There’s a way of reading Martin Scorsese’s first-person mob epics—“Goodfellas” (1990), “Casino” (1995), and “The Irishman” (2019)—as three stages of criminal life.
White-dusted fall from grace aside, “Goodfellas” is mostly about youth, its gusto, its inherent fallibility, its unbeatable expiration date. It finds its center with Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) learning his subculture of choice and breathlessly teaching it to the viewer.
Jump forward five years, and “Casino” chronicles both the wisdom and the blindspots of middle age. Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is a mid-40s sports handicapper who’s turned chance into a trade, something that, by all rights, no one should be able to do. So he tries to tame the fates in a few other ways, through the industrialized luck of Las Vegas and a risky marriage. In the end, it’s a tale of trying and failing to learn new tricks.
“The Irishman” ages Robert De Niro back to his 40s (or a bizarre, digital version thereof), but it’s inarguably at its best when the VFX facade falls away and we see the life of Frank Sheeran from his twilight years. Scorsese isn’t necessarily apologizing for the youthful verve of “Goodfellas”; rather “The Irishman” peters into an eerie silence on the subject of guilt and absolution. In three movies depicting violent death after violent death, the worst fate is Father Time making Frank wait on his judgment alone.
On today’s episode of Be Reel, Noah and I look back through this spiritual trilogy for its groundbreaking style, the sometimes goofy repetitions of that style, and the shadow history of America created by 10 hours of mafiosos, teamsters and their middlemen. Oh, and my dad—a Vegas craps dealer circa 1978—stops by for a lightning round of questions about “Casino.”
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