It’s what it is.
Aging lead Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is approached by two detectives towards the end of Martin Scorsese‘s The Irishman (the cinematic adaptation of Charles Brandt‘s I Heard You Paint Houses as scripted by Steve Zaillian) who let him know he’s the only one left. All the other big-time mafiosos from the Bufalino family and elsewhere had met their demise either from bullet, garrote, or disease (with the rare case of natural causes thrown into the mix). The tactic was to let Frank know that there was no longer anyone to protect. He didn’t have to worry about flipping on Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) or Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel). He didn’t have to worry about his own future. This was it. The moment to come clean was now.
Frank may smile upon rebuffing those gentlemen with “Have a nice day” during the scene, but Brandt has him confessing everything from a retirement home wheelchair. Alone because of those aforementioned deaths and the distance to the living created by having “bagman” as the longest-tenured occupation on his résumé, what else was there to talk about? If his daughters believed him a monster—and there’s no denying his criminal past—why not lay everything else out? Why not confess to murdering Crazy Joe Gallo? Or put himself at the scene of Jimmy Hoffa’s (Al Pacino) disappearance? No one being left to protect also meant nobody could refute his wild claims. Sheeran either admitted to violence he personally wrought or concocted an unforgettable legacy far beyond his forgettable truth.
As far as history is concerned, the difference between these two possibilities is immense. The entertainment value of art, however, isn’t obligated to prove its worth beyond hearsay. So maybe you should place an asterisk next to Brandt’s account of this man who did actually run in the circles he says he did despite maybe not having done the deeds he’s now retroactively and without corroboration attributed to himself. But as long as Scorsese and company stay true to what Sheeran said, they can carry on without that footnote. Rather than rewrite the history books, their goal is to merely tell Frank’s story as a tragic example of mafia life. Loyalty only carries you so far when the spoils become reliant on the betrayal of one above another.
Who is Frank loyal to at the start? Family. He’ll do whatever it takes to provide for them even if it means stealing from his employer to give meat to a known “captain” in Skinny Razor DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale). One favor begets another until Sheeran says the right things in front of mob lawyer Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano) to then set a meet with his cousin Russell. From there it’s an introduction to Angelo, a few successful jobs (big and small), and a phone call with Hoffa that changes everything. What’s interesting is that the change is almost towards legitimacy regardless of the dirty deeds he’s still asked to complete. The war made Frank a killer, Russell provided a lucrative outlet, and Hoffa supplied a brand new road.
And we’re watching it all as though a flashback within a flashback. Sheeran is relating his biography to us from his retirement home with a majority of the focus pointed onto a road trip he, Russell, and their wives took to attend a wedding in Detroit. It’s on this journey that he reminisces about the first time these two men bumped into each other long before properly meeting at a Philadelphia mob joint. The latter setting is where his aforementioned loyalty changes. No longer scraping by after time passes, Frank secures a place at Russell’s side so this godfather figure can become the center of his world instead. He leaves his wife for another, pulls some triggers, and entrenches his Irish self into an Italian brotherhood for life.
He owes Russell for everything. While that includes meeting Hoffa, however, it’s to Jimmy that Frank owes much of what he becomes through the Teamsters Union. Sure he’s still the heavy, but he has a title and purpose beyond murder. He’s also smart enough to toe the delicate dynamic shared between Russell and Hoffa where politics and money are concerned. Both men identify with power and they wield it with clenched fists. One supports Kennedy and the other Nixon, but they have their reasons and they are understood if not agreed upon. So Sheeran hops from one to the other, does whatever he can to help each, and ultimately finds himself at a crossroads wherein a choice must be made. One always does in this line of work.
What makes Frank’s life so intriguing is that he’s very much a peripheral player within it. His survival is always contingent on another’s because he’s always a man in service of others. And he can’t satisfy them all. He can never walk away knowing Russell, Jimmy, and his family—as epitomized by his astutely aware daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a girl and Anna Paquin as an adult, each with a palpable sense of judgment and disappointment in near wordless roles)—are simultaneously happy. Maybe he can get two at once, but never three. And this obviously eats at Sheeran because he must intentionally hurt at least one with every action taken. It doesn’t matter if it’s physical or psychological either. His life is betrayal.
The Irishman isn’t therefore another electric look at the mafia and its exploits like Scorsese’s Goodfellas or Casino. No, it’s much more akin to the director’s last film Silence. Because even though we know Frank is doing well for himself financially, we never really see him enjoying it. Every scene on-screen is one with purpose to a trajectory into isolation that can’t be undone with contrition—whether it’s genuine or not. We’re bearing witness to conversations (sometimes shrouded beneath transparent code such as “painting houses” standing-in for killing men by leaving blood splatters on the walls) that daisy chain themselves together with the inevitable struggles that result. It’s not long before all we see on these men’s faces is pain and sorrow for events they’re helpless to prevent.
This is a great thing for us because the film’s demand for emotional introspection provides a peerless contemporary showcase for four of cinema’s greats to collide with what will probably be their swan song as a collective. De Niro has been Scorsese’s muse from the beginning (similar to Keitel whose role here is brief). Marty discovered Pesci and helped him win an Oscar, cajoling his friend from retirement to take one more ride. And Pacino has always been the elusive actor Scorsese could never pin down despite projects that almost made it happen. That they can do this material together means something too because of their history playing mob characters in youth. To let them now put the tragedy front and center is a fitting reason to return.
Each is wonderful with special notice going to Pacino. Sheeran is the more complex character on paper due to the years spent with him, but his ability to let self-preservation negate desire puts him a step below Hoffa’s refusal to compromise. The de-aging technique that allows De Niro to play his role during multiple eras is like many have already said: great to look at if not quite perfect in execution. Seeing a young Frank’s face helps us know where we are in the story, but it doesn’t stop the body of a seventy-year old trying to stomp a grocer from being hilariously absurd. Maybe Pacino not really aging during his time in Frank’s life helps because he’s not forced to contend with the special effects.
The otherwise sprawling cast of supporting players deserves notice too with Paquin doing a lot with a little and Stephen Graham chewing scenery as Hoffa nemesis Anthony Provenzano. Romano is very good too, but in a role that never quite escapes the fringes. That’s okay, though, since Pacino and Pesci do more than enough to keep De Niro honest on his ascent to heights experts say his real-life counterpart never reached. But whether or not Frank Sheeran was as prolific a triggerman as he admitted (if he ever killed a man at all) doesn’t factor into The Irishman‘s success because the honesty of his loneliness and regrets outshine the details. In the end he’s just an old man telling stories to strangers after those he loved are gone.
courtesy of Netflix