I’ve only watched Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman twice all the way through and neither time have I been fully able to unpack or digest all that it signifies. The movie is another highly romanticized trip through mobster territory for Scorsese — or is it? In portraying Robert De Niro’s mob hit man, Frank Sheeran, as a remorseless killer whose unquestioning obeying of orders ultimately destroys him, it also seems to condemn the genre Scorsese helped popularize in the first place. In spirit, it’s closer to The Godfather Part III than GoodFellas — which is not a bad thing.
At the end of Godfather III, cruel Mafia overlord Michael Corleone finally gets comeuppance for everything he’s done over the course of three movies, including assassinating his own brother for crossing him. He’s plotted and schemed and sent his henchmen to their deaths. He brought to ruin the very family that his beloved father struggled so valiantly (and vainly) to protect — even if said family did consist of a bunch of damn mobsters. After witnessing the murder of the person closest to him — his own daughter — Michael ends up old and alone, powerless, blind, feeble. Only dogs are there to see it when he falls over dead. End of movie. Tragedy writ large.
Sheeran’s fate is not so dissimilar. He has spent the entirety of Scorsese’s long, long, LOOOOOOOOOOONG movie (probably the longest I’ve ever sat through) taking orders from Mafia chieftain Russell Bufalino (the invaluable Joe Pesci), even knocking off his own best friend, Jimmy Hoffa (Oscar-ready Al Pacino), because, well, orders. Frank does not, in his heart of hearts, wish to kill Hoffa, but he owes Russell his total allegiance and goes through with the hit — even though it’s like a dagger through his own heart. The rest of the movie deals with the aftermath of Hoffa’s murder and the effect is has on Sheeran in his old age.
Sheeran seems unable to refuse a Mafia order. He goes through the movie walking up to guys and plugging them. Scorsese neatly summarizes Sheeran’s devotion to his job by giving us a montage in which Frank throws gun after gun into a river, the bottom of which is filled with disposed-of murder weapons. The neat effectiveness of Sheeran’s method — you simply walk up to the guy and shoot him three times and never stop walking — is shown again and again. He seems to have no choice. One wonders what Sheeran would do even if he did feel that he had a choice. Would he stop killing?
Frank is, quite simply, a slave. He kills without question. The only answer to any problem is murder. Russell can order a hit without even verbalizing it; in one scene, Pesci squints at De Niro, and that’s it, a man’s fate has been sealed. How does Frank feel about any of this? The movie won’t say — except for one insightful moment toward the end, when a priest straight-up asks Frank. The old hit man responds, without a hint of regret, that he feels nothing. He’s not sorry at all. “Well … except for one.” We know he means Hoffa.
There is one scene early in the movie that might feel superfluous (I’ll admit, a few of them do) but essentially sums up the message about Frank. In it, Frank, as a WWII soldier, orders two German POWs to dig a hole. It’s clear he’s going to bury them in it. “Why did they keep digging,” Frank reminisces, “if they knew they were going to die?” Later, we realize that that’s Frank’s curse — he keeps digging his own grave, unable to stop, knowing he’ll be buried in it. (Sure enough, he shoots the unarmed Germans, setting up a career of murder.)
The movie has stirred up quite a bit of unearned controversy over its portrayal of Frank’s daughter, both as a child and an adult. Peggy Sheeran regards her father with cold, silent contempt. The controversy has arisen over the number of actual spoken lines the character has over the course of this long, LOOOOOOOOONG movie. There are about seven. Does this mean that Scorsese is a sexist?
Of course not. Peggy is the only character in the whole movie — in the entirety of Frank’s life — who sees Frank for what he is, and, crucially, disapproves. Even Russell sees that Peggy will have no truck with the evil with which her father associates. In one scene, he calls young Peggy over for a lame joke about “birdies” and practically begs to know if he can “do anything” for her. She refuses and walks away. Frank shame-facedly apologizes, but it’s clear he feels the sting of her rejection. Peggy sees through their charade of normalcy — the bowling and the car trips and the tense evening meals — knowing that her father is a bad man and letting him feel her disapproval with each icy stare.
Yes, Peggy only gets seven lines, but her role in the film is crucial, and her silence defines Frank’s fate. He ends up alone in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair, living with his memories … and with silence. Peggy’s unwillingness to buy into his act as someone who “just wanted to protect” her is a judgment, an act of damnation. Frank’s inability to make the correct choice — to question or outright disobey an order — is the hole he has dug for himself. At the end, there is no one there to see him fall in. Like Michael Corleone, he has allowed his own toxic masculinity and his blind obedience to an evil “trade” to destroy him. It hasn’t destroyed Peggy — she at least escapes with her soul — but it eats like a poison at Frank through the remainder of his sad days.