‘The Irishman’ is a beautiful, devastating reflection on memory and morality

I am afraid of many things.

I am afraid of spiders, and moths, and being vulnerable, and of falling in the gap between the train and the platform (this has actually happened to me before, perhaps making it not an entirely unwarranted phobia). I am afraid of getting hurt by people I care about, I am afraid of strangers when I walk home alone at night. I am afraid of disappointing people, I am afraid of losing my mind, I am afraid of dying alone.

My Grandpa is getting older. He’s in his mid-eighties now, and his memory isn’t so good anymore. He’s quick to anger, and we don’t talk about politics at the dinner table because someone’s going to get offended. This past Easter, when I was at home, he gestured at the tattoos on both my arms – which I have had for two years now – and said, with an air of disgust, “Do those wash off?”

I kept thinking about my Grandpa while I was watching The Irishman, dressed in a black evening gown, wearing a baby pink fur coat, at the film’s UK premiere in London’s glitzy West End. These details are important, in context: the position I inhabit now is not one that ever seemed likely. I do not come from a world where these things happen. I was told at fourteen I should leave school because of my mental health. I was told at nineteen I should drop out of university. I have been told for as long as I can remember by people in positions of power that I do not belong. My Grandpa always said I did. He still does, when he isn’t disapproving loudly of my tattoos.

The Irishman is about all of these things I’ve mentioned. It’s about fear, and getting old, and wanting to belong to something bigger than yourself. In the space of three and a half hours, Martin Scorsese presents the entire life of one Francis Joseph Sheeran, a World War II veteran turned mob hitman. Notable for reuniting the filmmaker with Robert De Niro and bringing Joe Pesci out of retirement, the film also sees Al Pacino make his Scorsese picture debut. Moreover, it’s been a long time coming: after years in developmental hell, Netflix stepped up to give Scorsese the $160 million budget he required to make the film he wanted. So much was said about ‘de-ageing technology’, about those photos of Robert De Niro’s platform boots, about the 210-minute run time. In the end, all these concerns and quibbles fade into nothing. Martin Scorsese doesn’t know how to make a bad film.

The Irishman is a confessional in that most traditional Catholic sense: after a lifetime of doing terrible things, Frank Sheeran, elderly and wheelchair-bound in a nursing home, reflects on his deeds to a priest. Guilt – or the astonishing deficit of such – has always played a role in Scorsese’s filmography, while wrestling with the existence of a higher deity is as much a part of his film making DNA as guns or girls or spaghetti and meatballs. The question looms large in so many of his films, but it’s Andrew Garfield’s Father Sebastian Rodrigues who finally asks it: “Am I just praying to silence?” In The Irishman, it seems all but certain.

Frank Sheeran doesn’t kill because he enjoys doing it. In fact, the bloodletting in the film is grim, unflinching, never for one second suggested as ‘glamorous’. (Scorsese, it should be noted, has never made films which glorify organised crime, but that’s an argument for another day.) But even if he doesn’t necessarily enjoy it, Sheeran certainly is indifferent to murder – he kills because he needs the money, because he was an ambitious, enterprising man after he returned from the war, and decided to use the skills he acquired killing fascists in Italy to great effect protecting the interests of the Bufalino crime family and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He becomes close to two men in particular: Russell Bufalino, and James ‘Jimmy’ Hoffa, President of the Teamsters. Russell and Frank couldn’t be more different; where one is cold, quiet and calculating, the other is loud, outlandish, and often rash. Sheeran, friends with them both, often acts as a mediator – though anyone familiar with the story of Jimmy Hoffa will know the shape of the story from its outset.

With a pensive, frail De Niro to narrate, we skip across locations, across decades, meeting more characters than one can count, often finding out the date and method of their death as quickly as their name is given. We only have Sheeran’s word to go on, and he’s an elderly man, and so the fragmented, fallible nature of memory feels more tangible than ever before in one of Scorsese’s films. As in Goodfellas, the most natural point of comparison for The Irishman, there’s no catharsis to be found for our morally-bankrupt protagonist, but the point of difference is time. While Henry Hill lamented getting caught and having to go into witness protection, Sheeran eventually understands how his undertaking of unforgivable deeds has alienated him from everyone he held dear.

Case in point: Peggy Sheeran, Frank’s daughter, played by Anna Paquin. She speaks seven words in the film – less than, say, Action Bronson in his brief cameo. But their brevity makes them devastating. Her absence from Frank’s life haunts him, and underlines the notion that there is no respite, no way back from what he has done. Some betrayals are too great. We don’t owe anything to those who have abused us.

So yes, The Irishman is a ludicrous achievement in cinematography, and storytelling, and poetry committed to a cinema screen, and everything a thousand other rave reviews have said it is. It should be watched in the dark, without distraction, immersing yourself in the meticulous, melancholy world it creates. De Niro is as brilliant as he’s ever been, yes, and Joe Pesci a quietly menacing delight, while Al Pacino chews the scenery with such wild abandon all his scenes are magnetic and bombastic – as if Frank Sheeran smiles wryly when he thinks of his maniacal rants, and imagines him constantly at his zenith. 

Because really, The Irishman is about memory, and how obsessed with it we are, how much we try to cling to some notion of the truth only to find it an impossible thing, slipping and changing beneath our feet. Our human desire to control the past, and our fear of losing that grip, are the blood that flow through this remarkable film, up there with Scorsese’s best work. Many consider Terrance Malick the present American master of portraying memory and time’s passage on screen, but in The Irishman, Scorsese makes his own precise and devastating observations, albeit perhaps more cynically, on the continued folly of man. The film’s closing shot is a quiet devastation that speaks to this, and to the enormous sense of futility that echoes across the span of Frank Sheeran’s lifetime.

Incidentally, and to end on the same personal note I started, there’s probably a good reason I relate to those seven words spoken by Peggy Sheeran. My own father was an asshole. Not quite up there with Frank Sheeran, but he did enough, and I haven’t spoken to him in eight years. Sometimes he tries to get in touch; I have no desire to speak to him. I think he is probably going to die alone.

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