You have to respect the hustle. No matter what else you might think of Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, the titular anti-hero of Martin Scorsese’s twentieth-century gangster saga The Irishman, you have to admire his rise from lowly truck driver to mob heavyweight. It begins in a steakhouse, with Sheeran boldly making a proposal to Skinny Razor, the wise guy who owns the place. “You like steak?” Sheeran asks. “I do,” says Skinny, played by Bobby Cannavale, who chews the scenery like he does his meat, all mandibles and smacking lips. “I deliver steak,” Sheeran says. “Good steak. I can deliver you steak.… Good price, too. The best.” Why are Sheeran’s prices so good? The beef is stolen, of course. He gets caught, but instead of being punished for his crime, he is inducted into the Philly mob as a factotum, the first step in an odyssey that will see him become the right-hand man of union boss Jimmy Hoffa.
The hustle—the hell-bent drive to succeed, by hook or by crook—is a hallmark both of Scorsese’s work specifically and the Mafia movie genre more broadly. The enduring appeal of the mob flick is its inversion of America’s most cherished myths: that all you need to succeed is to work hard and play by the rules, that the parochial bonds of the old country will dissolve in the melting pot of liberal democracy. The mob is the antithesis of the American dream, or perhaps its warted reflection: an organization with its own code outside the law, bound by blood and clan. Its worldview is brutal, but who is to say it’s wrong? Scorsese’s movies show that America is a hustle for everyone, from the wolves on Wall Street to the rank and file of the FBI.
The hustle is a critical aspect of another acclaimed movie this year that also undermines the structural myths we hold dear: Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. The first part of the movie, not unlike a Scorsese gangster film, is all fun and games, as a poor family, the Kims, scam their way into the service of a wealthy family, the Parks. The Kims gleefully fleece the Parks of their money. They eat their food and drink their fine cognac. They dispatch anyone who gets in their way, with all the ruthlessness of Frank Sheeran tapping a mark two times in the head. Yet when the fun ends, as it must, there is no redemption for the Kims. There is no glory in the hustle, which is just the symptom of a deeper sickness called market capitalism. Their misbegotten efforts have not made them human but something much less than that, something base, ignominious—parasites, in fact.
You could say that the difference between these films is right there in their respective titles. Scorsese’s announces the story of a human being, while Bong’s describes a leechlike creature. Together, they represent two distinct ways—one familiar, the other less so—in which ideology is shaping the movies and the way we see ourselves.
The Irishman is instantly familiar in a nourishing way, like comfort food. It opens with a long tracking shot as a buoyant jukebox hit (“In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins) plays on the soundtrack, faintly echoing the famous tracking shot through the club in Goodfellas. But this one is set in a nursing home, a puckish acknowledgment that everyone in the Scorsese universe has gotten a little (OK, a lot) older. The whole gang is here: De Niro as Sheeran, his face digitally Botoxed for much of the movie to look a few decades younger; Joe Pesci as mob boss Russell Bufalino, in a subdued performance that nevertheless suggests a coiled menace; Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno, an even bigger mob boss, carrying himself with the ease of an elder statesman. Scorsese has never worked with Al Pacino before, yet his presence here, as Hoffa, is so fitting that The Irishman has the feel of a reunion party.
There is, in other words, a lot of fun to be had, which is the point. There is a Forrest Gump–like plot that connects Sheeran’s rise to a series of seminal postwar events like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Hoffa’s notoriously unsolved disappearance. (In the world of The Irishman, based on some very disputed and quite possibly apocryphal events, it is Sheeran who whacks Hoffa, after he refuses to relinquish his control of the mob-connected Teamsters.) But the movie can also be understood as a string of set pieces, in which the principal actors square off against each other, doing their best tough-guy impersonations.
De Niro and Pacino most famously went head to head in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime thriller Heat, both of them slim and handsome and brooding in dark oversize suits. Here, they are two old men in pastel pajamas sharing a hotel room, stalking the stage like exaggerated, Kabuki versions of themselves. De Niro’s mouth turns down at the corners, and his eyes narrow into slits, twisting his face into a mask of tragedy. His shoulders are boxier than ever, as if all his age has accumulated there, rising slowly but steadily to his ears. Pacino’s performance is so over the top—so Pacino-esque, for lack of a better term—that it amounts to a meta-narrative on the actor being eclipsed by his act. His eyes pop, his crocodile smile flashes, and his voice drifts between a half-hearted impression of Hoffa and his signature “WHOO AH” bellow. “Sssssolidarity,” he half-hisses, half-barks at a union rally, both snake and loyal guard dog.
That the unions in this movie are as corrupt as any other institution in America is not really a comment on organized labor but rather a manifestation of Scorsese’s worldview, in which everyone is fallen and scrambling to get a leg up. The brotherhood of the Teamsters and the brotherhood of the mob are mirror images of each other, divided by a very porous barrier between the legal and the illegal, the righteous and the depraved. The Teamsters and the Mafia, for that matter, are depicted as no worse than the patrician Kennedys, who lean on mob support at the polls, while relentlessly pursuing Hoffa in the courts.
In another director’s hands, this could read as pure cynicism. But the music is so good. The hit jobs are so lovingly filmed. There is so much comedy and pathos, not least in watching a regular guy like Frank Sheeran muscle his way across the seedy underside of the American century—even if he ends up paying a heavy toll for his hustle, including jail time, a guilty conscience, and a lonely death. Scorsese does not condone, nor does he disapprove. He keeps an ironic distance from his material, which can be interpreted as a blanket forgiveness for human folly. We all die alone, after all. As Pesci’s character tells Sheeran when the mob’s patience with Hoffa has run out, in what could stand as a motto for this movie: “It’s what it is.”
Though its politics are similar, Parasite’s message is less ambiguous. Indeed, this parable of class warfare is so thematically airtight that it’s almost resistant to creative interpretation. In order to establish themselves in the Parks’ home, the Kims have to oust the housekeeper, Moon-gwang, who returns one rainy night when the Parks are away. She reveals the existence of an underground bunker where her husband has been secretly living for years, hiding from loan sharks. The clash between the Kims and the Parks opens up, as Bong literally adds a new subterranean layer to the traditional upstairs-downstairs dynamic. The vision he invokes is terrible, of the downtrodden gaining a precarious ledge of stability at the expense of the even more downtrodden, on and on down an endless abyss.
This is a universe with a clear villain (the system) and clear victims (everybody). No one is innocent, and thus no one is really guilty either. Even the wealthy Parks, though frivolous and casually cruel, are hardly bad people: They are fulfilling the roles that have been prescribed for them, oblivious that their tastes and values are merely extensions of their privileged position in Korean society. The poor characters, too, are hopelessly stuck in their money-grubbing mind-set, fighting each other before the movie explodes, invariably, in a revolutionary convulsion of violence against their class overlords. But in the aftermath, the old ways settle back into place, and the movie concludes with the Kims’ son dreaming of becoming rich and buying the very house he once invaded, as if the parasite can free himself by becoming the host.
About that house. There is much beauty in Scorsese’s film, and it is conveyed through a specifically American vernacular that pays homage to this country’s industry and ingenuity: the vintage automobiles sailing across the frame in all their chrome splendor; the parade of midcentury radio singles produced at the zenith of the recording business. The house in Parasite, where the main action takes place, is also beautiful, but in a way that is chillingly familiar: It has a minimalist aesthetic composed of orbed lights, floating staircases, slate tiles, and acres of glass and polished wood. It looks like a spread in Kinfolk magazine, or a Blue Bottle coffee shop, or a first-class airport lounge, a kind of no-place that is also increasingly every place, ultimately becoming a sinister symbol of how capitalism has homogenized physical spaces around the world and infected our very notion of beauty. In Bong’s nightmare vision, there is no respite from ugliness, no matter what your eyes might tell you.
It is tempting to place Scorsese and Bong in two distinct political categories: the liberal filmmaker, who asserts the primacy of the individual in all his fathomless complexity, versus the Marxian filmmaker, who grimly pronounces the triumph of systemic-materialist forces over individual notions of beauty and truth. One suggests that dignity is possible in a thoroughly corrupt world, falling back on the timeworn idea that dignity lies in the struggle—another word for the hustle. The other argues that the hustle is a sad, delusional exercise, in which the individual goes around in circles in the mental prison yard in which he is unwittingly caught.
The juxtaposition doesn’t break quite that neatly, and of course the differences between Scorsese and Bong do not amount to an either/or proposition. But one director seems to embody the recent rough consensus on the relationship between humanity, art, and politics; the other, for better or worse, might herald its future.