The Irishman has been severally interpreted as Scorsese’s elegy, as an attempt to kill the mob movie once and for all, and as the final culmination of his career. But while the film certainly deals with the fears and reflections of age, it is more about what brings its central character to this pass, how he has sacrificed his humanity, his morality, and his soul in service to a soulless organization. The Irishman could be read along the trajectory of Scorsese’s other mob films, from the youth of Mean Streets andthe arc of Goodfellas, to the energetic cynicism of Casino, Gangs of New York, and The Departed. Where Goodfellas and even Casino portray the mob as soulless but also somewhat fun, The Irishman sidesteps that sense of exuberance or enjoyment. No one, really, is having fun in the world of banal violence and immorality.
The plot centers on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as he looks back on his life as a teamster, mob enforcer, and bodyguard, through his relationships with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), a minor mob boss, and Teamster Union head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank’s life meanders from petty crime in funneling cuts of meat off his trucks, to his position as an enforcer for Bufalino, and eventual bodyguard and friend to Hoffa. He cycles through two wives and failed relationships with his daughters, who fear him and with whom he seems incapable of making emotional connections.
Violence doesn’t really characterize the film – there are no balletic celebrations of gore, no brutality played through for the enjoyment of the camera. The executions are quick and nearly bloodless, sudden shocks of bullets into skulls that end with Frank walking calmly away. It is the banality of violence, the sense that Frank, and others like him, are just working men doing a job, that makes The Irishman so haunting, and that plays out the character’s ultimate lack of emotional or spiritual redemption.
While other mobsters and criminals that surround him form some connections with their families and friends, Frank seems incapable of it. In one pivotal scene, Russ tells him that he should keep his family close, that it’s fine for Frank’s daughter, Peggy, to fear Russ, but that she “shouldn’t be afraid of you.” But Frank is incapable of expressing much of anything outside his controlled, directed violence. He’s not the glaring, entertaining psychopath of Taxi Driver or Mean Street, but the psychopath who is so good at killing because, at base, he doesn’t feel anything. The film traces this back to Frank’s experience in the army, where he forces two captured Italian soldiers to dig their own graves, but it never goes further back than that. What explanation there is for Frank’s pathology may be buried in his military service, or it may simply be who and what he has always been.
Unlike the antiheroes of Goodfellas, Frank doesn’t even aspire to move up in the mob – he never rises or falls in the mob hierarchy, remaining in the steady working class. He connects with Hoffa, who exudes all of the energy and joy in living that Frank doesn’t have. Pacino acts as a counterpoint to De Niro, gleefully indulging in family, dancing, and ice cream. Even if Hoffa is unhinged, he has a real emotional life and connections with those around him.
De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci drive The Irishman, counterbalancing each other across the arc of the film. The additional characters circling them – from Harvey Keitel’s near-silent boss to Ray Romano’s excellent turn as a mob lawyer – lend able, never distracting support. More involved is the lack of roles for women and especially the “silence” of Anna Paquin as the grown-up Peggy. Frank has four daughters, but Peggy is the only one he focuses on – from the beginning, she’s a silent figure, hardly able to say more than a few words to her father at a time. Her first pivotal scene occurs when Frank learns that her boss at a grocery hit her, so he leads her down the street to watch him beat the man nearly senseless. This, again, is partially about Frank’s lack of emotional connection – he mentions leaving his first wife for another woman, but the women themselves are barely realized figures, so the exchange is unemotional, even blasé. He laments that Peggy knows what he does for a living, which he seems to never conceal, but this becomes more of an excuse for his inability to connect to her, made even worse when Hoffa immediately becomes her friend and surrogate father figure. The latter scenes with Paquin’s Peggy draw this element into relief – her silence turns from adolescent fear into a rebuke of all that Frank is. Unwilling to even speak to him, she removes his opportunities for catharsis, either in her anger or in her forgiveness. She condemns him to a death without redemption.
There is so much to be said about The Irishman. De Niro, Pacino, and Pesci give their finest performances in years, balancing each other on the screen in utterly different roles. Scorsese brings out all his cinematographic techniques, referencing his own films, the films of his stars, and the mob movies of the past that draw their reality into relief. One of the major sticking points of The Irishman has been its length – and at three and a half hours, it is indeed one of the longer contemporary films released in theaters, and the longest that Scorsese has ever made. But the slow pace of the beginning prepares the viewer for the final act, a sudden arc upward that draws each of the methodically constructed character and plot elements into relief as it advances to a fatalistic and devastating conclusion.
While many of Scorsese’s mob films have been accused (incorrectly) of glorifying mob lifestyle, there is no such space for The Irishman to be misinterpreted. It presents the mob as a world shorn of humanity, a world where grown men act like children, furious over perceived slights, and kill each other for it. It is not an elegy for the mob movie or for aging or for Scorsese’s career. It is the inescapable conclusion of every mob story, the bit that most films don’t want to show – those men don’t go out in a blaze of glory, remembered for all time, but in a sad, slow spiral into the darkness of their own making.