It’s What It Is

The Irishman (2019)

Robert De Niro in THE IRISHMAN (2019) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

I’m not big on group activities, but if Thelma Schoonmaker started a cult, I’d join without hesitation. In The Irishman, as in each of her more than 20 collaborations with Martin Scorsese, Schoonmaker’s editing takes a story that could veer into incomprehensibility and transforms it into something clear and effortless—while undermining the narration that’s guiding us through it all. The movie only resonates as well as it does because it manages to simultaneously uphold and rip the bottom out of the story its protagonist, Teamster/mob hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), tells us from a nursing home social lounge. 

Frank traces his path from trucking to running mob errands, which escalates to carrying out mob hits and leading his local Teamsters union, and finally culminates in serving a prison sentence, outliving most of his loved ones and alienating the rest. Structuring this account are his personal and professional relationships with crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino, completing this holy trinity of Italian-American short kings), the latter of whom he murders on the orders of the former. The real-world accuracy of Sheeran’s account is up for debate—I think it’s mostly bullshit, which only makes the movie more of a bummer—but the film doesn’t refute his recollection of events. Its commitment to conveying everything he describes, in fact, verges on the numbing, because the job itself is. Turns out that being a hitman is just a lot of meetings and errand-running and petty conflicts; even murder involves meticulous tasks like picking the right gun and timing out your bathroom break. There’s skill involved in this work, but there’s no creativity, which is why it wouldn’t make much sense to present Frank as an outright fabulist. 

Instead of taking issue with the facts of what Frank tells us, The Irishman unravels the way he positions himself within his account. At first, his passivity and compliance seem like personality flaws, but his I was just a good worker doing what I was told framing is gradually exposed as a series of voluntary, destructive choices. It’s not that there’s a disconnect between what we hear and what we see; it’s that what we see makes the elisions and omissions of what we’re hearing fully visible. The film’s early pace is aggressive, jumping around a complex timeline, nesting flashbacks within flashbacks, and letting loosely related events bleed into one another. Its rapid, unbroken tempo reinforces Frank’s assertion that things were just happening at him while also illustrating the absurdity of such a claim.

He can’t maintain that relentless narrative pace forever, though, and every stretch of chaotic action culminates in a lull that makes it impossible to ignore that Frank had opportunities to reevaluate, to change his ways—and he didn’t make use of any of them. Scenes like his teenage daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) glaring at him while he eats cereal and watches news coverage of his own hit, or the long, quiet car and plane journeys to and from murdering Jimmy, beg him to think about what he’s done, about what he’s going to do. But Frank only realizes this in retrospect, after the opportunity to become better has long since passed. These moments of pause grow longer and more frequent as the film goes on, culminating in a third act that’s one immense lull whose push toward self-reflection he still tries to fight. 

Frank’s tendency to minimize his own agency isn’t unique; this is a movie in which men with a lot of power pretend they have none. Frank, Russ, and (to a lesser extent) Jimmy all present their pivotal decisions as inevitabilities: “Whatever happens happens,” “It’s what it is,” “We did everything we could.” These are the kinds of things I say at my office job when I have to make concessions on a copywriting project and also, apparently, the kinds of things people say when they determine who gets to live and who has to die and who should be the one to kill them and who receives pension funds if they can manage to live long enough to retire. All this feigned casualness isn’t stoic, tough-guy posturing. It’s a relinquishment of accountability by people who are very much in control1of the situation.

As in control as any person can be, at least. These three men all serve their own egos, but those egos serve and are served by multiple overlapping social institutions: organized crime and organized labor, the nuclear family, religion, capitalism, the law. Each of these has its own rules and rituals and systems of power; all of them are in flux. Every decision that’s made in The Irishman is couched in an assertion that The Way Things Are is an immutable, eternal fact—a claim that reflects both a vested interest in upholding a personally beneficial system and a (valid) anxiety that those benefits might not last. Things are never good exactly—even moments like a judge defending the honor of workers against a corporation, which gave this millennial a surreal thrill, are tarnished by the shadow of organized crime—but, like the men who try to hold them steady, these institutions only get darker and pettier and more at odds with one another as time drags on, until there’s almost nothing and no one left of them. 

***

Of all the crumbling institutions the film depicts, the Catholic Church proves one of the most compelling—for me, because I was raised Catholic, but I would hope for every viewer, because it’s the only form of belonging still available to Frank in the end. The mob and organized labor lose most of their power; his family leaves him; his friends die. The Church, however, is still around, and Frank lives out his final days in a Catholic nursing home where he regularly meets and prays with a priest, though he always stops short of making an unguarded, comprehensive admission of guilt. Their conversations are driven by Frank’s desire for forgiveness, but they’re shaped by the fact that this desire has nowhere else to go once his daughters sever ties and he declines the FBI’s invitation to confess. He isn’t making a prodigal return to a devotion he’s lost. He’s clinging to whatever remains. 

Early in the film, Frank’s religion is like wallpaper, a backdrop that contextualizes what’s in front of it but doesn’t provide any structure he can’t live without. He’s as culturally Catholic as they come: religious, but not spiritual. As in every other area of his life, his faith seems motivated more by a sense of obligation and routine than anything else. We don’t know what, if anything, he believes, but he participates in the requisite sacraments2, sends his kids to Catholic school. Of course, the Church is as corrupt as any other institution of power. But it’s not impacted by Frank’s participation in it in the way that the mob, the Teamsters, his friendships, and his family are—it is one of the few areas of his life in which he’s as powerless as he claims. 

When Frank’s second daughter is baptized during the film’s first act, it’s a quiet affair. She’s admitted into the Church in a small Latin service, attended by the priest, her immediate family, and her godparents (who are never named and whom we never see again)—a small group huddled in front of a vast expanse of empty pews. It’s an intimate familial moment bookended by two escalating acts of professional criminality: Frank’s agreement to provide the Friendly Lounge with more steaks, and the discovery of Frank’s beefless truck. These acts lead him to Teamsters union attorney Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano, who has, I am required by law to note, gotten hot)—which leads to the deepening of his connections with Jimmy and Russ. As his daughter is involuntarily inducted into one community, Frank voluntarily enters into another.

Frank’s third daughter’s baptism, in its opening moments, appears to repeat the pattern laid out in the previous one. It’s held in the same church, presided over by the same priest performing the same Latin service. The wife is different, and so are the godparents—which is typical, though it’s telling that they’ve chosen Carrie and (much to Peggy’s irritation) Russ to aid in the child’s spiritual development. And, as the scene expands outward, it reveals that the previously empty pews are filled with Frank’s new colleagues. Frank’s narration leans into this deepening overlap between his family and his work: “The only thing is, you got more kids, you gotta earn more, more money,” he explains. That excuse3 feeds seamlessly into the incident with Whispers and the laundry—another event that draws Frank further into the world of organized crime.

I assume Frank’s youngest daughter gets baptized too, but we never see it. His career is thriving by the time she’s born, leaving familial concerns back-burnered; she simply appears one year at an entirely secular Christmas gift exchange. In fact, after the second baptism, no one in the Sheeran family enters a church until Frank and Irene attend the wedding of Bill’s daughter, hours after the hit on Jimmy. The wedding is a maximalist version of that baptism—the pews contain a Who’s Who of shady assholes—but where that earlier moment starts with the family and turns outward, this one starts with the community and gradually narrows to Frank alone. He’s miserable about what he’s just done, and his guilt is amplified by the knowledge that this professional misery is going to bleed into every other area of his life, especially his strained relationships with his family. He’ll never walk a daughter down the aisle. He knows why. 

***

The first time Frank and Russell dine together—shortly after the first baptism, shortly before the second—they perform a non-institutional communion ritual, sharing bread and wine as they chat in Italian about Frank’s experiences as a soldier. When his recollection turns to the existential horrors of war, Frank’s Italian reaches its outer limits, and he reverts back to English: “Everyone’s afraid, and you pray a lot. I prayed a lot. I prayed that I’d never sin again as long as I lived if I could just get out of here.” This admission of fear is the closest he comes to articulating a belief system, and it tracks that he imagines a higher power as an entity that rewards you for following its rules. 

Not that he makes this assertion with any sort of self-awareness, as he goes on to talk about the enemy soldiers forced to dig their own graves. “I never understood how they could just keep digging…I mean, maybe they thought if they did a good enough job, the guy with the gun would change his mind,” he says, as a flashback sequence coldly illustrates that Frank did not change his mind. He’s expressing his fitness to be Russ’ own guy with the gun, underlining his ability to follow any instructions, no matter how violent. But, in doing so, he starts to become the man digging his own grave and hoping that if he does a good enough job, he’ll be spared the inevitable results of his actions.

It’s one of the most revelatory, haunting conversations in a film that’s stuffed with them. Even though Frank doesn’t seem particularly spiritual, this little bit of eucharistic play-acting puts him at ease—which feels right, given that cultural Catholicism mostly means your religious practice is a social rather than a spiritual activity. And the comfort cuts both ways. When they repeat the ritual decades later while they’re both serving out their prison sentences, it’s Russ’ turn to open up. Aside from the participants and the bread, almost every detail is a little different. The wine has been replaced by “the good grape juice;” Russ struggles to chew because “I got no teeth.” But again they speak in Italian (these two moments of Italian dialogue and the two Latin baptism masses are the only non-English dialogue in the film), and then switch back to English to discuss a painful past—this time, the hit on Jimmy. After years of presenting it as a matter in which he had no choice, Russ finally admits, “I picked us over him.” 

It’s their last conversation before Russ dies—or, as he puts it, goes to church.

***

Peggy Sheeran would hate to hear that she has anything in common with her father, but she shares his capacity for blurring the sacred and the secular. In the scene that immediately follows Grace Bufalino’s wedding, she asks Frank, “Why haven’t you called Jo?,4 Jimmy’s wife. She’s trying to force an admission of guilt, but she’s also trying to elicit the rationale behind it—an acknowledgment that there was some agency involved, that a conscious decision was made. The question isn’t a passive-aggressive attack against an aggressive person who feigns passivity. It’s an effort to mark off items on the checklist of what constitutes a mortal sin: a soul-destroying act undertaken by a person who knows exactly what they’re doing, a choice that can only be forgiven via genuine repentance. 

He hedges at first, but then he relents, so thrown by his daughter’s question that, by the time he reaches Jo (Welker White), it seems like he might actually make a willful, contrite confession. But before their conversation can reach any substantive territory, something in Frank shifts back into place—a shift that’s marked by a tiny jump cut, the most unsettling thing I’ve seen on screen in years and my favorite movie moment of 2019. It’s an absurd flex from Schoonmaker, not just a distinctive stylistic choice but a calculated exposure of the exact moment in which Frank chooses to return to following orders, to seize the opportunity to continue covering up the murder of one of his dearest friends. 

***

The sway that particular people and institutions hold over Frank makes his post-prison aloneness all the more staggering; here is a man who, quite literally, has no idea what to do with himself. Even while he was incarcerated, relationships and communities gave Frank’s life some structure, helped him pass the time. His final days are lonely and drab, but what’s most unsettling is how formless they are. Beyond tackling the world’s most depressing to-do list and talking to the priest and the nursing staff, this creature of habit has almost none left to lean on. 

But even at his most remorseful, he doesn’t want to examine how his habits landed him here. Abiding by expected routines, following the orders of the powerful, and playing by the rules of a community makes a person seem reliable and feel useful. But docility serves systems of power that never really serve us back; obedience provides cover for our failure to fulfill our responsibilities to one another. Acknowledging this would force Frank to look directly at his regrets as decisions he made, and he’s still not ready to do that; until he does, he’ll never be able—in any sense—to close the door on his life. 

Even if we don’t die alone, death is an inherently solitary experience; if you know it’s coming, you hope to be at peace with yourself by the time you meet it. The Irishman marinates in that hope while acknowledging, paradoxically, the only way you can find that solitary peace is by honoring your commitments to the people you love and care for—not the institutions and rules and rituals you share with them, which are often in conflict with those relationships. No one is going to come in and tell you what it all means and what to do about it; you have to figure it out on your own. Frank flounders at finding peace because there’s a black hole of remorse sitting at the center of his soul, but he also flounders because he’s never had to define anything for himself, and now he has no other tasks left to complete. Every distraction has been removed, every errand completed. And even though his meetings with the priest seem to be—like the other Catholic and Catholic-ish practices woven throughout the film—an effort to do what’s expected, to establish routine, to defer to an authority figure, they also—like each of those moments—reflect an effort at human connection, albeit one that’s fraught and flawed. It’s not about the ritual of confession, it’s about the act of conversation. Even if Frank isn’t ready for full, apologetic accountability quite yet, the door is still open for him to find his way there.