The Irishman is delicate and full of restraint — ironic for a gangster flick. The heart of the film is sorrowful, in mourning for the spiritual emptiness of a materialist world. Scorsese doesn’t offer solutions to the questions posed by the piece, and the actors don’t crack open their hearts to show us how they feel (they just crack open their heads to show us their blood — its own poetry).
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Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, begins as a typical mob movie: in the 1950s the titular Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) is working as a truck driver but is looking to make more money to pay for his steadily increasing number of daughters. By chance he meets Italian Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a highly influential man amongst the Italian mob who happens to have a lot of work for someone who’s “not afraid of tough guys.” They sit down at a warm Italian restaurant. “Good bread, eh?,” Russell asks Frank in Italian. “Bene,” responds Frank, who was stationed in Italy during the war. This is not the first time these two men will break bread together, and this first communion begins a film about a world whose material demands leave little communion to be had.
The real Frank Sheeran, on whose life the character is based, was a ranking official in the teamsters’ union who became involved with the Italian mob as a hitman in the 1950s, hence the subtitle, “I Heard You Paint Houses” (a hitman paints the walls of houses red — get it?). The film follows Frank in his interactions with the political movements of his day, through and after his engagement with the mob, and finally into his nursing home as he approaches the end of his life.
The title of the film describes not only the nickname given the real-life Frank Sheeran by the Italian mob, but also the man’s central preoccupation, another Irishman named Jimmy Hoffa (president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1957 to 1971). Very early on in the film, Frank (who is already a member of the teamsters’ union) meets and begins to work for Jimmy, and the two men form what becomes a very close bond. When, eventually, Jimmy tells Frank he thinks Frank should be president of his own local teamsters’ union, Frank accepts. “I don’t know what to say,” he tells Jimmy, which in the standard machismo of the men in this movie means, “thank you so much, I’m honored.” As their careers continue, however, it soon becomes clear that Frank cannot be allied to both the mob and Jimmy. He must choose. “It is what it is,” Russell tells Frank — the bottom line. This choice is the central choice of the piece because it actually is a magnification of all the choices Frank makes throughout the film, and the idea of the choice becomes the film’s central thesis: we are, possibly at every moment, confronted with the choice of self-preservation or self-sacrifice. Life is no simple game, and this is no simple choice. Jimmy, it is mentioned early on in the film, disappears, and Frank’s choice — me or him — is central to that disappearance. In the three-and-a-half-hour film, this choice occurs about two-and-a-half hours in, which puts it prominently at the peak of the rise and fall of Frank Sheeran. Following Jimmy’s disappearance, the film moves quickly. Soon, Frank has served his jail time for connection with the mob, has buried a wife and many friends (including Russell Bufalino), and has been checked into a nursing home.
The Irishman is indicative of something beyond the man: it’s an identity. How do we identify, and where can we find a sense of identity? It is surely in something greater than ourselves, something we can really give ourselves to. But when that identity is based on a material world, and when that material world comes crumbling down around us, what will we be left with? Clawing in the dark, searching for meaning — will we feel empty? A wasted life? Frank, near the end of the film, defends his actions to one of his daughters by claiming that he was looking out for his family. He tells her he only wanted to protect them. In this scene, Frank’s daughter claims he couldn’t protect them in any real way, because his protection just amounted to “crazy” violence. What kind of protection could he really have offered? For all Frank’s protection-mindedness, for all the rolling up of sleeves and “dealing with it,” he has missed the point. The protection of his family was about preservation of self, preservation of identity. It is a defense against the world, not an engagement with it. What his family really needed was not his fists, but his open palms, palms that even in the end remain calloused over.
Before Russell dies, Frank sees him going to church. “Don’t laugh,” Russell says. Frank will understand soon enough. And he does. In the final scene of the film, a Catholic priest has visited the now shrunken Sheeran, who has called the priest in but can’t bring himself to an admission of guilt. When the priest tells Sheeran he’ll be back in a few days, likely after the Christmas holiday, Sheeran replies, “Oh, it’s Christmas? Well, I’ll be here . . . Father? Could you do me a favor and leave the door cracked? I don’t like it closed all the way.” The priest cracks the door and the final shot is Frank, seen through the crack of the door, alone. It reads and sounds like the end of an Ibsen drama. Despite all of the protection he claimed to offer his family, despite all the sheltering of his daughters and of his wife from the cruel realities of the world, Frank doesn’t find freedom for himself or others. He remains chained to a system of cycles: money and violence constantly begetting one another and the cult of the self-made man.
How should we create meaning, then? Where do we seek identity? If the filmmaker has an answer, he withholds his voice. There are no easy answers here, no saints remaining. “I liked Jimmy. He was a good man,” says Russell before he dies. “I chose us instead of him . . . fuck ’im.” What would we choose? The Irishman is delicate and full of restraint — ironic for a gangster flick. The heart of the film is sorrowful, in mourning for the spiritual emptiness of a materialist world. Scorsese doesn’t offer solutions to the questions posed by the piece, and the actors don’t crack open their hearts to show us how they feel (they just crack open their heads to show us their blood — its own poetry). Robert DeNiro as Frank Sheeran manages to never shed a single tear all movie. He and his fellow actors play characters with no time for sentimentality. The world has material demands: food for the family, money for the rent. There is no time to break bread and pray, no food for the spirit. We can’t understand those Latin phrases anyway. Indeed, references to Christianity are apt because Scorsese’s film, though it is rooted in a working-class American life, is radically spiritual. The film is surrounded with Catholic imagery: from the baptisms of the daughters to the final priest’s visit, Frank’s life is in many ways built from this structure — yet the structure renders itself useless, for the content of the structure is empty. We may eat of the bread, but that is far different from an understanding of what the bread is. This is the spiritual collapse: the symbols reduced to symbols, their existence as meaningless as the untimely deaths of almost all the men featured in The Irishman.
We are in an excellent time in cinema, one in which audiences will sit down for just shy of four hours and watch a film. As I was watching it, I thought of Shakespeare’s history plays. In those plays, Shakespeare puts national themes and preoccupations through the mouthpiece of an individual. Scorsese does just that with The Irishman. We are not mobsters, most of us, but don’t we all desire to “make it,” somehow? Don’t we all desire to protect those around us and feel in control of our environment? One may be struck by various dramaturgical complaints on the structure of the film, and these are understandable, but those complaints are minor with respect to the piece as a whole. It is resoundingly personal and, moreover, American: sympathetically American, but not idealistic about that identity. Like the title suggests, to be American at this juncture (maybe at all junctures) means to be split, to be on one side of an ever-widening chasm, yet the Great snd Meaningful American Dream and Advertising and Owning Things play heavily into all of our lives, just like they did in the life of Frank Sheeran. And all of us want to have lived it well. This piece is not history and Scorsese is no historian here — events in the film are purposefully fudged, even contradicting the already dubious account that the real-life Frank Sheeran gave before his death — because Scorsese is crafting a tragedy, and the formal constraints of the medium have requirements outside of history. In the end, Frank doesn’t understand — he’s left silent and alone, his beaten-up pictures the only reminders of a life he could have chosen differently. Frank the character cannot save himself. That is perpetual. The question for us is, as always, can we save ourselves? Asking forgiveness is, the priest tells Frank, an act of the will.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.