“Is it better to live as a monster, or die a good man?” Martin Scorsese was talking about his film Shutter Island when he said those words in 2010, but they could just as easily apply to The Irishman. Opening with one of Scorsese’s signature long takes—not through a bustling nightclub or glamorous casino, but a suburban nursing home—the film is a meditation on gangsters in their twilight, directed by a filmmaker who built his reputation on violent films about violent men. Although he’s more of a looming heavy than a charming gladhander, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) lives in the same underworld milieu as Scorsese antiheroes like Goodfellas’ Henry Hill. But there’s one key difference between him and them: Frank has lived long enough to understand how pointless it all is.
Scorsese clarified in a recent New York Times interview that he doesn’t regret making all those iconic gangster movies—if that’s how he felt, his post-Casino hiatus from the material would have gone on forever. But the director has been known to reflect on his role in creating a culture that worships wise guys, and rather wistfully. He adds in that same interview, “[gangster life] is glamorous at first if you’re young and stupid, which a lot of people are [...] This is different. Here, it’s the dead end, and everybody has to reckon at the end. If they’re given the time.” Frank never apologizes for the many people he’s hurt, betrayed, and killed. A crook to the end, he even tries to cheat death by choosing a mausoleum instead of a cemetery burial, because “it ain’t that final.” But even if a gangster wins the game by outliving everyone around him, death will always have the final victory. That’s Frank’s reckoning. If there is penance in The Irishman, it’s in this unvarnished truth.
It’s also in the film’s deliberate rejection of the flashy techniques Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker have used to add glamorous style to scenes of violence. In an interview with The A.V. Club, Schoonmaker said they wanted to avoid “a thousand different cuts and crane shots and things that Marty’s done in the past with violence. Here, he wanted to show the banality of it.” In The Irishman, the violence is efficient and matter-of-fact: It takes only a few seconds for even a feared mafia enforcer like Sally Bugs (Louis Cancelmi) to become little more than a pool of blood on the sidewalk. Even Frank’s betrayal of his best friend, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a life-altering event that will haunt him for decades, is over in a matter of minutes.
But while death can come and go faster than you can snap your fingers, its consequences are lifelong, as embodied in Frank’s daughter Peggy, played as an adult by Anna Paquin. The film jumps from Peggy’s christening to her elementary school years to her young adulthood with the same unfeeling efficiency with which Frank “paints houses.” But although her father and his friends barely acknowledge her, she’s always there, always watching. She’s the conscience he doesn’t want to face—until it’s far too late. These threads come together in the scenes where Frank takes a young Peggy to the corner market where the owner had been rude to his daughter earlier that day. There’s no jazzy music on the soundtrack, and the only close-up is on Peggy’s face, interrupting an impassive wide shot of a man breaking another man’s hand while a little girl watches.
That’s not to say that The Irishman doesn’t offer up the the pleasures of a mob movie on a scene-to-scene basis. Like life, some of it is hilarious: the fish on the seat, or Hoffa’s hatred of Tony Pro and his shorts. Again, Scorsese isn’t passing judgment on these moments, or on the audience for enjoying them. But pull back over the course of a lifetime, and the view starts to change. Even one of the film’s funniest gags—title cards showing the names and fates of Frank’s various associates—has a melancholy edge to it. (After all, only one of them gets to enjoy a peaceful exit: “Anthony ‘Tony Jack’ Giacalone, well-liked by all. Died of natural causes February 23, 2001.”) Looking back from the long, tired, defeated perspective of old age, the cumulative effect of the film is somber, even mournful. But why wouldn’t you be sad, knowing how it all ends?
Meanwhile, if Quentin Tarantino doesn’t like how it ends, he’ll just change it. The Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood director earnestly believes in the power of catharsis—and more specifically, violent catharsis—and has brought this belief to films in which revenge serves as a sort of pop-cultural exorcism of the 20th century’s most infamous villains. Tarantino’s contempt for interview questions about violence in his movies is well-documented: In 2013, he shut down an interview with a Channel 4 news presenter who pressed him about the violence in Django Unchained, and in 2015 he told MTV News that “I cheerlead towards violence in cinema. I have no problem saying that I like violent movies and I respond to violent movies […] I don’t have to walk back on my heels and come up with some moral justification. It needs no justification.”
Tarantino has been consistent in his insistence that the violence in his films must be separated from real-life violence, and Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood mocks the idea that there’s no difference between the two by putting these words into Manson follower Sadie’s (Mikey Madison) mouth:
We all grew up watching TV, you know what I mean? And if you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder. Every show on TV that wasn’t I Love Lucy was about murder. So, my idea is: We kill the people who taught us to kill. I mean where the fuck are we, man? We’re in fucking Hollywood, man! The people who an entire generation grew up watching kill people live here. And they live in pigshit fucking luxury! I say fuck ’em! I say we cut their cocks off and make them eat it!
She isn’t completely wrong: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio)—whose bathrobe-clad, margarita-clutching hollering at Sadie and company a few moments earlier inspires the rant—built his career playing a gun-toting bounty hunter on TV. But she doesn’t make that key distinction between fiction and reality that Tarantino maintains is so important. She and the rest of her death cult are idiots and buffoons, and with this established, the audience is free to enjoy the catharsis as they get their ultraviolent comeuppance.
The film leaves it to viewers to do the reading for themselves, so knowing the context of the Tate-LaBianca murders is key to understanding the Grand Guignol bloodbath that follows. Sadie, Tex (Austin Butler), and Katie (Madisen Beaty) aren’t just the butts of a gory joke—although that is part of it. Awareness of what the trio’s real-world counterparts did on Cielo Drive could make eye-for-an-eye believers out of the biggest revenge skeptics: They stabbed a woman who was eight months pregnant 16 times; they stabbed her friend 51 times as he tried to crawl across the front yard for help. With this in mind, their gratuitous punishment at the hands of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, playing a character whose own violent streak is well established by the finale), his dog, and Rick Dalton’s flame thrower seems almost fair.
This is especially true given another tweak Tarantino makes to the event: In the film, Flower Child (Maya Hawke) changes her mind and leaves before the slaughter begins, demonstrating that the killers, and by extension the audience, have made a choice to be there. (In that same MTV News interview, Tarantino invites those who find his movies to be too violent to “sip on another cup of tea.”)
So while the director stubbornly maintains that his films are essentially amoral, there is in fact a moral dimension to Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood’s violence. It’s just a pitiless one. The deeper you dig into the film, the more obvious it becomes that Tarantino’s hatred of the Manson Family is personal. He’s fighting extreme violence with extreme violence and standing up for his hometown of Los Angeles, whose late ’60s counterculture spell was traumatically broken by the Manson murders. (As production designer Barbara Ling, who was a teenager in L.A. at the time, told The A.V. Club: “Everybody was so trusting, and it just changed the whole attitude of the city.”) Even the scene where Cliff kicks Manson follower Clem’s (James Landry Hébert) teeth in earlier in the film has an element of righteous revenge to it: In late August 1969, the real Clem assisted in the murder of a ranch hand named Donald Shea—a washed-up former stunt man.
But placed next to the defeated cynicism of The Irishman, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood’s belief that violence can correct violence is a young man’s folly. Of course, “young” is a relative term, and Rick has the worries of a middle-aged man: his property taxes, his career trajectory, his body starting to fail him. He breaks down in tears describing a scene in a book where the protagonist is “coming to terms with what it’s like to be slightly more useless every day.” But although Rick may be peaking, he’s not done just yet. Along with its belief in violence, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood believes in second acts. At the end of the film, Rick is invited up to his neighbor Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) house for a drink. Not only has she been saved, but so has he, and so has the idyllic peace-and-love ’60s L.A. of Tarantino’s childhood memories.
Both films feature supporting characters who represent an older generation: In The Irishman, it’s Frank’s mentor Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who we watch shrivel up and die on screen. In Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, it’s Spahn Ranch owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern), who Cliff skeptically goes to visit when he realizes that George is letting “a bunch of fucking hippies” live on his land. But despite its protestations, the latter film is much more preoccupied with youth and staying relevant. (Scorsese’s film barely notices the kids are there.) The generational torch in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood isn’t being carried by the Manson Family, not really. Really it’s being carried by the child actress played by Julia Butters, who has no time for Rick’s “pumpkin puss” crap but ultimately respects him when she sees how good of an actor he is—another bit of wish fulfillment.
The Irishman, on the other hand, keeps its focus squarely on the “silent generation” of World War II vets. These were the men who raised Scorsese, who was born in the midst of the war in 1942. (Tarantino, born in 1963, is also filtering his current age through his childhood in his film.) On its surface, Scorsese’s film would appear to be the more morally minded one, given how futile it shows the gangster lifestyle to ultimately be. But it’s actually not concerned with teaching lessons at all, simply in clear-eyed, unsentimental truth: “It’s what it is.” Tarantino’s film is vocal in its wish that we could eternally hang on to those sweet moments we usually only recognize in retrospect—and it believes that we can, if we live in fiction. It’s a nostalgic point of view, and despite its violence, an optimistic one. Scorsese’s film may have lived there once, but it can’t anymore. Nostalgia is just one of the many things that seem less important when the sands have shifted, and the end draws near.