“The Irishman” - Martin Scorsese (2019)

Martin Scorsese’s latest epic about gangland violence in America, The Irishman (2019), is one of his most ambitious works and has attracted widespread praise [1,2,3,].  With a massive production budget of $159 million and a running time of about 3½ hours, the film is seen by some as the capstone to Scorsese’s career, and a fitting final work that reflects on his famous earlier mobster masterpieces – Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995).  Indeed, viewers familiar with Scorsese will see more than just a thematic connection spanning those works, because The Irishman features two iconic Scorsese actors from those earlier films: Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.

The story of this film concerns the real-life experiences of a gangster hitman, Frank Sheeran (he is "The Irishman”), and it is based on the nonfiction book I Heard You Paint Houses (2004) by Charles Brandt, which is based on Sheeran’s account of his life.  Steven Zaillian adapted Brandt’s’ book for the screen, and the film features superb production values, notably the  cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and the film editing by Thelma Schoonmaker.  I also liked the moody background music, which featured many hit songs from the eras depicted.

However, a production technique used in the film that has particularly fascinated critics is Scorsese’s use of digital technology to touch-up the faces of some of his actors.  All three of Scorsese’s lead actors – the already-mentioned Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, as well as Al Pacino – were over 75 years of age at the time of the making of this film, but the characters they had to portray in some flashback sequences (the bulk of the film) were much younger.  In fact in the case of Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), some scenes even show him in his 20s and 30s.  So Scorsese employed digital technology to “de-age” some of his actors.  In my opinion, this doesn’t work very well, but you can decide for yourself, and in any case this is not a major drawback of the film.

The story of The Irishman is told by switching back and forth across three narrative threads. 
  1. The film begins in the outer thread showing Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro) about eighty years of age in a nursing home (Sheeran died in 2003 at the age of 83).  Sheeran directly addresses the viewer and commences giving his account of his life.
  2. The second narrative thread covers a long car trip that Sheeran took in 1975 from Philadelphia to Detroit with his Mafia “boss” and friend, Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), along with their two wives.  The ostensible reason for their trip is so that they can attend the wedding ceremony of  the daughter of Russell’s cousin, union lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano).  However, Frank and the viewer will learn that there is also another reason for making this drive and that a major event takes place at the end of the trip.
  3. The third narrative thread, and the one that constitutes the bulk of the film material, covers the events surrounding Frank’s life from sometime in the 1950s up to that fateful 1975 road trip, at which point threads 2 and 3 are merged. 
All of this material comes from the real Frank Sheeran’s first-hand testimony and will naturally be assumed by the viewer to be true.  However, since the publication of Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, there have been a number of revelations indicating that Sheeran fabricated key elements of this story [4].  So it is best for us to take this material as an interesting story, but one that does not necessarily constitute documentary truth.

The film begins in the first narrative thread with the elderly Frank Sheeran in a rest home and launching into the telling of his story.  He starts off by recalling his 1975 road trip to Detroit to attend the wedding of Bill Bufalino’s daughter, and the presentation of the beginning of this trip moves us into the second narrative thread.  Then, presumably in order to provide background on how Frank met Russell Bufalino, we move quickly into the third narrative thread.

Frank was a truck driver in Philadelphia in the 1950s, and he began illegally selling his loads to a local crime family.  He was eventually charged with criminal activity, but union lawyer Bill Bufalino manages to get him off.  Bill Bufalino then introduces Frank to local crime boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel, now aged 80 and also de-aged) and to his cousin Russell Bufalino, who is the Mafia head of Northeastern Pennsylvania region.  Soon Frank starts working for Russell.  In a discussion with Russell, Frank affirms his commitment to always following orders by recalling how he ruthlessly shot surrendered prisoners in World War II when  he was ordered to do so.  Gradually, Russell and Frank become friends.

There follows a series of episodes detailing how Frank served as a hitman for the Mob.  Although these tales don’t seem to advance the storyline much, they provide some of the essential atmosphere and color for the film.  All along the way, we see that Frank is a ruthless killer who will murder anyone, even acquaintances, who he has been told the Mob wants erased.  There are a lot of different characters introduced here, and the viewer almost needs a background document to keep track of them all [5].

Eventually, Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa, the head of the important Teamsters Union and a person with close ties to the Mafia and Russell.  Hoffa takes a liking to Frank, and he ultimately hires Frank as his personal bodyguard.  This now sets up a potential conflict that will eventually prove crucial in this film.  Loyalty is a fundamental trait and posture in Frank’s world, and he now must be loyal to two different masters: Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa.  What will happen if those two masters come into conflict?

The film now traces some historical events likely to be familiar to many viewers.  After the election of John F. Kennedy as U. S. President, his younger brother Robert Kennedy, serving as U. S. Attorney General, carried out a campaign to root out corruption in labor unions and specifically targeted Jimmy Hoffa.  Hoffa is finally convicted of criminal activity and sent to prison in 1964.  

During the time Hoffa is in prison, other personages take over running the Teamsters Union, and the Mob families come to terms with the new union leaders.  However, in 1971 President Richard Nixon pardons Hoffa, and when he is released, Hoffa sets out to reclaim ownership of his union.  This makes the crime bosses unhappy, and Russell Bufalino urges Frank, who he knows is close to Hoffa, to get Hoffa to back off from reclaiming his union.  This Frank tries to do, but the headstrong Hoffa scoffs at such a suggestion and says he knows so much about his enemies’ nefarious activities that they will be afraid to touch him.

This brings the story to join up with the second narrative thread – the trip to Detroit, where, it is revealed, Hoffa happens to be.  On the way, Russell gives Frank instructions from the Mafia to kill Hoffa.  Why Sheeran was chosen for this job has been questioned by some, but perhaps the Mafia felt that Hoffa’s friendship with Sheeran would allow his assailant more freedom to carry out his attack surreptitiously. 

In any case, we are now confronted with the fundamental narrative conflict/issue in the film.  Frank Sheeran, for whom loyalty is his ultimate badge of honor, must choose between loyalty to Russell Bufalino and loyalty to Jimmy Hoffa.  They are each not only his direct superiors but also his two closest friends.  Oddly, Scorsese doesn’t spend much time showing Frank wrestling with this conflict.  Frank just goes ahead and follows Russell’s orders.  The sequence showing Sheeran’s murder of Jimmy Hoffa is abrupt and brutal.  And it shows to the viewer once more just how cold-hearted Frank Sheeran really is.
Hoffa’s corpse is quickly cremated, and the police never do determine who committed the murder.  However, Sheeran, Russell Bufalino, and various other gangsters shown in the film are later convicted of unrelated crimes and sent to prison to serve long sentences.  In the end Sheeran is released from prison and winds up in a nursing home.  The final sequences show Frank alone and seeking release from the final “legal case” against him – absolution from a Catholic priest for all the sins he has committed.  But even here, Frank admits that he feels no real remorse for what he has done.

This ending points to a fundamental problem with this story.  Our main character, Frank Shearen, on whom almost all of the focalization is devoted, is a cold and opaque black box.  He seems to lack any kind of compassion, and we never get much of a handle on what he may be feeling.  The other two principal characters, Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa, are selfish, it is true; but they are sensitive, they have passions, and they reach out to other people.  Of those two characters, we are more likely to prefer the Hoffa character, who is more straightforward and authentic than the more manipulative Russell Bufalino.  Both Joe Pesci and Al Pacino give outstandingly fervent performances in these respective roles of Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa, and they are the ones we want to see more of, not Shearen.  Instead, we are left for much of the film to dwell on De Niro’s uncharacteristically wooden personality as Shearen.

Another weakness is the absence of women in this tale.  Even though mafia types are mostly male chauvinists, they still usually have passions for women.  Here the women companions are  barely seen.  The one woman we do see, Frank’s daughter Peggy Sheeran (played by Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin at different stages in the girl’s life) is given almost no words to speak in the film, but we do at least see from her usually frowning glances that she is persistently put off by her father’s thuggish behavior.

Some people have seen The Irishman as a comedy [3].  Others have seen it as a further pursuance of the American fascination with Mafiosi family life [6].  But I would say the presence of either of these themes is very limited.  Instead, in my opinion, the predominant themes in the film are loneliness and emptiness.  If this is Scorsese’s swan song, it’s an incredibly bleak and sad one.  The whole tenor of this film is one of hopelessness and of the ultimate futility of life.

  1. Richard Brody, "Watching "The Irishman" on Netflix Is the Best Way to See It", The New Yorker, (2 December 2019).   
  2. A.O. Scott, “The Irishman’ Review: The Mob’s Greatest Hits, in a Somber Key”, The New York Times, (27 September 2019; updated 30 October 2019).   
  3. Matt Zoller Seitz, “The Irishman”, RogerEbert.com(1 November 2019).   
  4. Jack Goldsmith, "Jimmy Hoffa and The Irishman: A True Story?", The New York Review of Books, (26 September 2019).    
  5. Nick Allen, “Who’s Who in The Irishman: A Character Guide”, Vulture, (27 November 2019).   
  6. Richard Whittaker, “The Irishman”, The Austin Chronicle, (8 November 2019).   

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