By Matt Neglia
We’re all heading for the grave. The infinite darkness that we all fear, hoping there will be something else instead. Another life? Possibly the afterlife? No matter how we live our lives, one way or another, we’re going. As I continue to get older, the finality of death is something that I’ve continued to obsess over from a psychological standpoint, as I seek to understand how everyone approaches it. We deal with grief in our unique ways and I believe our own death carries its own foreboding grief that we all eventually need to come to terms with. Martin Scorsese’s latest film “The Irishman” is a reckoning for its lead character, Frank Sheeran, as we watch him live a life of crime, loyalty, and betrayal. By the time he comes to the end of that life, he is filled with regret despite his own survival through the cold and vicious world of organized crime. Scorsese’s storytelling, through the final act of “The Irishman” and his haunting final shot, has lingered with me long after I saw it at its world premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival. You’ve probably read my written review of the film and you’ve also probably heard our podcast review, but now I want to hone in on the thing that I think makes this particular gangster film, not just a great film in Scorsese’s filmography but a great film for all time that could resonate strongly enough to win Best Picture.
WARNING – THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR “THE IRISHMAN.” PLEASE SEE THE FILM FIRST BEFORE READING.
I know what you’re thinking… “Matt, you said two weeks ago that there is no front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar.” And I still believe that to be the case. However, there’s something about “The Irishman” I can’t quite shake in terms of its chances to win the Academy’s big prize on February 9th. In terms of its importance as a historical time capsule, its epic quality (with a running time at almost three and a half hours long, the Academy has had a tradition of rewarding movies at this length the Best Picture prize), its once in a generation alignment of stars and talent both in front and behind the camera and its emotional third act that quietly sneaks up on you and makes the entire long journey transcendent and wholly worth it. “The Irishman” has the goods.
Some might say the fact that it’s a Netflix film might still prevent it from going all the way, but let’s not forget that this is Martin friggin’ Scorsese. Quite possibly the greatest living American director and surely one of the greatest of all time. People respect him, his work and his love for the art form. Scorsese and his work in “The Irishman” acts as a mouthpiece this year for Netflix’s true intentions: this movie is a proponent for artistic expression and creativity while bigger studio films are threatening to take screens and viewers away from these smaller, more intimate films. I think “The Irishman” can go a long way in changing how the gigantic streaming service is being perceived by many within the industry. Netflix is not trying to make cinema go away, they’re trying to save it. And “The Irishman” is a great piece of cinema, whether you see it in a theater or on your iPhone when it starts to stream on Netflix on November 27th.
The first act of “The Irishman” is decent, as we’re introduced to Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro in what is easily his best performance in a quarter of a century) and events unfold with the same Martin Scorsese style we’re typically used to: voice-over narration, precise editing, a glamorization of the criminal lifestyle during the good times, all set to a classic soundtrack of tracks authentic to the time period. It’s all highly immersive and for a bit, it feels like Scorsese is almost running on auto-pilot as he gives us the familiar beats we’re used to. I initially thought this was a flaw when I first saw the film, but a second viewing helped me to understand that this is not laziness. This is Scorsese doing his own looking back, just as Frank Sheeran does, on his own legacy. It’s a tribute, one last hurrah if you will, to all of the tropes that have come to define Scorsese’s career and all the reasons why we love him.
The second act is where Frank meets Jimmy Hoffa, played with charismatic charm, ferocity and a larger than life presence by Al Pacino, who like De Niro, is giving us his best performance in over a quarter of a century. He provides a jolt of energy to “The Irishman” that is necessary. As the friendship between Frank and Jimmy develops, it propels “The Irishman” forward to another level of quality beyond the first act. It’s in the quieter and more intimate moments between these two, that the film stealthily sets up the dramatic and heartbreaking third act that we know is inevitability coming. One scene, in particular, takes place in a hotel room between the two men, where they talk in their pajamas. As Jimmy sets off for bed, he oddly, but purposefully leaves his bedroom door ever so slightly open. Why is he doing this? We’re just as perplexed as Frank is but he doesn’t ask and neither do we…not until we get to the third act and the film’s final shot.
The third act of “The Irishman” represents some of the best filmmaking in Scorsese’s already heavily celebrated career. It’s unlike anything else he has ever done before, as he uses the detailed and carefully played out runtime of the first two acts to dramatically set up the conclusion of his American epic. The Bufalino crime family has had enough with Jimmy Hoffa, as they cannot get him to listen to reason anymore. At Frank Sheeran’s dinner celebration, where he’s being honored by the union he represents outwardly and the crime family he represents internally, all parties are present for one final plea. Joe Pesci (who is bone-chillingly great in what may possibly be his final on-camera role) has a tense scene with Pacino, urging him sub-textually to back down. To halt his ambitions as it will rustle too many feathers within the organized crime unit and ultimately lead to Jimmy’s death. They’re trying to keep him under control but Hoffa wants to take back control of his union, a union that is rightfully his. It’s an exchange of two highly disciplined men, neither willing to back down on principle despite what it will mean. Then Frank has the unfortunate task of trying to appeal to Hoffa, as a friend, for the sake of Hoffa’s life. No one says out loud that Jimmy is going to be killed if he doesn’t back down but it doesn’t need to be said. We get it, so do the characters as well. There is an underlying sadness that plays out during these two exchanges, as the heartbreak on De Niro’s wrinkled and weathered face speaks volumes. We know that he knows what will have to be done but deep down, he’s hoping against hope that it will still not come to that. Perhaps there is another way.
Another meeting between Hoffa and the bosses is set. However, Russell Bufalino pulls one on Frank, putting him in place to carry out the execution himself. If Frank says no, even after decades of service, it will mean his own life and the lives of his family members, whom (as typical with this genre) he foolishly tells himself he’s been doing these horrible acts of violence for all of these years, to protect and provide for them. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing here dramatically slows down as the day of Jimmy’s death is played out to agonizingly slow effect, with no music cues or fanfare. His death occurs just as suddenly and as cold as the other killings we’ve watched Frank carry out throughout the film. This man is supposed to be his friend. He was his friend. And yet, two shots to the back of the head and it’s all over. No hesitation. No dialogue exchange. Not even enough time for Jimmy to probably realize what was happening.
“It is what it is,” says Russell to Frank when giving him the ultimatum on Jimmy. And for some of us, that’s how death finds us. Suddenly and without warning. And then for some of us, like Frank, it introduces itself to us and patiently waits. It tortures us with its looming presence, as it slowly chips away at our bodies and our minds. Throughout “The Irishman’s” final half an hour, Frank watches as everyone who is left in his life either dies suddenly (as already foretold to us by the text which introduces carious characters with the exact details and dates of their death but are never visibly shown to the audience) or slowly succumbs to death as Russell Bufalino does in jail, a fragile, old and former shell of his imposing menacing self. Like Russell, it’s implied that Frank too will have a slow death as he gets older and his body starts to break down. However, unlike Russell, who always had Frank at his side, even until the very end, Frank will have no one to mourn him when he goes.
In an effort to stay alive and, as I said before, to foolishly protect and provide for the people he cares about the most, Frank’s punishment is that he loses everyone and when he finally does die, he will have no one. No one will mourn for him. Not his daughter Peggy, whose trust he fully loses on the day he kills her friend and surrogate father figure, Jimmy. Not Russell, who despite the times they shared together were probably never really friends but more so business associates with a trust that was based on fear. And not Jimmy himself, who Frank maybe could’ve saved. We the audience don’t fully know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. We only have Frank Sheeran’s word, which was the basis for the book “I Heard You Paint Houses” which is the source material for “The Irishman.” Another surprise ending was always possible for those unfamiliar with Frank’s version of the story. But this is the choice he supposedly made and like any great Martin Scorsese “rise and fall” story, what comes around, goes around.Frank is being punished for his sins: not by dying, but by living. This is all epitomized in the film’s final shot. A callback to the scene earlier between Jimmy and Frank in the hotel room with the door to Jimmy’s room being left open. What felt like a throwaway moment suddenly comes back with haunting thematic representation, and elevates “The Irishman” to all-time great status, even compared to Scorsese’s already legendary filmography which includes already anointed classics such as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” and “The Departed.”
As a Catholic priest reminds Frank that Christmas is approaching, we know that Frank has no one and he will someday die alone. We don’t know when and neither does he, but it’s coming. As the priest leaves him in his old folk’s hospital room, Frank asks the young man if he would leave the door open just a little bit. We end “The Irishman” on Frank, seen through the doorway, with the blackness coming in from both sides, waiting to take him…but not yet. What is he holding on to? Does he yearn for death? Is this man who’s entire existence was predicated on him staying alive for so long, clinging to life as desperately as he can because he does not know how to do anything else? He could “paint houses,” aka. take life, but could he save a life? Can he save his own? No. This much we all know for sure. Frank’s preparing for his death by buying his own green coffin and making preparations for when his time is finally up. So now the question becomes, can he save his soul? Is his soul even worth saving? Is there anything beyond the darkness that makes any possible form of Catholic forgiveness and redemption worth it?
Frank’s door will close. Another door may open. But “The Irishman” leaves Frank’s door open as it symbolizes our own desire to avoid death even though we know it will come for us. It’s not just a clever callback to a moment shared between two friends at the end of the film. It’s so much more than that. I believe Scorsese’s use of the doo-wap song “In The Still Of The Night” by The Five Satins, which bookends the film, can have its lyrics even interpreted to represent this theme of a character holding onto life, holding it tight, loving it so and promising to never let go. However, in the still of the night, in front of the light that represents us leaving this world for another, as we’re hoping to be held by life’s precious might, we’ll one day be let go. The door will close.
Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino are with “The Irishman” (probably) closing the door on their own cinematic legacies. They all, in their own way, helped to shape the crime genre for a new generation of filmmakers and moviegoers, creating some of the greatest films of all time. The big difference is because of their invaluable contributions to cinema, one day when their doors all inevitably close, unlike Frank, we’ll be left to mourn, to celebrate their work and carry on their legacy so that it will never be lost or forgotten. You know what’s one way to symbolically represent that? A Best Picture Oscar win.
You can follow Matt and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @NextBestPicture