Martin Scorsese has produced and directed a huge and sombre, three and a half hour epitaph for the genre. He has worked with three of the towering acting figures of his career Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.
The film tells the story …
now, that isn’t quite accurate. Frank tells the story. From the very first scene when the camera takes you through an aged care facility and pans round a wheelchair to Frank’s 80 year-old face for him to address the camera. This sets up the tension within the film between the man who is the narrator and commentator on the action, providing the insights into the characters and the action and a man on the screen who appears, throughout, to be completely unmoved by the horrendous crimes that he commits. It’s a masterstroke of filmmaking. But I digress.
…the story of Frank “the Irishman” Sheehan a truck driver and Teamster Union member who is befriended by Russel Bufalino, the head of the Bufalino crime family, after his truck breaks down on the road. When they meet later in a bar, Frank tells Russell about his war experiences in Italy. Russell is impressed by Frank’s casual indifference to killing war prisoners. The head of crime family, Bufalino knows he can find work for a young man who has just lost his job at a delivery company for stealing meat from his employer and selling it to local gangsters.
Russell takes Frank under his wing and gives him odd jobs which normally involves killing people. They develop a friendship that lasts for the rest of their lives outlasting even their marriages and their relationships with their children.
Bufalino introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa, (played by Al Pacino) the head of the Teamsters Union and one of the most powerful men in America. In a wonderfully nuanced telephone conversation between the two, Hoffa says to Frank, “I hear you paint houses,” to which Frank replies, ” Yes, and I do my own carpentry.”
Then there is the sound of a gunshot and blood is splattered on the wall of the room.
Frank becomes Hoffa’s bodyguard and helps eliminate union rivals and other troublesome individuals. They develop a close and trusting relationship and eventually Hoffa offers Frank the position of the head of one of the Teamster Unions.
Frank’s relationships with Bufalino and Hoffa are central to the film’s main theme of male loyalty and betrayal. We never quite understand the basis for Frank’s loyalty to either Bufalino or Hoffa. Bufalino helped Frank and his truck started one day, and things just grew from there.
Is it a case that, like MacBeth
I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.
However, we get no sense the Frank has any ethical or moral concerns about his line of work. He never reflects on to damage his doing, not to the families of the families of the men he kills, nor to his own.
But Scorsese makes it abundantly clear. He spells out in subtle detail the impact that Frank has on his family and the devastation that his criminal activities brings to his them.
His daughters gradually begin to realise what their father is like and they become profoundly alienated from him. And it is not until the end of his life that Frank realises that what has happened cannot be undone and that there can be no reconciliation with his children. The destruction Frank’s family is the counterpoint to his criminal career with Bufalino or Hoffa. Scorsese is saying that this is the microcosm of the gangster world.
One night, Frank comes home to find his daughter, Mary, upset because some local greengrocer has pushed her around. Without waiting he grabs the girl and marches her down to the green grocer’s shop where he administers a savage beating to the shop owner in front of his daughter and horrified onlookers.
His daughter flees back to the house. Later in the film, he tries to be reconciled with his estranged daughter and tells her he was trying to protect her from the terrible world “out there”. She tells him that he was that terrible world.
In another scene, his family is out at tenpin bowling, obviously having a wonderful time. Frank and Russel are sitting off to the side. Russell confides that Mary doesn’t like him. Frank says it’s because she is shy and she reacts to him in the same way. It’s a touching and sadly ironic exchange.
They call her over. She makes her dislike of the two men abundantly clear, refusing the offer of candy.
Years later, when Jimmy Hoffa has been missing for three days. (He is been eliminated by his good friend Frank Sheeran). Frank returns home from a wedding. Hoffa’s mysterious disappearance is all over the national media, no one knows where he is. Except Frank. Frank sits down in front of the television and says, “I should ring Jimmy’s wife.”
His daughter says, “It’s three days and you haven’t rung his wife?”
And the penny drops. She never speaks to her father again.
So, at the end when it came to a question of loyalties and it was decided that in the case of Jimmy Hoffa “It is what it is ‘, it was decided that Frank should do the job and Frank did without question or compunction.
In his mind, he had tried to get Jimmy to see reason and Jimmy hadn’t. So the conclusion was inevitable. Frank was simply a part of a remorseless logic that made Hoffa’s end inevitable.
His loyalty to Hoffa, which he had professed when he took the presidency of one of the teams to unions, ultimately meant nothing.
And then, the law catches up with Frank and Russel and both wind up in jail. Old and frail, Russell dies. Russel’s daughters attended his funeral. They ignore Frank.
It’s a bleak affair. By this stage, almost all of Frank and Russell’s friends and associates are either dead or have been eliminated. Now only Frank remains. Friendless and alone.
Frank gets early release from his 18 year sentence and winds up in an old folks home in the wheelchair we saw him in the beginning of the film. He is struggling with confessing to a Catholic priest, rather unsuccessfully.
In the final scene, the priest suggests they pray in their own words, but Frank can only repeat what the priest is saying. The priest leaves and you can see by the look on his face he knows that Frank is a lost cause.
As the priest leaves, Frank asks, “Is it Christmas? Leave the door open little please father.” You know that no one is going to come through.
Perhaps Scorsese had in mind the last three lines of Shelley’s Ozymandias
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”