The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★

The Irishman is a really good FILM. It’s cinema. It is not a mini-series and it’s and it’s not a retread of themes explored in one of Martin Scorsese’s previous offerings. It’s a film that takes risks and tries its hardest to “convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” And it succeeds in doing so. There are some who see this film as a rehashing of the director’s greatest hits; a legendary filmmaker getting the gang back together for one last hurrah as they move into their twilight years and opportunities such as these become less likely. But The Irishman, in addition to being a grade-A film, also feels like an offering from a director who is repudiating or maybe critiquing the mafioso myths that he helped elevate through such films like Casino and Goodfellas. I personally sensed a recognition that the adulation that’s been heaped upon the gangsters themselves and the codes that they supposedly lived by in his earlier films was in need of a bookend that would offer a contrast to the  braggadocio of his earlier works. 

That bookend comes courtesy of Frank Sheeran. And Frank is no Henry Hill. The famous lines uttered by Hill during the opening of Scorsese’s 1990 film are absent in his latest epic. In my eyes, Frank Sheehan never wanted to be a gangster; but the life found him and he acquiesced. His transition into a mob enforcer and one of Russell Bufalino’s closest confidants was as far away from Henry Hill’s sole ambition as New York is from Australia. But he’s no dummy either and an early show of solidarity towards the mob, borne out of Sheeran’s military training and his own self-preservation, lands him in their good graces which leads to an ask for a favor. And then another. And then another. And before you know it, Sheeran is neck-deep in an amoral wasteland in which the bonds between the men he’s associated himself with seem iron clad at one moment and then paper thin in the next. Though he accepts responsibility for his actions (he’s reported to have performed over two-dozen mob hits), by asking us to take this journey with Sheeran and his associates, Scorsese, who is no fan of the superhuman spectacles which dominate the silver screen,  is asking us to reach deep down into our souls and empathize, almost to a supernatural degree, with a group of men for whom these same empathies may be extended to us but for a brief moment, only to be rescinded at the drop of a dime. 

The film is full of these types of relationships and there are too many to name. But none are as tragic as the friendship between Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. Al Pacino plays Hoffa with gusto, channeling the mania of Sonny Wortzik and the coked-out (temperamentally) hubris of a young Tony Montana during his time on screen. As Hoffa, he is as a man who has the world in the palm of his hands, all the while forgetting who did the heavy lifting to help place it there to begin with. His swagger is infectious and it’s easy to see how he rose to the top of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But that moxie is a double edged sword and is surely his undoing. It also stands in stark contrast to Sheeran’s stoicism. 

The patience that Frank exhibits is also reflected in the films runtime of 210 minutes, which might’ve been taxing for some, but I felt this gave the film room to breathe as we experience life inside the inner circle from Sheeran’s POV. The time spent exploring his transition into a coldhearted killer and his realization of this is fact is a big part of this film’s appeal for me. Henry Hill never possessed the amount of self-reflection that Sheeran seem to have internalized and his ability to endure without purgation is his key to his survival both on the job and at home, as his strengthened bonds with the mafia contrast sharply against aspects of his decaying home life. His relationship with Peggy Sheeran (Lucy Gallina / Anna Paquin), one of his four daughters, is a relationship that has now spilled over into a discussion about the long-standing issue of representation within Hollywood, as Paquin only delivers seven lines of dialogue in the entire film. But this is one of the films most important features. The silence exhibited by by Peggy, the looks she gives Frank during their moments as a family together, the words she won’t utter, is devastating to his psyche in more ways than one and I can’t recall a single character with whom Henry Hill shared a similar bond with. And when she does speak, it reverberates mightily. Paquin described this eloquently herself, and makes it known that her presence carried as much weight as the mob bosses themselves. At the end of the day, her silence and the host of broken relationships is what seems to torment Sheeran the most, not the murders themselves. 

The stillness of it all is what truly got to me because it’s in these moments, with no distractions and without the thoughts of others to preoccupy us that the film reveals its true essence. There’s nowhere to run and as Sheeran is facing mortality, this silence becomes deafening and the absence of familiar faces agonizing. He knows that his loneliness is a product of his own doing. Henry Hill seemed to defy this state of being by lamenting that there’s “no action” in his new life after he turned on his former associates. But for Sheeran it’s the opposite. It’s likely that these thoughts are what prompted Sheeran to ask the chaplain to not “shut the door all the way” late into the film, and it wasn’t simply because he was alone. Because being alone is something we all face at one point in time. But being boxed in with the memories, the transgressions, and even the silence, which in and of itself is a reminder of the harm you’ve caused, is a form of death in its own right.

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