The Irishman

 

            Yes, it's too long, but if you let that exclude your interest in this film, you're going to miss out on the hypnotic way that Director Martin Scorsese lures you through the remarkable underworld life of Frank Sheeran.

            Frank (Robert DeNiro) first learned to kill in World War II, when his sergeant chose him as the one to guard two German prisoners as they dug their own graves.  Frank dispatched them with no remorse.  He said later that he spent the whole 411 days of combat in fear for his life.  And while he learned to be part of something bigger than himself, namely the American army slogging through Italy, he also learned a great deal of self-reliance.  He didn't need anybody else to validate his own sense of self.  And that trait was to govern the rest of his life.

            After the war, he began painting houses, but soon grew bored with the tedium, and started delivering meat slabs for a company with suspected Mob connections.  Frank wasn't afraid of them. In fact, he quickly made himself valuable to them not only as a reliable deliverer, but when the occasion called for it, an effective persuader.  Yes, extortion.  And it's a small step from threatening bodily harm to actually delivering on the threat. 

            Soon Frank is introduced to the powerful Bufalino family, headed by Russell (Joe Pesci), who plays the part of benevolent businessman, pulling the strings behind the scenes.  Russell is particularly impressed that Frank picked up some Italian during the War, and decides to take young Frank under his wing.  Eventually, Frank becomes like the son he never had.  Meanwhile, Frank has married and is raising a family of four daughters, but of course he's not exactly a stay-home-every-night and help-with-the-dishes kind of doting Dad.  In his own mind, he was out protecting his daughters, but is it any wonder they were afraid of him?

            Director Scorsese makes us aware of time passing through the way the characters age (some CGI magic here), and the way that clothing style changes and automobiles evolve.  We're also tangentially exposed to bigger cultural events, like Kennedy's assassination, and Watergate, but they flow by on nearby televisions as if they only have a tangential relationship to us.  Meanwhile, Frank meets Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of the Teamsters' Union, and Frank becomes the personal go-between, sometimes masterfully so, between the volatile Hoffa and the calculating Bufalino.

            Director Scorsese does an excellent job letting his three veteran stars---Pesci, DeNiro, and Pacino---deliver a master acting class.  Scorsese also garners some outstanding secondary performances, from the likes of Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin, and yes, Ray Romano.  Sure, there's personal violence, but as the screenplay patiently explains, it's all for a specific purpose.

            What's surprising is that anybody is left to tell the tale, but the poignant, empty ending is Frank sitting in a wheelchair in a retirement home, nursing his memories and ruminating on a life that should have received more punishment than it did.  Almost as a guilt reflex, Frank confesses to a priest at the end, but still can't honestly confess that he holds any remorse.  Of course, by then it's too late to realize that rejecting conscience makes a shipwreck of faith, not to mention contentment. 

            Yes, Frank Sheeran reaped what he sowed.  So how is it that we still like him?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association