Martin Scorsese’s produced another great gangster movie with The Irishman, the supposed life story of a union thug who became a mafia hitman.
Scorsese’s latest epic (which spans a well deserved three-and-a-half hours) is supposedly a true story. In the last years of his life, Frank Sheeran confessed to a laundry list of high-profile murders, including the disappearance of former Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa. His claims, originally printed in Charles Brandt’s blockbuster biography I Heard You Paint Houses, have been fairly thoroughly debunked. For what it’s worth, I feel more comfortable talking about this movie as a work of fiction – a piece of Tarantino-esque revisionist history, helmed by the best mob movie-maker of the last two centuries.
In the hands of a different team, Frank’s star-studded story could have felt too surreal for its own good. And there are moments where The Irishman does feel a bit like Scorsese’s take on Forrest Gump (was it really necessary to show Frank arming insurgents for the Bay of Pigs invasion?). But Steven Zaillian’s script is bittersweet, his characters too human to be weighed down by legend, and Scorsese approaches the story with sincerity and no little sadness. Like his best films, it’s something of a morality play.
Played by Robert De Niro, Frank presents as self-interested and uncurious, the kind of guy who has no qualms about ripping off his employer so long as his union can block him from getting fired. A series of chance encounters places him in the orbit of mobster Russell Bufalino (an excellent performance by Joe Pesci).
“I thought maybe he owned the gas station,” Frank recalls of their first meeting. “‘Cause he owned something, you could tell.”
Pesci’s a frequent Scorsese collaborator, stealing scenes in Goodfellas and Casino playing street level gangers with hair trigger tempers. Russell is a more refined character, someone high enough on the food chain that he doesn’t have to do his own dirty work – although there’s enough coarseness in his manner to suggest this wasn’t always the case.
The two men hit it off almost immediately. Russ is particularly impressed by Frank’s proficiency in Italian, which he learned in the War, as well as Frank’s revelation that he was the guy who would make enemy soldiers dig their own graves before shooting them. “Maybe they thought, if they did a good job, the man with the gun would change his mind,” he muses glibly.
One could see how a comment like that would appeal to a gangster like Russ; perhaps Frank knows that, too. I couldn’t help but note that the line is atypical for the character, who – for all his flaws – doesn’t seem like much of a sadist. Soft-spoken and forthright, Frank’s as much of a mediator as he is an assassin.
How a man like that could have such a vacant moral centre is one of the mysteries of the film.
Going into The Irishman, I was already aware that Sheeran claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa. What surprised me was that he apparently started out as Hoffa’s bodyguard – and later, his friend and confidante. We see Hoffa facilitating Frank’s rise in the ranks with the teamsters, eventually installing him as head of a local chapter. He also cultivates a grandfatherly relationship with Frank’s three daughters. (In one scene that struck me as particularly poignant, he excuses himself from a tense conversation at a union gala to dance with “wonderful Peggy”).
The disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the modern age. No one was ever held to account, and the controversial union leader’s body was never found. As the film progresses, the question becomes less about how Frank killed Hoffa than why, before shifting once again into a different sort of how – as in, how could Frank bring himself to do it? Early on, I assumed their relationship would have to deteriorate significantly to allow Frank to turn on him, but I was wrong. According to Sheeran, Hoffa was assassinated because his power over the Teamsters Union (and their lucrative pension fund) was interfering with the mafia’s business interests. Frank just got his orders and he followed them.
To be fair, he isn’t enthusiastic about the task, and spends the last act of the movie trying to talk Hoffa down before the mob takes him out. (It’s perhaps his dual loyalties that get him saddled with the task: “I had to put you in it or you’d’ve never let it happen,” Russ explains when he gives the order.)
The most important conversations in this movie – the ones that are literally life or death – are fascinatingly oblique. Nothing is ever stated explicitly; assassination orders are cloaked in chillingly banal code. Frank refers to his bloody occupation as “painting houses.” When Russ wants to warn Hoffa that he’s on the verge of being whacked, he tells Frank to tell Jimmy: “It’s how it is.” In one of the film’s more colourful exchanges, he orders a hit by asking an underling to book his friend “a flight to Australia.” (One wonders what would happen in this community if someone actually did need help booking a flight). Grandiose Hoffa is perhaps the only straight shooter here, which is why he gets into trouble.
Pacino’s Hoffa is equal parts gregarious and cantankerous, undoubtedly shrewd, but too set in his ways to reign in his rasher instincts. He blows up a negotiation meeting because he’s offended by a rival’s choice of attire, and his dogged insistence in reclaiming his position – despite the objections of the mob – borders on irrational. “Is it money?” Russ asks, bewildered at the old man’s refusal to step down. “It’s my union!” Hoffa shouts by way of reply.
Still, there’s something likeable about the man – a mix of showy charisma and a warmth that seems almost genuine. Frank’s daughter Peggy has a particular affection for him – making Frank’s final betrayal especially unthinkable.
The movie’s treatment of Peggy Sheeran has been controversial due to her apparently limited role in the story. Over the course of the film, she grows from a shy little girl to an independent, self-possessed young woman – and through it all, she only has a handful of lines. Paquin, who plays Frank’s daughter as an adult, speaks exactly seven words. But the words she does say are devastating – seven little ice picks aimed straight at Frank’s heart. When considering Peggy’s role, it’s important to recall that The Irishman is narrated by an aging, lonely Frank, languishing in an old folks’ home and feeling sorry for himself. So, of course, when he reminisces on the daughter who won’t speak to him, he can only recall the moments where she fell silent in his presence, her wide, accusing eyes haunting him more than any confrontation ever could.
Then again, the man is so obtuse that he probably never listened to her when she did speak. Later in the film, there’s a great exchange where one of his other daughters tells him flatly that he was a bad father, and that he kept his kids living in fear of his violent reactions. His lack of comprehension is telling.
Still, you can’t help but sympathize with Frank a little. Protective of his family and loyal to his friends, he would probably like to believe himself a good man. It was only when the two men he owed everything to came into conflict that things got complicated.
Watching The Irishman, I was frequently reminded of Scorsese’s other gangster epic, Goodfellas – and to be honest, I think I prefer the former. His latest is less action-packed, and its best scenes aren’t as instantly memorable, but it has a lot more pathos and a grander sense of tragedy. With Goodfellas, Scorsese chronicled a character who lived fast and got what he deserved. Here, he gives you a man who wasted his life and doesn’t even seem to understand why.
Title: The Irishman
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian