This article contains major The Irishman spoilers. You can read a spoiler-free review here.
The Irishman closes on a provocative shot. After a lifetime of living in the shadows, Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran is desperate for the light outside his door, and the community he hopes it invites in. Yet once his priest walks through it, leaving for holidays that will once again pass unmarked for the man who paints houses, Frank knows there is no one on the other side. Neither of his daughters want anything to do with him, and the world he’s built has forgotten him. It is a loaded moment that encapsulates a lifetime of regret, as well as all the thematic threads coursing through Martin Scorsese’s potentially final crime epic.
What Scorsese’s ending is about is clear: the punishment of bad choices with ignominy. What it means to the filmmaker, however, is more ambiguous and fascinating. The scene itself comes at the final breath of three and a half hours of nostalgia for “the good ol’ days.” Technically the movie is set across three competing narrative threads—giving as much floor space to the day Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) died as the entire early years of Sheeran’s budding career as a hitman. Yet both of these parallel narratives are framed from the vantage of De Niro at the beginning of the movie. And never has the legendary movie star looked frailer. Outside his nursing home door, Scorsese stalks Sheeran with that classic gliding Steadicam, all while the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” dreamily plays on, but the illusion is broken as soon as we see Frank in a wheelchair.
For contrast, many of Scorsese’s crime movies are littered with tough guys giving wiseacre voiceover narration, from the blue collars of Goodfellas and Taxi Driver to their seedy white counterpart in The Wolf of Wall Street. But all of these voiceovers begin with an act of defiance. “As long as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Ray Liotta crows in Goodfellas. There is irony in that line being uttered over a freeze frame of him staring at a dead body in the trunk, but there is still a romanticism to it. Henry Hill (and initially the movie) acts like it’s a small price to pay for the good eating and shiny shoes. By the end of the film though, Henry’s strung out on coke and paranoia. Only then does he address the camera and break the fourth wall, admitting he’s a rat and a schmuck, but the movie’s already over at that point.
This is where The Irishman begins. “In the Still of the Night” is Frank’s yearning for a time when he mattered. We’re beginning with decades of additional perspective beyond where Goodfellas left off,. And Frank is nowhere near as defiant when he breaks the fourth wall in the first scene to tell you his sob story. As a consequence, everything afterward, even when Frank is on top of the world in the 1950s, is colored with a sense of foreboding tragedy.
This includes his friendship with Jimmy Hoffa. Hired by Jimmy to be some out-of-town muscle for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union, Frank is seduced by the money, yes, but also the glamour and prestige in joining the Teamsters. “Do you want to be a part of this, Frank? Would you like to be a part of this history?” It’s as if a king tapped Sheeran on the shoulder. Remember that his voiceover dubiously suggests in his heyday, Jimmy Hoffa was as famous as the Beatles.
So Frank gets into bed with the Teamsters and it changes his life. He winds up with a leadership position in the organization, and the opportunity to get his hands on something approaching legitimacy. It also gets him closer to Jimmy. On the night of their first in-person meeting, Frank stays in Jimmy’s hotel room in order to hide the fact he’s in Chicago. Jimmy also reveals one of his many eccentricities. Going hand-in-hand with his love for ice cream is Hoffa’s love for open-air camaraderie. Hence he asks Frank to leave the door between their rooms open.
I suppose it’s unsurprising for a union leader to prefer not being left alone, and this serves a security purpose, as Frank is also Jimmy’s de facto bodyguard for the night. But it is also a signal of trust. One that Frank does not understand at the time. Of course there’s a lot Frank doesn’t understand about his errands for both Jimmy and mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), even as he loyally carries them out. If Russell needs him to whack a lowlife celebrity in Manhattan, Frank’s on the train out of Philly and headed north; and if either need Frank to deliver weapons to CIA types in Florida for an intended Cuban coup that will change the course of history, he’s driving the truck himself.
But for all this loyalty, and the financial security it buys his family, it inevitably leads to agony when the union and the mafia come to a disagreement about Jimmy Hoffa’s role in both groups. It isn’t a surprise to anyone sitting down to The Irishman that Frank winds up punching Hoffa’s ticket, but the toll it has on him is breathtaking. The unspoken knowledge that he had a role in Hoffa’s disappearance is the final breaking point between Frank and his daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin), who loved Uncle Jimmy more than she ever did her father. And that fallout is a microcosm for the larger despair Frank is about to endure. The history he thought he was building is about to write him out of its collective memory.
Returning to that final shot, it’s obvious Frank asking the priest to leave the door open is a reference to Jimmy always asking his friend to do the same. If only Jimmy was on the other side of that door, Sheeran could apologize for choosing loyalty to Russell and others who are now just as vanished as Hoffa—and for all the loneliness it left Frank. But there is something more profound about this than just a narrative callback.
The Irishman is a movie heavy on legacy and history, and that pertains as much to the men making the thing as it is about who they’re portraying. Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Harvey Keitel all carry the pedigree of classics associated with their names. That includes those the actors made with Scorsese in the past, including Goodfellas, Casino, Mean Streets, and more, and it also includes those they made without him. In fact, this is Pacino’s first Scorsese collaboration, and yet he is just as famous as De Niro for the iconic crime dramas he’s starred in. And none looms larger in iconography or legacy than The Godfather trilogy.
Breaking into Hollywood with what is, in retrospect, an uncharacteristically restrained performance, Pacino brought empathy and self-awareness to Michael Corleone’s cerebral cold-bloodedness. Of course he was still damned the moment he agreed to meet with Sollozzo the Turk in the first movie.
But the path to Michael’s damnation remains arguably the most consequential in cinema, proving that “gangster movies” can be high art while also bringing an operatic humanity to its vision of a crime family thriving in America. And the final shot of that first movie is also one for the history books where Pacino’s Michael, finally converted to his father’s way of doing things, shuts his WASPy wife (Diane Keaton) out of his life and his business. She watches in horror as one of Michael’s goons closes the door in her face while men of standing line up to kiss Michael’s hand.
This theme is more fully explored in The Godfather: Part II where Michael “wins” again at his business but loses his family in the process, yet that movie doesn’t fully live with those consequences, as it wraps up just as Michael realizes how alone he is. The Irishman makes far better use of that desolation, and The Irishman’s final shot is not an allusion to one of Scorsese’s movies, but an homage to Francis Ford Coppola’s most famous effort—recontextualizing the famous ending to the crime movie that helped bring about a new era in cinema that Scorsese, De Niro, and Pacino came up in.
Recall Jimmy Hoffa’s line of “do you want to make history?” Scorsese and company did, and like Jimmy and Frank, they were once on top of the world where they were “as famous as the Beatles” with their dramatic works that redefined Hollywood. Yet where is that legacy now? For Frank Sheeran, it is a bitter end that has left him alone, with the proverbial hand-kissers and the wife outside the door both gone.
But it seems Scorsese might feel the same way about his own legacy. As Frank admits in his voiceover, younger viewers (or listeners) might not know who Jimmy Hoffa is. They also might not know what The Godfather or Mean Streets are. The idea that they were building history seems as if it is made on sand when the younger generation, as personified by Peggy Sheeran, wants nothing to do with it.
That quirk of living long enough to see the world you built fade into obsolescence is even colored in Scorsese’s recent public remarks about Marvel Studios movies. They aren’t cinema, at least not in the way defined by hard hitting works of art that could be Hollywood blockbusters in the 1970s—and which gave Scorsese the clout as late as the 2000s to make epics like Gangs of New York and The Departed for a wide theatrical release.
Now? Few are left who care that Jimmy Hoffa existed, much less that he disappeared. And the masterpieces of yesterday matter little to many in a new generation of moviegoers who largely just want to see the same repackaged formula every time out—and only care about Scorsese-influenced ambition when its pasted onto a superhero brand like Joker. The world and history that Scorsese thought he was building has vanished, if it existed at all, like it did for Frank.
That wistful flavor coats every moment of The Irishman’s runtime, including its nostalgic echo of the past, both Frank’s and the generation that ruled the world back in the day. That is the final moment. Before the lights go out.
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