Early in Martin Scorsese’s mobster epic, The Irishman, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran recalls executing German POWs during his stint in World War II. Sheeran (Robert De Niro) marches the doomed soldiers into the woods and waits patiently for them to dig their own graves before ruthlessly dispatching them.
“I always wondered why they kept digging,” Sheeran muses.
Did they imagine their compliance might buy a last second reprieve? Or were they simply following orders like good soldiers? The Irishman is a sprawling, brilliant story about the doomed men who follow orders; not in the war-torn forests of Germany but the mean streets of Philadelphia. Scorsese delivers an uncompromising stare-down with a dead-eyed killer who feels neither remorse nor moral culpability for his actions. With its big performances and stellar script, this unwieldy beast of a film is the glorious culmination of Scorsese’s lifelong fascination with mobsters and their built-in self-destruction.
Following orders was Frank Sheeran’s specialty. From his wartime atrocities in Europe to becoming Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa’s right-hand man in the 1970s, Sheeran asked no questions and took no prisoners. In fact, he needed no direct instruction to commit his ghastliest crimes — only a vague euphemism from his superiors to convey their intentions.
“I heard you paint houses?” Hoffa (Al Pacino) asks Sheeran, referring to the blood spatters left on walls by gunshot wounds. These few words expressed perfectly what Hoffa (who vanished without a trace in 1975) considered to be a model employee. Just why Sheeran and those of his ilk are so willing to provide these dirty deeds or, more specifically, how they rationalize this behavior, has been the subject of several classic Scorsese pictures, including Goodfellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
Those who have criticized Scorsese for glamorizing the thug life can rest assured that The Irishman contains no such ambiguity. This is a gritty, pitiless exposé that offers no absolution for its foot soldiers. Scorsese alerts you in the film’s opening scene that things are going to be different this time around.
Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa (IMDB)
Perhaps the most famous sequence in Goodfellas is the long tracking shot of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) whisking a star-struck Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) through the kitchen of a fancy restaurant to their VIP seats by the concert stage. Everyone knows Henry and greets him like a respected man of power and influence. Like Karen, we are intoxicated by the glamour and fascinated by the danger.
The Irishman also opens with an extended tracking shot… through the depressing corridors of a nursing home. There are no outstretched hands or words of adoration for Frank Sheeran. He sits alone in his wheelchair, recounting the details of his miserable life to anyone who will listen. No one even remembers his old boss Hoffa, let alone understand the power he wielded as the president of the nation’s largest labor union. Sheeran is a monument to a lifestyle that exists now only in cinema lore and Al Capone’s empty vaults. He’s the guy who knows where all the bodies are buried, mostly because he put them there.
Sheeran might not have been mobster royalty, but he certainly knew all the right (or wrong) people. Foremost among them was Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), head of the Bufalino crime family. In scenes featuring a digitally de-aged De Niro and Pesci, we watch Sheeran’s ascension from lowly delivery driver peddling sides of beef out of his truck to Russell’s most trusted ‘button man’. Russell willing serves as a paternal surrogate to his obedient protégé and facilitates Sheeran’s fateful connection to Hoffa.
Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino (IMDB)
It’s a delight to see Pesci working again. Gone are the days of his characters’ hair-trigger temper and wild outbursts. Instead, as the elder Russell Bufalino, Pesci simply exudes menace. When a raving Hoffa derides him for supporting a rival Teamster chief, Russell barely registers an emotion. He’s beyond the need to lash out; he has soldiers like Sheeran to do that for him. Russell merely stares at a ranting Hoffa – watching patiently as he digs his own grave.
Working from crime writer Charles Brandt’s 2004 biography on Sheeran, I Heard You Paint Houses (Steerforth Press), screenwriter Steven Zaillian masterfully creates a gallery of unassuming monsters. These were men fighting for the last scraps of capital before corporations and government meddling crippled labor unions and destroyed the Middle Class. These historical inevitabilities enhance the tension and desperation to almost intolerable levels. Much like the lawless cowboys of the old West, these men are powerless to change, even as they recognize the culture shifting around them.
Scorsese empathizes with their plight – the struggle to survive when the upper echelon of society remains inaccessible to the ancestors of immigrants – but he does not excuse their misdeeds. Like Walter White (Bryan Cranston) on Breaking Bad, familial obligation can only excuse so much moral flexibility; at some point you’re just a bad guy.
Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran (IMDB)
It’s not surprising that Sheeran, like Walter White, loses his family because he fails (or refuses) to recognize this distinction. It’s grim stuff that cuts directly to the core of insecure masculinity, where the desire to do right is thoroughly corrupted by feelings of helplessness. In the case of Sheeran, however, much of his downfall can be attributed to a pathological lack of humanity.
What makes The Irishman so riveting is that Sheeran never comes to understand the ludicrous irony of his place in the world. He still imagines himself as the young soldier holding the gun when, in actuality, he’s digging his own grave. Sheeran can’t see this reality because a hole only looks like a hole from the outside. To those toiling inside – their shovels digging methodically day after day – there is only the promise of something better. A pat on the head from their boss or maybe a last second reprieve from their executioner. It is the job of a good soldier to keep digging, even when his fate resides in the grave.