“God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.” —Paul Valéry
In 2019, the average life expectancy of a male in the US sits at 76. Robert De Niro is 76. Martin Scorsese is 77. Scorsese knows he’s nearer the end of the journey than the beginning; transience is a reality as well as a point of view. It is a blessing then that Netflix supplied the cash to allow the director to prove that his artistic acumen has never been stronger or sharper. The end comes for us all, and if this is Scorsese’s last work, he’s leaving us with one of his best.
The Irishman is a sweeping epic on the violent and underwhelming life of Frank Sheeran; a life filled with meaningless trinkets and hollow memories. Scorsese sets the tone with a beautiful, crawling shot through the dark, barren halls of a nursing home. The tenants, connected to tubes and wheelchairs, seem to queue up in invisible lines and empty rooms to wait for the pearly gates. All the while, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s opening shot curls through – accompanied by the doo-wop tones of The Five Satins, singing ‘In the Still of the Night’ – to find our protagonist. There are no doormen to tip, no showgirls singing, no barrel-aged whisky glasses clinking. The Copacabana Club of 1990’s Goodfellas is a universe far removed from this one. This is no sexy sequel; death is the dish of the day.
As the camera falls upon Sheeran (De Niro), greyed, old and alone, he begins his life story. Frank is frank about his murderous life from the opening line: “When I was young, I thought house painters painted houses. What did I know? I was a working guy. A business agent for Teamster Local 107 out of South Philly. One of a thousand working stiffs… until I wasn’t no more. And then I started painting houses… myself.” These banal yet devastating lines capture the film’s soul and begin our descent into the black hole that is Frank Sheeran.
Cutting to 1950s Pennsylvania, many might expect Scorsese’s ‘standard’ gangster routine. Indeed, familiarly, here a relatively ‘innocent’ individual (De Niro) gets drawn into a small crime to better his circumstances. His descent into the world of crime is expedited by his willingness to participate and his happenchance connections with the right people. As money goes up, the happiness increases. That’s the catch. Unlike previous kindred works Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street and Casino, Scorsese keeps The Irishman’s feet planted firmly on the ground. There is no exhilarating rise or tragic fall. An oft-repeated parlance rings true: ‘It is what it is’.
Take Sheeran’s acts of murder, which are short, violent and startlingly swift. When an outsider gangster, ‘Whispers’, asks Sheeran to destroy a rival laundromat, he’s informed by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and his buddy Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) that this would be an unwise decision. When he suggests to Russell and Angelo that he can return the fee, they emphasise that that’s not necessary. Moments later we cut to a fleeting scene of under 10 seconds’ duration. Sheeran rounds a street corner to an unwitting Whispers, shoots him dead, and walks on without a glance. In The Irishman, no one clasps their wounds begging for mercy or for messages to be passed onto their spouse. Two bullets to the head, and that’s it. They’re dead.
Should there be any chance the audience might interpret this as dashing, Scorsese dispels it in the next scene. Returning to his quiet home following the prosaic murder, Sheeran hears how the local shopkeeper has pushed his young daughter, Peggy. Without missing a beat, he drags Peggy with him to the shop as he administers brutal retribution, callously breaking the owner’s hand. Father and child walk home hand-in-hand – handcuffed is a more apt description.
As his ‘house painting’ continues, the distance with Peggy grows. And as she grows closer to the chaotically entertaining Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino on sensational form), her stoic insight sharpens when looking at her father and Russell (Pesci) with dismay. It is an astonishingly near-sighted interpretation of Anna Paquin’s role as the adult Peggy, and Scorsese’s use of her, to remark on her seven lines of dialogue in a three-and-a-half-hour film. Through Paquin, The Irishman sticks its landing. There’s no denying that the violence is shocking, and that Russell and Frank are bad men. But you need a lot more than that to edify the masses about the banality of evil, the humdrum horror of their nihilistic vocations – and Scorsese has never been a one-note director.
The Irishman approaches the black hole from various angles. Through Peggy’s relationship with the ice cream-loving, mad-cat, nice – albeit flawed – Hoffa does she find the father figure she never had. It is through Pacino’s charming and effervescent energy, and Steven Zallian’s witty script, that we get drawn further into the darkness. Hoffa serves as foil to Sheeran’s detached darkness and the lighter path not taken. Through their curious friendship and its devastating effects, Scorsese reminds us of death and the legacy we leave behind. When Hoffa finally crosses the line, and the mob decides it’s time to put a stop to the Teamster leader’s comeback, Pesci’s Bufalino shrugs with no emotion. ‘It is what it is’.
Sheeran boards the plane to Detroit with no fuss when so ordered. He waits in the backseat of the car for Hoffa with no dispute at the proceedings. He shoots his friend of two decades in the back of the head. He doesn’t even look back as he closes the front door. The shock of Sheeran’s apathetic ability only truly lands when we see Peggy again. The family sit together watching the news of Hoffa’s disappearance, when Sheeran admits he’s not yet called Jo, Hoffa’s widow. We watch a father-daughter’s relationship reach finality as Peggy repeats the simple question of ‘Why?’. Comprehending that her father was a man made of nothing, who could kill for nothing, and stood for nothing, Peggy never speaks to Frank again.
As the film draws to its close, Russell and Frank wind up in prison together as two old cripples. Prieto’s colour palette is stark and grey as the two decrepit men wait for death. Then off-screen and without fanfare we learn via voiceover that the once omniscient Russell died after a stroke. He is simply gone. Alone in the world, and with failing legs, Sheeran makes one last attempt to connect with Peggy at her job at the bank. We feel the weight of his wartime resolution that ‘[once] I saw that I was getting through the war, I looked around me, I said, “From now on, whatever happens, happens.”’ With no words uttered, she closes her booth and walks away.
As the light fades and Frank’s health fails, Scorsese hammers home the final nail in the coffin and confirms his ambiguous lead as an antihero in our eyes. Sheeran’s non-confession to his priest is that he has no regrets – ‘I didn’t know the families’ – and that he simply did what he did. In a final shot for the ages, the priest leaves the door ajar leaving Frank alone with his thoughts. No one will be coming tonight, or tomorrow, or the week after. He’s left alone with nothing and waiting for death.
Scorsese’s possible swansong offers us a choice. In this truly sensational film – with the masterful support of De Niro, Pesci, Pacino, Prieto and of course his long-time editor, Thelma Schoonmaker – Scorsese leaves us not with a flashy tune, but a warning. No matter the heights we reach, death, and its gravity, comes for us all. You can dress it up how you like, but at the end of the day, it is what it is.