out of adopting much-maligned film technologies, and using them in the way they were intended. One need only remember Hugo, so far one of only three films to use 3-D properly. As for the Netflix issue, I still think that one was a very legitimate fear for me to have, given the company’s well-documented history of taking proven directors, and getting just the worst work out of them (Duncan Jones with Mute, David Ayer with Bright, Steven Soderbergh with The Laundromat). It says something, I think, that in the year since its release, The Irishman still stands as the reigning champion of Netflix Original films, yet to be topped.
A similar sentiment could be made for Knives Out, but for mystery films rather than Netflix Originals. One of the many things that makes Knives Out such a masterpiece, not only of technical filmmaking but also of narrative construction, is how expertly it weaves its interesting characters within its puzzle-box plot. Too often with mystery films, one gets prioritized over the other; either a film will have fully-realized characters but a weak mystery, or a clever mystery populated by characters who are barely there. Think Lantana, or Gosford Park (both released in 2001, incidentally), two films where the quirkiness of the characters essentially overrode the actual mystery part to the murder mystery that was supposed to be going on. On the other end of the spectrum, we have 1971’s The Last of Sheila, a movie with a terrifically inventive Clue-like plot, but also a film where the characters just kind of faded in and out of the background. To be clear, I like all three of these films to varying degrees, but on a fundamental level they all do fall victim to that problem of prioritization. Prior to Knives Out, the only mystery films I can think of which got the balance between plot and characters just right were 12 Angry Men and Sleuth (the original, not the remake by Kenneth Branagh). Those two films are genuine masterpieces, both of filmmaking and scripting. They’re among my favorite films ever made, so I think it means something when I say that Knives Out leaves them all in the dust.
It’s not just that the characters in Knives Out are all richly textured, with believable motivations and convincing psychological makeups, or that the mechanics of the plot they’re in still holds up after a whole year of scrutiny. That’s all true, but the miracle of Knives Out is how these two things inform each other. Each one of these characters have arcs, and the way those arcs tie into the overall story is nothing short of genius. It’s one of those remarkable films that manages to affect a breezy and easy tone on the surface, but any which way you look at it reveals a masterwork on narrative construction.
The same could be said of The Irishman; the thing seems slightly effortless when you first look at it, only for its deeper story mechanics to become clear over time. What’s interesting is, it actually took me a while to clock to what The Irishman was doing; for the first two hours or so, I was engaged well enough, but the whole thing was coming off like Goodfellas-lite (compare with Knives Out, which from the very first shot struck me as a completely original film, despite its obvious reverence for the whodunnit genre). Then the final act began, at which point the film recontextualized itself as not only as a unique film in its own right, but also possibly the best thing Martin Scorsese has ever directed, or at least the most thoughtful.
That’s another thing that connects these two films; the ways in which they both engage with their respective genres. Knives Out does so lovingly, mostly through lavish production direction and murder mystery “in-jokes,” mostly coming from the set direction (Jolly Jack Tar, the pirate animatronic featured prominently in Sleuth, makes a cameo as one of Harlan’s possessions, for instance). The biggest change the film makes to the established whodunnit framework is its decision to reveal the “killer” (sort of) at the half-hour mark, thus turning the rest of the movie into something like an episode of Columbo rather than Agatha Christie. It works, though, if just on the level of clever filmmaking; the halfway plot switch gives the film a strong dramatic center, turning it into a downright Hitchcockian “wronged man”-type story, with the actual legwork portion of the murder mystery (the stuff that film adaptations usually trip up on) happening through the context of that.
The Irishman’s relationship to its past is more pointed, where the whole thing ends up coming off as a reflexive examination of Martin Scorsese’s whole career. It’s a film that oftentimes plays the same hits as Goodfellas, or Casino – the whacks, the meetings in restaurants, the tumultuous home lives these people have – but on a fundamental level, it feels different. Gone is the allure, the glitzy glamor. Gone is the vibrating energy that once threatened to shake the whole screen. There are long tracking shots, but instead of introducing you to an underground world, they familiarize you with the layout of a nursing home. There are mob hits, but they’re not shown off as these exciting setpieces; this film makes clear, it’s hard work killing a man. Not just for your soul, but also in a practical sense.
I mentioned up top how people might’ve been put off from this movie by how they were expecting another Goodfellas/Casino type movie, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that that’s the only reason people might not like it (three-and-a-half hours is a lot of movie, and while I can honestly say that the film’s strong dramatic center meant I never felt the runtime…that obviously isn’t true of everyone else). But I do think there is something to the idea that the main contention a lot of people had with The Irishman was how overt it was about not being an indulgent power fantasy, in the way a lot of Scorsese’s other films were. Now, to be clear, every one of the films of his that I’ve brought up so far is a masterpiece, and the way they play with indulgence, and undercutting that indulgence, is pretty genius. The way stuff like Goodfellas or Casino usually plays out is, you get half the movie as this kinetic “good times” sequence, in which you are seduced by the allure of a life of crime, just like the main characters, and then the whole of the second half spends its time just hitting you hard with the actual consequences of that lifestyle. It’s the reason no one will ever leave a Martin Scorsese movie wanting to be a gangster, or a Wall Street stockbroker, or what have you. Everyone might talk about the beginning sections, and all the cool hits and flashy camera moves, but what everyone actually remembers is the end, with our main characters lying in a ditch, figuratively (and in one memorable instance, literally).
The Irishman has that same ingrained understanding of indulgence and allure, but unlike its predecessors in the Scorsese oeuvre, it doesn’t waste any time with misdirection. At no point does Frank Sheeran’s life look like a happy one, or an inspirational one. The Irishman plays out less like a fun and zippy gangster movie, and instead as this mournful tragedy. The fact that it’s still endlessly engrossing and fascinating to watch speaks to Martin Scorsese’s mastery of the craft, and his ever-present thematic care.
That’s the final, overall connection these two movies have; they’re more thematically worthwhile than you might expect going in. The Irishman I’ve already discussed at length (and really, given that it’s Scorsese at the helm, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the thing works thematically), but it’s Knives Out that really pulls of a feat here. There are themes for days – class divide, immigration, the tricky mechanics of legacy, and the actual work involved in being a consistently good person – but like I talked about up top, the real genius of the movie is how all this is interwoven seamlessly into the wider narrative and how none of it ever overpowers or interrupts the film’s wider goals of just being a really fun time.
There’s a feeling out there about important, “worthy” movies being somehow above the idea of simple enjoyment, and I think what I love most about both The Irishman and Knives Out is that they ultimately prove that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s possible for a film to be a metatextual, self-reflexive examination of itself, while still delivering on the promises of its central premise. Basically, a movie is allowed to be good for the brain and fun to watch at the same time. Both these films are.