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The Irishman’s Plot Is Actually Improved By Martin Scorsese’s Rare Use Of CGI

The digital de-aging of the cast is a criticized aspect of The Irishman, but it amplifies the primary themes of Scorsese’s biographical crime drama.

The digital de-aging of the cast for The Irishman is a topic of criticism for Martin Scorsese’s 2019 film, but the esteemed director’s rare use of CGI vastly improves the plot. Scorsese is traditionally organic in his filmmaking style: he is typically averse to excessive use of technology and even includes scenes considerably improvised by his cast. The Irishman, which is based on the Charles Brandt book I Heard You Paint Houses, spans several decades in its portrayal of Frank Sheeran’s introduction to, and eventual retirement from, the mob scene.

The film’s expansive structure presented a dilemma for Scorsese, where he had to choose between casting multiple actors for each main role or implementing technology to alter the appearance of his chosen cast. Scorsese’s frequent collaborators Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci star in the film as Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino, along with gangster genre regular Al Pacino playing Jimmy Hoffa. Scorsese was initially skeptical of using CGI to make his cast appear younger, fearing that the necessary equipment would be intrusive to the actors’ performances. Wanting the cast to be able to naturally engage with each other, Scorsese required the CGI to be implemented with minimal interference in the filming process. The effect of the technology was also reviewed to ensure it was not concealing key aspects of the actors’ portrayals.

Related: Why The Irishman’s De-Aging Is Even Better Than Marvel’s

The result is not seamless, but the imperfections brought by the digital de-aging perfectly illuminate the movie’s retrospective look at mob crime. The Irishman is a film that is interested in the process of aging and the subjectivity of memory: the past is all Frank seems to have left, yet he is conflicted by the tension between his personality, which has been molded into an apathetic consistency, and an inevitable sense of regret for his crimes and betrayal. Scorsese’s rare use of CGI gives the film a great sense of continuity that is essential for the themes it seeks to portray. The Irishman operates as a rather masterful inversion of Scorsese’s more boisterous Goodfellas, a movie with the tagline “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” Goodfellas sees its characters looking forward, with either eagerness or paranoia, whereas The Irishman sees Frank looking backward, with an indistinct sense of regret and uneasiness.

There are scenes where the decision to use CGI can be called into question, most notably when Frank beats up a store owner for shoving his daughter. However, Frank is the narrator of the film, and the false sense of youth caused by digital de-aging provides a constant reminder that he will end up in a care home, old and lonely. The technology allows the older version of Frank to bear a close resemblance to his younger self, differentiated only by the signs of aging. This sense of continuity is essential to Frank Sheeran’s story: the cutthroat nature of his work means that his friends are all dead and his daughter is estranged, but even in his solitude he keeps the secrets developed while carrying out crimes under orders.

The appearance of an artificially plush, smooth-faced young Frank is also a reminder that the historic events are a subjective account – The Irishman is about what Frank chooses to recall, and how he chooses to recall it. Of course, a double could have been used for the more physical scenes to maintain the illusion of de-aging, but as it is a story being told through memory, rather than a linear timeline, the imperfect nature of Frank’s recollection aids an astute commentary on memory and legacy.

Through the retrospective lens of The Irishman, the appearance of Frank’s movements as a young man seems informed by his experience as an old man. These traces might represent the limitations of using CGI to de-age characters, but Martin Scorsese’s film flourishes as Frank’s slightly strange, slightly eerie younger self operates as a ghost of his regretful past. Though he seems to look back at his time in the mob with a degree of remorse, it is his age and his lack of associates that seem more compelling reasons why Frank left that way of life.

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