The Irishman

The Irishman ★★★★½

—It’s what it is. 
—What it is? 
—It’s what it is. 

However confidently the “it” is proclaimed, in a student’s paper I’d mark “it” with a “pro ref,” a pronoun reference error, when there is no antecedent for the pronoun, or when the antecedent is too general to be named, understood, defined. The “it” is a nothing word, a hollow that fills only with the reader’s confusion. 

That nothing-“it” reminds me of Roger O Thornhill in North by Northwest, the man whose middle initial was a gaping hole, an “O” standing for no other name, and whose full initials spelled out ROT, an emptiness and rot he went through life quite happily accepting. A charming sort of game. But, as fate would have it, he steps into the shoes of George Kaplan, a man who doesn’t exist, and government shrugs and decides to leave him there. And in becoming an actual nothing, Thornhill suddenly finds he’d like to live, really live. Not in the rot, not in the nothing. But with someone he cares about and who cares about him. There, in the forest of trees Hitchcock had hauled in to create a setting for their confessions, Eve and Roger Thornhill face each other in truth for the first time and decide to live. 

I do not know if Scorsese was thinking of Thornhill and his empty nothingness when he created the emptiness that is the character Frank Sheeran. I don’t know if he was thinking of Thornhill and Sheeran later when he wrote his elegy for cinema in the New York Times on November 4, 2019, and spoke of how the “stunning” “set pieces” in North by Northwest would be nothing “without the painful emotions at the center of the story or the absolute lostness of Cary Grant’s character.”

But the irony of the something that is nothing fills The Irishman until the whole film aches with it. And there is no Eve for Frank Sheeran like there was for Roger Thornhill. There’s Peggy and her eyes that see it all, see all the nothing, but what can she do? Frank knows she sees. And he does nothing, notes her gaze, even seeks it at times, and continues his nothing. 

The “it” without the antecedent, here, is, of course, something. But it’s death, the hollow nothing after life. And Frank carries out its dogged business as if that death means something. As if it is not the nothingness by which all gangsters are contained. 

Frank, maybe, begins to see what Peggy saw when he can no longer carry out his errands of nothingness and the nothing gapes at his feet and peeks through the crack in his door. He repeats some of the holy words, anyway, he’s been given to say. 

And he sits alone waiting. 

Not like Roger, with Eve, on a train, dashing headlong, joyously into the round “O” of tunnel that spells out life. (Hitchcock’s naughty little jokes, you see, are actually rather wonderful.) 

But Frank. He’s alone with his “it.”

—It’s what it is. 
—What it is? 
—It’s what it is.

(Further thoughts on the film here, as a guest reviewer on the /Filmcast.)

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