Anzio, Italy. World War II.
Frank Sheeran, an American G.I. in full combat gear, carries an M1 carbine, standard issue for the infantry of the U.S. forces of the time.
Two German soldiers complete the digging of a hole in the forest floor. They climb out, throwing their shovels before them. Have they completed their task so well in the hope of gaining a reprieve?
There is no reprieve. Not in this war. Not in Frank Sheeran’s world, where the officer who ordered him to kill the German soldiers simply said: “And be quick about it.”
Frank Sheeran shoots both soldiers, who gasp in surprise, then tumble, with neat synchronicity, into their self-made grave. Frank Sheeran steps forward and fires again, applying coups de grâce to both young men.
There is no grace in the scene, though there is digital de-aging of the character of Frank Sheeran, played with dour élan by Robert De Niro, throughout the overlong telling of his life as a Mafia killer.
Watching The Irishman, it is as if director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Raging Bull and many other acclaimed films) has created a summation of his own life’s work. It is yet one more telling of the life and times of a gangster psychopath, set in the sweeping context of historical events in America after World War II.
This film is paced to the metronome of a geriatric day-centre, right from the outset. See the cars: huge, sedate and lovingly pictured reversing round corners, in hearse-like motion, displaying their elegant tail fins.
Character development and plot advancement are largely achieved by dialogues that take place at tables with food and drink. Nobody is doing much running around. The delicious Italian practice of eating fresh bread with red wine appears throughout. The director loves this imagery – versions of it appear in many films, an image from his grand lore of Catholic rituals. There is, however, no resurrection from the dead, not for the young German soldiers nor for the numberless others Frank Sheeran later murders on behalf of his Mafia bosses and their Teamster Union associates. And of course, there is a baptism, the director’s central image of family regeneration and continuity.
The idyll of family life has a rotten core in Frank Sheeran’s case. His first marriage – to an Irish-American – ends as he deepens his relationship with his Mafia overlords by marrying a Siciliana-American. Did his first marriage unravel when his talent for following orders into deepening chasms of murderous violence became more obvious? He throws money on the kitchen table, saying he did well at the numbers, but Frank Sheeran is gambling on more than that. He is throwing dice, spotted with the lives of his family and of his victims. The scene where he pulverises the neighbourhood shopkeeper with his bare hands confirms what has been emerging. Frank Sheeran is a psychopath, very much at home within a Mafia family of psychopaths.
What choices does the director make in the way that scene, and others, are presented? Watching The Irishman, the viewer asks, ‘what emotions are we supposed to be experiencing?’ Dismay, disgust, disbelief, disapproval? Coupled with the World War II scene, is this the moment that confirms Frank Sheeran as a killer, the rest no more than window-dressing on his vile actions?
The myth of de-aging has a long legacy in art. Grappling for eternal youth is a trope found in literature and film, as well as in other forms. For Irish figures, we have Oisín in Tír na nÓg; Dorian Grey in is his portrait. And now we have the Italian-Irish Frank Sheeran/Robert De Niro, de-aged and ageing on the silver screen. There is no de-aging for soldiers mouldering in the ground or gangsters, union bosses and others shot in the face. There is death, of course. Even for Frank Sheeran.
See the hunched figure of the aged and diabolical Joseph Kennedy, staring across the water from the deck of his house at his beloved Hyannis Port compound, where the Kennedy dynasty roosted.
The film presents a chilling critique of organised power in its 20th century American forms. Organised labour. Organised business. Organised politics. Organised crime. It presents the manner in which they interweave and support one another to advance their several aims, using murder when tensions strain the existing order, causing violent convulsions to re-set the system.
Personal and national histories are woven into the telling. Frank Sheeran’s father was a house painter. Frank uses the euphemism ‘I paint house’ for his murdering. All of the action takes place after the close of the second world war, with the intersection of economic development with organised crime, capital and labour sharpening the stakes, for all the actors; state, criminal and labour. See the rise of the young Kennedys, in law and politics, the emergence of Jimmy Hoffa in The Teamsters Union and the strengthening of the power of Mafia families. The use of Union pension funds as investments in Mafia casinos in Las Vegas is the key driver of the film.
Pressure from Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, seeking to bring Jimmy Hoffa and Mafia associates before the courts triggers Frank Sheeran’s violent actions. Not only does he pull triggers, but he also gets involved in supplying them to the mercenaries, US military personnel and exiles, making up the CIA-backed Brigade 2506, attacking Cuba as the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion. They were beaten back by local forces, commanded by Ché Guevara.
Throughout the mayhem of this period of US history, Frank Sheeran kept taking orders, as he had in World War II. He kept obeying and killing. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that the waning of Frank Sheeran’s murderous career, in the organisation he served, coincided with the rise of Black activism, the civil rights movements and the domestic refusal to unanimously support the new war in Vietnam.
This epic context is present, but kept in the background, as the film uses a road trip with two middle-aged couples to tell the killing of Jimmy Hoffa. Or at least to tell Frank’s version of it, as Hoffa’s body has never been found. The director uses his A-list cast: De Niro as Frank Sheeran, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, the Mafia boss. They are all terrific, Pesci, in particular. There will be Oscar nominations. Women characters are underrepresented. African American characters come late and are marginal. All the cast play well, none more so than Scouser Stephen Graham as Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano.
Frank’s daughter, Peggy (Anna Paquin), is possibly the only actively moral person we see in the film. She is living the American dream in her own way, working as a teller in a bank, where she refuses to serve her father. The shield of security glass between them chillingly reflects the prison visits she never made.
What emotions are being offered in this final sequence, this slow, long-winded slide to the grave down the chute of an old folks’ home? Is the director seeking to evoke sympathy? Should we empathise with the murderer, while he rebuffs opportunities to express regret and seek forgiveness from his putative God, via the earnest young priest?
The music is terrific throughout, from the do-wop of The Satins to the strings of The Barefoot Contessa, with scenes cut to the music and given crisp tone and shape by the edits. The music brings us back to the 50s and 60s USA from which much of contemporary, global pop culture arises.
The viewer lives through the legacy of these times, Frank Sheeran’s times, when orders were obeyed, when capital, crime and labour contested with each other, when psychopaths did the bidding of their bosses. Much like today.