It seems that as we grow older, the more we think about life; we wonder how we will be remembered, and who will remember us. Or maybe you wish you had spent more time with your family rather than killing all those people for your mob boss. Such is the case of Frank Sheeran, the titular character and focus of Martin Scorsese’s new film The Irishman, which is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. From a vantage point of an old man in a retirement home reflecting on his life, Sheeran (Robert De Niro) narrates his story, which ranges from World War II to the early 2000s and includes (among many other elements) his friendship with Jimmy Hoffa, the General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The book and film most prominently answer the question of what happened to Hoffa after his disappearance, which might be the primary motivation for many to watch it; however, there is so much more to it than that. In what is arguably one of Scorsese’s best and most pensive films yet, The Irishman depicts a harrowing account of a man grappling with his past — a past which leaves him with nothing besides pain and regret.
Frank Sheeran begins his career as a truck driver in Philadelphia and a member of the Teamsters, languishing as “one of a thousand working stiffs” providing for his family, the most prominent of whom is his younger daughter Peggy, played as a child by Lucy Gallina and as an adult by Anna Paquin, silently casting judgement on Frank’s actions throughout the film with a piercing stare. Eventually, he meets powerful Pennsylvania mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), who starts giving him various tasks to perform for the mob including murder. As Sheeran gradually begins to become more powerful, he is introduced to Hoffa (Al Pacino). Sheeran and Hoffa become close friends and confidantes, but Sheeran watches with growing concern as Hoffa’s relationship with the mob sours more and more. Sheeran is ultimately forced to choose between Hoffa and the mob, a decision which affects him for the rest of his life. Of course, much debate surrounds the question of whether his account is actually true or not; in a sense, though, it does not necessarily have to be, as its ambiguity perfectly mirrors the uncertainty which continues to plague Sheeran long after his days in the mob are over. One can probably assume from this synopsis that the film is long — an accurate statement, considering it runs for almost three hours and thirty minutes. This is not to say that it drags as a result, though. Indeed, some people have expressed a wish that it was shorter, but after watching it, I realized that there were no parts which I could unequivocally claim the film did not need. One of its biggest strengths is its immensity; it might be hard to watch in one sitting, but it is definitely worth it.
Seeing The Irishman inevitably prompts comparisons to Scorsese’s other mob films, Goodfellas and Casino. All three films share a similar premise, but The Irishman makes for a much different experience; it is more reflective, slower and more suspenseful, as it slowly arrives at the conclusion we all know is eventually coming. The Irishman portrays the rise of its main character within the mob before his standing and opulent lifestyle are permanently undone; after Hoffa’s eventual disappearance, Sheeran, like Bufalino and the other main characters, is convicted of various crimes and sent to prison, with nothing really waiting for him after he is released. While the respective stars of the previous two films fall expressly due to the choices they make and their consequences, Sheeran slips into obscurity as those around him steadily die off with the years. He does not lose his prominent position in the mob like Henry Hill of Goodfellas or Ace Rothstein of Casino; instead, he simply fades away into time. Scorsese illustrates this unmaking with unparalleled ease, allowing the camera to linger in places as Sheeran re–examines exactly what happened. This authenticity of sorts might also come from the age of the main players themselves — De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and Scorsese are all in their late seventies or early eighties. While they may be more contemplative in old age, however, their talents and sensibilities are not muted in the least. Other members of the cast stand out as well; Ray Romano plays the clever and resourceful attorney Bill Bufalino (Russell’s cousin and the attorney for Hoffa and the mob); Stephen Graham nonchalantly portrays Anthony Provenzano (a New Jersey boss and Hoffa’s main rival); and the aforementioned Gallina and Paquin brilliantly serve as Sheeran’s eternal reminder of the consequences of his actions. Action Bronson even shows up as a coffin store owner. It is an ensemble not to be glossed over.
Of course, Sheeran must face the consequences of his choices just as much as the protagonists of the other two films, but rather than affecting his position in the mob in a fairly quick progression of events, they alienate his family over decades and ensure that he has nobody else around him by the film’s chronological conclusion. Near the end of the film, two government agents ask him about what happened to Hoffa once more, mentioning the pain his family has endured that came with the uncertainty regarding his disappearance. “You got kids, Frank — can you imagine?,” they ask him. The saddest part of this exchange is the fact that, in a way, Frank cannot imagine it because he has no kids who still talk to him — they do not even want to associate with him, with Peggy refusing to talk to him when he visits her at her job. While it is true that he committed many horrific acts, you cannot help but feel sympathy for him, as his final fate is one which could easily befall any of us.
The final shot of the film shows Frank Sheeran through the slightly open door of his room in the retirement home to which he is confined, abandoned. While he may not have encountered the same brutal fate as Hoffa or many of the other characters throughout the film, the audience has to wonder whether the alternative they are shown is any better.
John Colie is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].