The Irishman (2019)
Written by Steve Zaillian
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Frank Sheerhan sits in a nursing home, hair gray and receding. He’s telling his story of rising from the ranks of a truck driver in Philadelphia to the close confidante of Jimmy Hoffa to no one. As the film unfolds, we can surmise his daughter Peggy is the imagined audience. She is perceptive in her youth, realizing the violent work her father does, and finding a more positive role model in Hoffa. She refuses not only to hear Frank’s story but will also not speak to him.
If filmmaker Martin Scorsese wanted to end his career on this picture, it would be a perfect sendoff. The movie features his most well-known collaborators, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. Added to that is the legendary Al Pacino, which makes this one of those “you cannot believe your eyes” moments in cinema. These are people who shaped a lot of what popular American acting is, bringing elements of Stella Adler and the New School to screens around the country. This is very “old school” and feels like the culmination of a cultural arc.
The story of Frank touches on significant moments in America in the 1960s, always orbiting around the Kennedy administration and how their policies shaped labor in the U.S. but Scorsese doesn’t turn this into an Easter Egg hunt of “spot the reference.” Everything is organically blended into Frank’s very human story. With that cast and story centered around organized crime, it’s understandable that you might be tempted into thinking this is a retread of Goodfellas and Casino. There are definitely elements these three pictures share in common.
It’s when the third act of the film hits that it becomes apparent that we are watching something much different thematically than those pictures. Goodfellas and Casino are very much about the grotesque bloating of power & ego, their ends being inevitable self-destructive. The Irishman is about the one many in the midst of all that who wasn’t gunned down in the street, taken out in a brutal hit. This man keeps living and living and living. He’s approached by FBI agents in his old age, coming once again to ask about his connection to Hoffa’s disappearance. Frank tells them to talk with his lawyer, and they reply that his lawyer passed away. The look on Frank’s face tells us he’s reached a point, whether from age or the creep of dementia that he’s not quite sure what time it is anymore.
We can see this in the structure of the film. The picture opens with Frank sitting alone, talking to himself in the nursing home. He’s telling us about a trip he took to a wedding with his mob connection & friend Russell and their wives in the 1970s. They stop for a smoke break and realize they are across the highway from a Texaco station where they first met in the 1950s. Then the film jumps back to that period to show us how Frank came up in the mob and labor. The rest of the film jumps between these three periods for reasons that become obvious later, but from a character point of view, it informs the audience about Frank’s disassociation with the present.
Back to Peggy and the near-silent performance from Anna Paquin. It seemed incredibly odd that they would hire an actress like Paquin and give her so little dialogue, but there is a substantial and profound point to it all. Throughout the picture, Frank & his associates have meaningless conversations about minutiae. There’s a prolonged discussion about whether it’s polite to get to an appointment ten minutes early or fifteen. Later, a made man argues with a driver about the fish he delivered to a friend and how he doesn’t know what species of fish it was. This is meaningless nonsense, filling the space where Peggy’s absent words hang heavy. If she spoke, she would have something of profound importance to say, but she will not give Frank or us that honor. He doesn’t deserve her words.
Scorsese’s work is a juxtaposition of bombast & contemplation. Compare Seven Years in Tibet with Casino or Goodfellas with Silence. These are all often about male relationships & bonds, but they speak to the toxicity of masculine rage and the relief that the quiet can bring. In The Irishman, I felt both of these themes were blended and pronounced so beautifully. I can’t imagine the energetic & passionate director will stop now, but he has definitely given us a work that acts as a perfect culmination of a career.